Think about the last time one of your projects was delayed. Whether you were waiting on feedback, struggling to make an outdated system work, or trying to juggle reviews and approvals, most project delays are caused by one phenomenon: the bottleneck.
Like the neck of a bottle slows down the flow of water, a bottleneck in project management affects the workflow of a project. In a manufacturing process, a bottleneck is pretty easy to spot— it’s usually a physical place where the overall production process slows down because of a slow machine or raw materials. In project management, it’s a bit trickier to spot and resolve bottlenecks.
So let’s take a look at what exactly a bottleneck in project management is, how you can identify one, and what you can do to successfully contain a bottleneck when it occurs.
A bottleneck is any point of congestion in a project that causes delays in the workflow. Bottlenecks in project management reduce the pace of the project due to limited capacity.
There are two types of bottlenecks in project management:
Performer-based bottlenecks: This type of bottleneck happens when a team member or your whole team doesn’t reach the required performance level. More often than not, it’s not your teammates fault but a lack of resources or clarity that causes this type of bottleneck. If you encounter a performer-based bottleneck, talk to your team and find out why they’re struggling to get the work done. There’s a good chance that hiring additional help, outsourcing simple tasks, or establishing better communication within the team can alleviate this bottleneck.
Systems-based bottlenecks: An outdated, slow, or obsolete system or software can slow down your workflow and create a bottleneck in your process. Systems-based bottlenecks can be things like slow printers, manual archiving systems, or a work management software that just doesn’t fit your project’s needs. Upgrading to a new software may be all you need to do to get your workflow back on track.
Identifying what type of bottleneck you’re dealing with is the first step in solving it. Once you know if you’re dealing with a systems-based or performer-based bottleneck, you can dive deeper to pinpoint what exactly is causing the issue.
A bottleneck analysis, also known as a root cause analysis, is the best approach to identifying bottlenecks and finding ways to solve them. There are three steps you’ll have to take to identify your bottleneck, find solutions, and monitor performance.
The best way to both identify and prevent bottlenecks is to map out your workflows. You can do this using a work management software like Asana that allows you to study your project in different views—whether that’s a Kanban board, a Gantt chart, or a task list.
Another commonly used bottleneck analysis tool is the fishbone diagram. Also known as Ishikawa diagram, this visual representation of your project is the perfect brainstorming tool for problem solving.Read: Ask “5 Whys” to get to the root of any problem
In a fishbone diagram, the head of the fish represents the issue or bottleneck you’re trying to resolve. The ribs represent different categories and associated tasks. By mapping your process out in a fishbone diagram, it’ll be easier for your team to identify the root cause of your bottleneck.
Note that it’s easy to get lost in your fishbone diagram. Your bottleneck may have more than one potential cause so view this diagram with caution and avoid getting lost in a rabbit hole.
To create a fishbone diagram in Asana, you can use the Lucidchart integration. This allows you to create the diagram, share it with your team, and save it for future review.
Once you’ve visualized your processes, your team will have to study them closely and review them for strengths and weaknesses. You may find that work is piling up because your quality team is understaffed (performer-based) or that an old software continuously loses important data (systems-based).
Once you know the cause of your bottlenecks, you can determine how to address them. This may include creating a detailed action plan, delegating tasks to team members, and increasing capacity utilization by allocating resources for your project. Here are a few examples of solutions you can implement for different bottleneck scenarios:
Backlogged work due to an understaffed team: If your team is overloaded with work, perhaps there’s a way to outsource some of the easier tasks. Alternatively, an intern could help out, you could ask another team for support during crunch times, or lend a hand yourself if your schedule allows it. For future projects, you may consider either expanding your team with new hires or scheduling more time for the project to avoid bottlenecks.
Client response times are too slow: Regularly waiting for client feedback can cause a bottleneck in your delivery process. Schedule a meeting with your client and find out how to best reach them when feedback is needed. Perhaps they prefer receiving deliverables in batches or they just keep missing your emails and need you to write out subject lines in all-caps letters. Once you know the cause of the bottleneck, you’ll be best equipped to solve it.
