how to protect a bottleneck

Bottlenecks occur all the time in any process. They can be temporary or cause damage in the long run. Often, removing a bottleneck completely is either impossible or too difficult, expensive, or time-taking.

Finding a way to protect an existing bottleneck from getting clogged is often a more convenient option. Read on to learn how to take control of your bottlenecks and prevent them from harming your company.

What to Do When You Can’t Remove a Bottleneck?

Unfortunately, the Theory of constraints has taught us that no matter how hard we try to remove all the bottlenecks in the workflow, there always remains at least one.

Even if you can’t remove a bottleneck, there are ways to control it and therefore minimize the harm that it causes to your team and organization. Especially if you are practicing Lean management.

Apply a Pull System

Initially developed for manufacturing, the concept of pull systems has been adapted and applied to knowledge work in Lean management. Their purpose is to create a workflow where work is pulled only if there is a capacity for it.

By letting the bottleneck to pull new tasks only when there is an actual capacity for them, you will lower the stress on it. As a result, you will be able to give the bottleneck enough time to process the work in progress without clogging it with an additional load that will not even bring immediate value to anyone.

Nonetheless, you will reduce your storage costs and optimize the efficiency of your whole process and make it agiler.

Deliver Work in Smaller Batches

The capacity of your bottleneck can be considered your process’s overall capacity. As it is limited compared to the rest of the steps in your process, the usual reason for clogging a step with a lower capacity is delivering work in batches that take too long to process.

Once again, the solution is quite simple – limit the work that can be in progress simultaneously so you can reduce the stress on the bottleneck. If you are practicing Kanban, this can be achieved easily by applying WIP limits to every stage of your workflow.

Kanban Bottleneck

You can either lower the limit for all the steps in your process so the bottleneck can process them without turning into a huge queue or place a few controlled queues a few steps earlier.

The second option will create additional bottlenecks, on which you’ve got complete control. They will allow you to push work forward only when you know that the problematic bottleneck has enough capacity to process it without getting clogged.

A simple example of a controlled bottleneck is placing an additional column on your board. For example, we have broken down our development process into 8 steps. The most troublesome bottleneck in there is the review stage.

This is why we have broken it into 2 review steps and one queue right before the coding stage. These 3 steps are a few columns apart from each other. As a result, we decreased the time required for a feature to move on to production because the people responsible for the reviews are looking into smaller batches that are quicker to process.

Relocate Capacity

When you’ve got a bottleneck that you can’t remove and don’t have the resources to invest in additional personnel, you should analyze how balanced your current workflow is.

Consider the capacity of each machine and person and look into ways to reallocate resources from a place with excessive capacity toward the bottleneck. If you have an idle machine that can be adapted to the function of the bottleneck why not put it to good use?

When it comes to people, it is even easier. You have 2 primary options:

  • Invest a little amount of money and time in the additional training of those that cause the bottleneck so they can be more efficient in their work.
  • Relocate personnel from another team that is not that overloaded.


Bottlenecks occur all the time in any process. They can be temporary or cause damage in the long run. Often, removing a bottleneck completely is either impossible or too difficult, expensive, or time-taking.

However, if you leave them unattended, they result in angry customers, frustrated team members and disappointed executives. Without a doubt, not a bunch of things you are looking forward to.

Experience has taught us that no matter how hard a person tries to remove all the bottlenecks in their organization, at least one always remains. Even if you can’t remove it completely, you should do everything in your power to put it under control and prevent it from damaging your organization.

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4 thoughts on “How to Protect a Bottleneck You Can’t Remove?

  1. Robert Falkowitz

    One of the nice aspects of visualizing the work in progress is the ability to see more easily where a lack of resource liquidity is resulting in a bottleneck. If that is the case, reallocating resources might not be an option. Limiting upstream work in progress is helpful only so long as that bottleneck exists (otherwise it needlessly lowers throughput). Improving that liquidity might be time-consuming, but you first need to recognize the liquidity issue.

    1. Alex Novkov Post author

      Indeed. Visualizing the workflow is the first step in understanding where the problem is. Dealing effectively with a bottleneck is quite harder when you don’t have the necessary transparency.

  2. Christoph Rohland

    Hi Alex,

    Good idea to address how to manage bottlenecks.

    But you seem to assume that a bottleneck is a bad thing. That is not true. The fact is that there is always one bottleneck in any process. And you rightly state “The capacity of your bottleneck can be considered your process’s overall capacity”.

    The Theory of Constraints says that you should know that bottleneck and arrange everything around it. It also states that it is actually bad to remove it since then the bottleneck would switch to another – unknown – step in the process. And what’s really bad are constantly changing bottlenecks.

    So know your bottleneck and take care about it with all the lean principles and tools!


    1. Alex Novkov Post author

      Hi Christoph,

      You are absolutely right that not all bottlenecks are bad if you manage them properly. If you visualize your process and carefully consider the value and waste of each bottleneck, you can determine which ones you need to remove and which ones you should manage.


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