Unblocking Bottlenecks

A bottleneck in a process occurs when input comes in faster than the next step can use it to create output. The term compares assets (information, materials, products, man-hours) with water. When water is poured out of a bottle, it has to pass through the bottle’s neck, or opening. The wider the bottle’s neck, the more water (input/assets) you can pour out. The smaller, or narrower, the bottle’s neck, the less you can pour out – and you end up with a back-up, or “bottleneck.”


A bottleneck is a limitation in a system or process that prevents the system from moving faster. Another way to explain it is that your business can’t go any faster than its slowest-moving part.

Short-term bottlenecks are caused by temporary problems. A good example is when key team members become ill or go on vacation. No one else is qualified to take over their projects, which causes a backlog in their work until they return.

Long-term bottlenecks occur all the time. An example would be when a company’s month-end reporting process is delayed every month, because one person has to complete a series of time-consuming tasks —and he can’t even start until he has the final month-end figures.

We can unblock a bottleneck by increasing the efficiency of the bottleneck step —removing activities that could be done by other people or machinery, assigning the most productive team members and technology, adding capacity, etc—, or by decreasing input to the bottlenet step.

Summing-up: Your business can’t go any faster than its slowest-moving part, so find and fix internal bottlenecks to correctly set priorities for growth.

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