How to Avoid a Bottleneck in Production

Numerous case studies report the same findings: eliminating bottlenecks can triple your company’s results.  

Depending on your industry, that may mean:

  • Tripling your sales
  • Slashing your turnover
  • Getting more product to market on time and increase productivity
  • Explosive growth in customer satisfaction
  • Reducing downtime
  • Reducing waste and scrap

No matter what it looks like for you, resolving any bottleneck in production that is holding you back, translates in increased agility and efficiency. Keep reading to learn what bottlenecks are and how to fix them, now.


What Is a Production Bottleneck?

Industrial machinery which, if broken, can cause a bottleneck.

What is a bottleneck? Put simply, it’s the point in your system where everything backs up or slows down.

Physically, a bottleneck can take many forms. It might be:

  • A person or department
  • A piece of equipment or hardware
  • Poor or ineffective  communication
  • The software or other technology you are using
  • One or more inefficient steps in your production process
  • A design flaw in your sales process 
  • An entrenched attitude or assumption among your staff

When you have a bottleneck, one step or aspect of production operates at a lower capacity than all of your other steps. Production grinds to a halt or backups up at that point because some inefficiency or lack of resources prevents smooth flow. 


Recognizing You Have a Bottleneck

One of the first signs that you are experiencing a bottleneck can be your inventory backing up at a specific work stage, or a delay in the delivery of your production orders

This happens because other steps in the manufacturing process are working at a higher capacity. They turn out the order and pass it along. When the production order reaches the step in the process with lower capacity, it begins to pile up. 

As a result, the entire process is delayed. 

The bottleneck effect in business doesn’t stop there, however. When a middle step is the bottleneck, employees and equipment in later stages may perpetually operate at below-capacity. This can be a tremendous waste of resources and may lead to frustration and turnover.

If the bottleneck is not correctly identified, it can lead to poor management decisions as well. 

How to Identify a Bottleneck in Production

Unfortunately, most companies don’t recognize that they have a bottleneck in production until it is well entrenched.

To properly identify a bottleneck, you will need to have full records of your production process and perform a bottleneck analysis. Done correctly, this analysis will tell you: 

  • If the bottleneck is centralized at one point or dispersed throughout the process
  • The root cause of the bottleneck 
  • Where there are unnoticed or unconsidered connections between steps that need addresses
  • Where to begin correcting the problem 

Asking Why

One popular and simple method for making bottlenecks visible in business is to find out “why.” You should ask questions that begin with “why” and “how” for each part of the process to get to the root of the problem. It works like this:

  • Ask where production is slowed down or backed up 
  • Ask why the backup is happening at that point 
  • When you have that answer, ask why that lack of agility exists
  • Ask how this problem might be mitigated
  • Continue to ask why in the same way until you have drilled down to the root of the problem 

For example, if you have a production line comprised of six steps, you may find that inventory backs up at the fifth step. Upon asking why you discover that Step Four can turn out 20 widgets per hour but Step 5 can only process 15 per hour. 

Asking why again, you discover that one of the machines used in the Step 5 work is broken. The next why reveals that it is waiting on a part. Subsequent whys will enable you to determine what you need to do to get that part quickly and get your line back up to speed.  

How to Identify a Bottleneck in Production Using Visualization

The alternative method for exploring bottlenecked process problems is visualization. Visualization can be done manually or using Production Tracking and Management software.

Unsurprisingly, using software is typically easier to use and better for communication. It also empowers companies to troubleshoot consistently, rather than only sporadically. This can lead to powerful process improvements over time.   

In either case, visualization consists of three parts.

  1. Map your work
  2. Track your inventory and timelines
  3. Measure inputs and outputs

Mapping your work simply means drawing a diagram of your workflow. Where do raw inputs go in? Where do they go next? 

Tracking inventory and timelines involves charting how much time inventory spends at a given point in the process. This can help you identify where backups are happening and where your capacity may be lacking.  

Measuring inputs and outputs provides a bigger picture of the overall timing of your process when everything is working well. For instance, if Step 3 routinely turns out more per hour than Step 4 can handle, you will have identified a weak spot where bottlenecks are more likely. You can use that information to make informed decisions about new investments or process changes. 

