How to deal with bottlenecks and boost your productivity
Read time: 4 minutes
If your production line can’t keep up with demand, you have a bottleneck. It may be that one of your work areas can’t keep up with the pace of production, or one of your machines simply can’t produce enough to meet demand. Whatever is causing it, an improvement at the bottleneck can give your business a much-needed productivity boost and significantly reduce your delivery time.
“Bottlenecks can happen at any point in your production process,” says April Love, Manager, Sales Operations and Enablement with BDC Advisory Services. “They occur wherever there’s not enough capacity or capability to perform the tasks to meet demand.”
She has three key tips to deal with bottlenecks and open up your production flow.
1. Identify where the bottleneck is happening
“It’s easy to jump to conclusions about what’s causing a bottleneck,” says Love. “A lot of people automatically assume they need to add workers or equipment and throw money at the issue without having any impact. First, identify the bottleneck, and then take time to pin down the true cause: It’s the least expensive way to solve the problem bottleneck.”
Love gives the example of a textiles plant with cutting, sewing and packaging stations. If orders are being filled late, any one of these is a potential bottleneck point. By observing what’s really going on across the line, you can identify where things are slowing down.
“If the cutting stage and packaging are moving at twenty pieces per hour, which is the rate required to meet customer demand, but only ten pieces an hour are coming through your sewing point, you know you have to zero-in there,” Love says.
2. Measure and track the bottleneck
After you’ve identified the bottleneck, the next step is to ask “why?”
There can be many, reasons for productivity slowdowns at the bottleneck, such as: downtime, change overs and employee scheduling. The only way to know for sure is to measure and track your downtime at the bottleneck.
“Say you’ve figured out your sewing station is the problem in your textiles plant. You can start collecting data on throughput, and any potential causes of downtime, etc.,” Love says. “You may notice there are a lot of stoppages going on. Why is that? What are the causes and frequency of the downtime?”
By collecting data, you can break down the frequency and significance of each downtime. Maybe two hours of stoppage is related to scheduled breaks, another two comes from routine maintenance and four hours across the week comes from the operator having to stop to wait for materials.
An improvement at the bottleneck is an improvement to the entire process since the bottleneck controls the entire delivery time.
“Suddenly, you see it’s not the machine and it’s not really a labour problem, it’s a process issue,” Love says. The solution could be as easy cross-training workers from other areas that are not a bottleneck, reducing setup time or improving maintenance practice. Often there are improvements operators are ready to take on themselves.
3. Involve your people
The members of your team are closest to your processes because they work inside them. By sharing the data you’ve gathered and engaging them in finding solutions, Love says you not only get the benefit of their good ideas, but you also build buy-in for change—so that everyone’s on board with doing things differently to solve the bottleneck and be more productive.
Simple solutions can reap big rewards
Love gives the example of a sawmill that increased production by 20% after clearing away two bottlenecks—one technical and one process-related.
“They were having boards jam in their planer,” she explains, “and that was causing significant downtime issues. It wasn’t that the machine was faulty, though. By gathering data on the issue, they realized that they were running the line at sub-optimal speed.” The second issue was that inefficient shift changeovers were biting into productivity. So the plant changed its scheduling.
“The solution to both problems was relatively simple—and inexpensive. But the company reduced its work-in-progress costs by half.”