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what is a bottleneck

What is a bottleneck in project management?

Reading time: about 6 min

If you’re a project manager, your worst nightmare is things not moving forward and consequently missing a project deadline. One cause for that could be a bottleneck. 

A bottleneck in project management can cause delays, increased costs, and can often require employees to work extra hours. Identifying bottlenecks before they hinder the progress of a project is an important part of a project manager's job. 

In order to help projects stay on track and avoid setbacks, take the time to identify bottlenecks during the project planning phase and have a plan for how to overcome them. We’ll show you what a bottleneck is and how to avoid one so your projects can run smoother and you can breathe a little easier.

What is a bottleneck?

Think of a glass soda bottle. The bottom of the bottle is larger than the “neck” of the bottle so that the correct amount of soda comes out. A bottleneck is an apt name for the issue that arises when many people are trying to do many tasks, but something is blocking the appropriate amount of outcome. 

Think of it this way: If you have twelve bakers assembled to bake twelve cakes, but you only have one oven, that’s a bottleneck. 

Bottlenecks can happen in a project for any number of reasons. Here are a few examples:

  1. A team member has an emergency.
  2. A member of your team is waiting on another member of your team to finish their part of the project (a dependency).
  3. A communication problem occurs (perhaps a member of the team didn’t know they were responsible for something).
  4. A resource goes offline (there’s a mechanical failure or a software glitch).
  5. The amount of work required was underestimated.
  6. A task was performed incorrectly and needs to be redone.
  7. A stakeholder requests an asset be redone.

These are a few examples, but bear in mind that bottlenecks can happen in every organization for just about any reason. You’ll definitely experience a bottleneck during your project management career, so it’s best to be prepared.

What harm can a bottleneck cause in project management?

For having such a whimsical name, bottlenecks can cause no end of serious problems. Here are some examples:

  • Reduced efficiency: Suddenly, your lean mean team takes forever to churn out a simple project. 
  • Backlogged work: This hits your bottom line since completing projects adds to your overall business value
  • Long wait times: When bottlenecks occur, they leave other tasks hanging. That means it takes even longer to get to tasks further down the list.
  • Reduced team morale: Bottlenecks kill a team’s momentum and incentive to keep working quickly
  • Dissatisfied clients: Bottlenecks result in missed deadlines and a poor perception of your team.
  • Lost revenue: Angry clients. Missed deliverables. It all equals lost profits.
  • Productive time wasted: When the team is waiting for something to be approved or to be assigned a task or for a dependency to be completed, that’s all wasted time. 

How to identify a bottleneck

One would think that an issue that can have such a profound effect on an organization would be easy to identify, but that’s often not the cause. Thankfully, the software you’re using will help. 

For instance, with Lucidspark you can see quickly where jobs are stacking up faster than they can be completed. If you’re using a Gantt chart, you can spot bottlenecks when deadlines for dependencies don’t have any leeway or when resources are stretched too thin.

But none of that is possible if you aren’t charting out your process. It’s important to have tasks visualized so that you can identify bottlenecks before they happen or as they’re occurring. 

You’ll also need to become familiar with the different types of bottlenecks you may encounter. In general, there are four types:

1. Long-term bottlenecks 

These are systemic, engrained bottlenecks that are often so accepted that they’re not even seen as bottlenecks any longer. 

For instance, instead of using a scheduling tool to choose an appointment time with a stakeholder so they can give final approvals, maybe you need to work with a personal assistant. And maybe he’s overwhelmed, and so securing that sign-off meeting is a perpetual hassle, but the process is just so taken for granted that no one ever thinks to change it. 

In many instances, long-term bottlenecks are often manual processes that should be automated.

2. Short-term bottlenecks 

These are typically what we think of when we think of bottlenecks and they occur as a sudden jolt to a process. A short-term bottleneck can cause things to come to a standstill, but they can usually be quickly resolved once they’re identified.

3. Infrastructure bottlenecks 

It used to be that infrastructure bottlenecks were relegated to physical places—say your container was held up at the dock or there weren't enough delivery vans—but now, it also extends to digital infrastructure issues like a lack of cloud storage or a system overload.

4. Regulatory bottlenecks 

This sounds like a government thing, but it can go beyond policies and procedures to internal regulations that cause backups. 

How to contain a bottleneck once it’s happened

It should be clear from the above that not all bottlenecks can be prevented. After all, humans are fallible, and even something as simple as one of your team members having a flat tire has the potential to derail a process. 

All is not lost when a bottleneck occurs. Here’s what to do:

Act quickly: The longer you wait to act, the longer the bottleneck persists. Also, in a process, one thing going off the rails leads to more things going wrong. It’s very important you stay on top of tasks and deadlines and communicate with your team so you stay apprised of how things are moving along.

Don't compromise quality: It is very important to not skip important steps. For instance, if the game you’re developing has an in-depth testing phase to identify bugs and glitches, it may be tempting to forego that step to release the game on time. But that just leads to issues down the road...and angry gamers. When a bottleneck occurs, don’t drop essential parts of your process.

Increase resources: Yup, this costs more, but every organization has to do it at some point. For instance, if your graphic designer is overwhelmed, you’ll need to hire a freelance designer to help take some tasks off their plate. 

Bottlenecks are a frustrating reality. While you can take steps to avoid them happening, you’ll also need to prepare for their eventuality and be able to spot them when they arise. Use a task management tracker to help keep you aware of what’s happening during every step of the process and have a list of action steps to take if and when a bottleneck arises.

what is a bottleneck

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