Bottlenecks: 5 Steps to Alleviating Constraints

In the previous issue, we explored the need to understand bottlenecks and their impact on your operation. In addition to physical constraints (i.e. equipment that is inherently slower), bottlenecks can also result from processes, policies, company culture, and the market itself. Now we’ll look into the five steps you can take to alleviate constraints.

Step One. Identify the Constraint. In our example of the WidgetMaster XL7, the piles of widgets waiting to be processed in front of it and the idle workers waiting for its throughput on the other side of the equipment clearly indicate the WidgetMaster XL7 as the bottleneck. Take a walk around your shop floor. Look for piles of inventory in front of a piece of equipment or otherwise waiting to be worked on. Those are easy bottleneck indicators.  Also, monitor where process expeditors are typical involved. Look for areas (either equipment or processes) that need a lot of special attention to keep the production flow moving. Where are you typically putting out fires? If such an area needs continual intervention to ensure critical orders are met, it’s a bottleneck. Review your equipment performance data. Those with the longest cycle times are indicators of bottlenecks. Those starved for work indicate a bottleneck upstream. Finally, ask your operators. Those on the production line have the best sense of where supply is not keeping up with demand.

Step Two. Exploit the Constraint. When you’ve identified the bottleneck, figure out what steps you can take right now with the resources at hand to improve its performance. Look for the “low-hanging fruit.” In this step, you’re applying a quick fix and rapid relief. More substantive improvements will come later. Begin building an inventory buffer in front of the bottleneck. While that may seem counterintuitive, if/when upstream equipment stops, your bottleneck can continue working. Ensure quality in front of the bottleneck so that it is only processing known good parts. Schedule to keep your bottleneck in constant operation (through breaks or for an additional shift) and cross-train employees, ensuring ongoing operator availability. Offload work to other equipment when possible. Even if other equipment is less efficient, you will be improving your overall throughput. If needed and as a last resort, offload work to other companies.

Step Three. Synchronize to the Constraint. The primary objective is to keep the constraint operational. The efficiency of non-bottlenecks is secondary as long as they do not adversely affect the constraint. To a degree, you purposefully unbalance the process: The bottleneck should never be starved by the upstream processes, nor should it be blocked by downstream processes. Ensure that your bottleneck is always the priority for maintenance.

Step Four. Improve Constraint Performance. In Step Two, you took quick action to make improvements, but in this step, examine how you can eliminate the bottleneck in the long term. It may require substantial investment of resources including more staff and/or more equipment. Start by evaluating performance data – where is your largest source of lost productivity at the bottleneck? What changes are required to reduce these? What processes can be improved (e.g. steps to reduce changeover time). Are there upgrades available to improve constraint performance? Finally, what purchases are needed or what additional staff is required to eliminate this constraint?

Step Five. Repeat the Process. Once you break your bottleneck, you must begin looking for the next one. Remember, a bottleneck is the slowest part of your operation. If the WidgetMaster XL7 was your original bottleneck, once you break that constraint, something else will move into the position of “slowest on the line.” Maybe it will be another piece of equipment or a process. The likelihood of every process or piece of equipment running at identical speeds is slim. Every time you fix bottleneck, there will be something that moves into its place. It’s an ongoing process.

Although the idea of constant rinse/repeat thinking regarding bottlenecks may seem daunting, MPower is positioned to help you interpret critical data and ease the process.  Contact MPower to learn how we can help.