Fixing Bottlenecks When You Find Them

Fixing bottlenecks and preventing them are not precisely the same thing. When you find yourself facing an immediate and problematic bottleneck, you can address it in one of several ways. 

Add Capacity

Adding capacity isn’t always an option, of course. You may not have the time, physical space, or funding to immediately invest in new workers or equipment. 

In some cases, however, adding capacity is as simple as fixing a broken piece of equipment, minorly modifying staff schedules, or cross-training employees to best manage peak load. 

Some companies choose to temporarily subcontract some work out to restore workflow while they evaluate their long-term options. 

Lower Capacity

Although this is a relatively rare option, it is worth keeping in mind. If you have one point in your process vastly overproducing compared to all of the others, consider lowering its output. Reduce the staff and resources assigned to it. 

Alternatively, lease the use of the excess personnel and equipment or sell some of the inventory they make to another company. Both options will save you money and return your overall process to smooth sailing. 

Lowering capacity might also mean lowering the output of products. You’ll have to examine whether or not your company can reduce output while still turning a profit.

Address Misinformation 

The human element can be just as much at fault for bottlenecks as the mechanics of the process. Taking time to evaluate the work environment and staff opinions, beliefs, and engagement can be powerful. 

While engagement and satisfaction can be more challenging to correct than mechanical issues, it can be a necessary investment.

In order to prevent human error and ensure your employees are fully engaged (and happy), a MES like Prodsmart can help. Our software provides accessible work instructions to make life easier for employees and eliminate wasted time. 

Related: Strategies for Effective Manufacturing Labeling

Top Strategies for Preventing Bottlenecks

Ideally, of course, you want to prevent costly bottlenecks from ever happening in the first place. There are several key strategies you can use to that end. 

Don’t Overproduce

It may seem counterintuitive not to max out production at each step of your manufacturing process. Yet intentionally scaling back production at certain points can pay dividends overall. 

For example, it may be that you have unintentionally over-invested in one area. You may have a disproportionate number of machines and people assigned to that area compared to the rest of the process.

By giving you visibility into your Production Process, a Manufacturing Software such as Prodsmart can help you to keep an eye on how your production is evolving and how your stock of finish goods is, avoiding overproducing.

If it is allowed to continue overproducing, that area will create stress and waste elsewhere down the line. Instead, consider scaling back there and reallocating some of those resources to weaker points in the process. Alternative approaches such as reallocation can not only prevent bottlenecks but improve your total process. 

Optimize Machine Capacity

In some cases, delays occur due to unavoidable process mechanics. Perhaps the best example of this is recalibrating machines between product runs or the time lost during machine start-up and shut-down.  

You can reduce or eliminate the potential for bottlenecks by intentionally reducing the number of times recalibration and shut down are required. Schedule as many runs of the same product or material back-to-back as possible. If you can, adjust schedules to keep machines running longer and more consistently. 


Streamline Scheduling

Employees use streamlined scheduling at a chocolate factory.

Take a good, hard look at your scheduling. Look for places you may be over-purchasing, over-staffing, under-staffing, or otherwise unintentionally creating flow problems. Add, subtract, or reassign resources to even out the flow. 

Pay particular attention to schedule and unscheduled downtime and the opportunities surrounding them. Product scheduling and planning software can help with this step enormously. 

Make Process Improvement Constant

To prevent bottlenecks in your business, you must think of bottleneck prevention as an ongoing process – not just risk management. 

How Prodsmart Can Help Avoid Bottlenecks

Prodsmart is the solution every manager needs to help identify and prevent bottleneckst. Prodsmart’s top-of-the-line software helps you control your manufacturing production line through informed:

  • Planning
  • Resource assignment
  • Work management
  • Inventory tracking
  • Analysis and feedback

Prodsmart is fast to set up and completely customizable to your needs and preferences. Its mobile-friendly format makes it easy to access on all your devices, and its paper-free format aligns with your eco-friendly cost-efficiency goals.  

It tracks your data in real-time and makes collaborating across departments streamlined and simple. It puts all the tools you need to maximize process efficiency right at your fingertips. 

Beat Your Bottlenecks

Two employees work together at a production site in lab coats.

To help your team beat bottlenecks in production, invest in the best resource available. Request a Prodsmart demo today and discover how this powerful tool can help you.

Related: How to Streamline Manufacturing Operations Management