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What is a Bottleneck in Project Management?

Bottlenecks in project management are fairly common - but that doesn't mean they aren't disruptive. Our guide will help you spot project bottlenecks before they start to cost you.

The course of project management never did run smooth. Let's face it, there are always obstacles on the path to your team's success – both internal and external.

From that one person who always has a backlog of tasks, to an unresponsive client who insists on approving every draft before you proceed, these little obstacles often lead to delays, and before you know it your whole project is waiting for one key component before you can move forwards. In short: you've got a bottleneck.

Bottlenecks in project management can be detrimental to any team. If you don't act quickly, bottlenecks can even cause project failure or the loss of a client. In this article, we'll look at the types of bottlenecks that might be threatening your project's success, and how to tackle them.

What is a bottleneck in project management?

The term "bottleneck" comes from the way the neck of a bottle slows the flow of liquid as you pour. This approach is great for wine - but not so great for your project pipeline.

In project management, a bottleneck is any limiting factor that restricts your workflow and prevents your company from achieving its potential. Often, bottlenecks cause delays in completing a project. This can jeopardize the team's efforts and mar a company's reputation. 

Most project managers can testify to having experienced many bottlenecks when handling projects. It's particularly stressful when these bottlenecks happen near the deadline. Any delay or interruption in the flow causes a ripple effect that can profoundly impact the business —including missed opportunities and costly mistakes

Types of bottlenecks

Every project manager should be alert to two types of bottlenecks: system-based and performer-based. 

Systems-based bottlenecks

Systems-based bottlenecks relate to the tools and equipment used to complete a project. When there is limited access to essential tools to enhance or complete tasks, you're likely to face bottlenecks.

Take, for example, a digital marketing agency that has a limited number of user licenses for an SEO software. This is going to slow up the rate of work, as the staff will spend more time in line waiting to be able to access the software than actually working.

Hiring additional staff won't help either, as they won't be able to get things moving. In this case, access to the software is a systems-based bottleneck.

Performer-based bottleneck

Another bottleneck many project managers face is the team members themselves. Performer-based bottlenecks can relate to either individuals or a group of people in a team project who can't accomplish their tasks on a set deadline. 

Several factors are at play in this category. For example, inefficiency, experience, unmanageable workload, poor time management skills, and lack of knowledge of a specific niche or tool can all hinder an employee's performance, with knock-on effects on the entire project. 

Examples of bottlenecks in projects

Some projects experience bottlenecks in different areas of the project. Bottlenecks generally occur during project execution, but may even arise as early as the planning stage, especially when it is a performer-based bottleneck. Here are a few examples:

  • The team is waiting for a third party to approve the project plan before they proceed.
  • Your graphic designer was off sick last week and now has a list of backlogged work to get through before they can start on your task.
  • The computer is running outdated software, so certain steps in the production process are slow.
  • A lack of efficient communication between team members and the team leader or project manager, and unclear project scheduling.
  • Team members need to wait until work arrives from their colleagues before they can start their assignments

Additionally, a bottleneck can occur when projects are understaffed. When you have limited capacity, there may only be a few people available to work on a significant assignment, which means it takes longer.

Sometimes, these employees may also have to do administrative tasks, which reduce the time they can spend on their designated work. A lack of resources such as tools and budget can also hinder a project's progress.

How to identify bottlenecks

It's important to spot bottlenecks early, so you can implement solutions and get your team to the finish line safely.  If your team has some missed deadlines, it's worth taking a closer look for a workflow bottleneck.

One method of doing this is by doing a bottleneck analysis.

Bottleneck analysis: a quick guide for project managers

Map out your processes as a workflow

The first step in bottleneck analysis is to map out your processes visually. This will help reveal the bottlenecks by giving you a clear overview of how work is moving through your established processes.

Spot potential congestion points

A congestion point would be any part of the workflow where work slows down due to a constraint. For example, perhaps the workflow reveals that several team members require sign-off from one stakeholder at the same point in their workflow. If this stakeholder is too busy to review their work, the team members are left waiting around before they can move on.

Looking at your project progress will also help in this diagnostic stage. Reviewing your project logs will let you see what's happening in each work stage of the project, and which tasks have fallen behind schedule.

Identify the root cause: ask "5 Whys"

Be aware that sometimes the delayed task isn't actually the root cause of the problem. Bottlenecks usually happen at important tasks that lie on the critical path, which means that all the activities that come after the bottleneck will also be delayed. Although delays can happen to non-critical activities as well, they don't tend to have such a dramatic impact on dependent tasks and overall project deadlines.

It's a good idea to talk with the team member involved with a delayed task, to find out what caused the delay, so that you can start to pinpoint the obstacle. Try asking "5 Whys". This popular diagnostic technique from the world of manufacturing helps you see beyond the "symptoms" of the problem, and lays bare the root problem itself.

The theory is that if you keep asking "Why?" of a problem, you will get the root cause of it - and most of the time it only takes "5 Whys" to get there. In some cases, 3 or 4 whys might even be enough.

Here's what it can look like in practice: let's consider the example of an e-commerce agency that was hired by a retailer to rebrand their online store.

Problem: The launch of the rebranded web store has been delayed

Why?: Because the designers were unable to finish their work in the timeframe

Why?: Because they were waiting on the product photographer to finish their work

Why?: Because the product photographer couldn't get through their workload in time

Why?: Because they were overbooked

Why?: Because the agency only has one product photographer

Rebalance resources to address the causes

Once you've identified some potential sources of the bottleneck, one sure way to diagnose it is to temporarily add more resources to that step and see if that improves the workflow. This helps overcome bottlenecks in the current project, and gives you insight into the effect this bottleneck might have on future projects.

In our previous example of the e-commerce agency with a delayed project, bringing in a freelance photographer would help address the backlog of work. But, in the future, the agency could plan ahead to hire a freelancer around busy periods to prevent this resource bottleneck from happening again.

Set a review date to assess if the changes have worked

You may feel pretty confident at this point that you've uncovered and resolved the problem. But it's always safer to return to the process and use your judgement to determine whether the bottleneck has been fixed comprehensively.

Perhaps the flow of work has improved slightly, but not as much as you were expecting. In this case, it may be that you've misidentified the bottleneck, or that there is more than one bottleneck affecting your work process. You may need to look at other tasks or resources that are limiting your workflow.

Setting a date for review also gives you an opportunity to reflect on what you have learnt through the process of resolving your project bottlenecks.

Summary: Don't let bottlenecks stop you

Project managers don't just need to evaluate progress for their projects, but also prevent these bottlenecks from happening. A project's success or failure will significantly depend on the team's direction, efficiency, and ability to accomplish goals promptly. 

The success of any project relies not only on efficient planning, but also on producing profitable results. Identifying bottlenecks in your project is imperative, so that you can get your project plans back on track, and prevent these bottlenecks from happening again in the next project.

Use Runn to maintain a bird's-eye view of your projects and avoid bottlenecks across your project pipeline. Click here for a free demo!

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