Outdated project management software causes issues: Every project manager can probably agree on this: outdated software is an absolute nightmare. Whether it’s not auto-saving your progress, difficult to navigate, or slow to load—a quick ROI analysis may be all you need to justify upgrading your project management software to a more reliable tool.
Your team does a lot of duplicate work: Duplicate work doesn’t just slow down the process, it also causes friction and frustration between your team members. Use a work management tool to clearly outline who’s responsible for what, define dependencies, and assign tasks as you go.
Micromanagement slows down the process: A manager or stakeholder that keeps interfering with the project will slow down the process. In this case, have a meeting with the person to discuss setting boundaries and remind them that delegating work and trusting your team is part of what will make both the project and your team successful.
Once you’ve implemented your solution, there’s hopefully only one step left: monitoring and evaluating how well your solution is working.Read: 8 tips for doing macromanagement the right way
You’ll need to monitor and evaluate the performance of your action plan to ensure that you’ve successfully managed the bottlenecks in question. Track your project’s progress and compare both the quality and speed of processes to how they were before you implemented the solution.
You can also use this evaluation to gain valuable information for future bottleneck management. Remember that it’s not necessarily about preventing bottlenecks—at a certain project size, they’re basically inevitable. What’s really important is that you dedicate your time to being proactive in identifying and managing them. Having your work process all mapped out may allow your team to shift their energy to a different task while the bottleneck is congested and return at a later point so the work never has to come to a halt.Read: 6 project constraints and how to manage them for project successCreate a critical path method template
Depending on the complexity of the bottleneck, you may be able to contain it quickly by rearranging team members or allocating more resources to a specific stage in your workflow. However, sometimes a bottleneck will require more attention to reach a resolution. If you don’t address a bottleneck as soon as you identify it, the consequences can be costly and draining.
Here’s how you can contain a bottleneck once it’s happened.
Never leave it idle: While it may seem like a good solution to just minimize the amount of work that has to go through the bottleneck, this approach can lead to even longer processing times and create a ripple effect that could slow down your entire project. Always keep your bottleneck working at full capacity while also solving the problem at full speed.
Reduce the strain on the bottleneck: Rather than minimizing the amount of work that has to go through the bottleneck, you can reduce the strain on the bottleneck by making sure that work arrives in the best possible condition. Let’s say your bottleneck is a manager who needs to review documents before they can be shared with your stakeholders. Focus on getting these documents to the manager with little to zero errors to make their life easier and the work flow faster.
Process work in batches: Depending on your project and the bottleneck, you may be able to reduce strain by batching similar work together. Just be careful with the batch size—keep them as small as possible to make working through them actually easier and not more stressful.
Protect team morale: When things get messy, your team can lose focus, trust, and motivation. It’s important that you effectively communicate with your team how you plan on containing the bottleneck. Also let them know how they can support the project in the meantime.
Think outside of the box: If possible, increase the capacity of your bottleneck. You may not be able to make the manager work faster to get that paperwork reviewed but perhaps there’s another manager who can help out and speed the work process up. Always keep your eyes open for alternative solutions—thinking outside of the box is what makes project management so fun!
Don't compromise quality: Skipping steps, rushing through edits, and completing work in large batches may save you time and get you to the finish line faster. However, if you compromise the quality of your work, you risk having to redo your project, losing clients, or depleting your team’s trust. Never compromise the quality of your work just to make it through a bottleneck—it won’t be worth it in the long run.
The most important thing is to avoid downtime. Having your team sitting around with nothing to do will cause frustration and increase the overall cycle time of your project even more. Always keep things moving and include your team in the problem-solving process.
As much as we’d like to prevent them altogether, bottlenecks happen. When they occur, try to put your perfectionism aside and gather your team to find solution-oriented ways to contain the work that’s stacking up.
With the right tools, you can keep bottlenecks to a minimum even in an Agile environment. Create timelines or Kanban boards for your projects so your team always has a visual representation of their workload and can easily adjust tasks, dependencies, and due dates in real time.Create a critical path method template