Fixing the Bottlenecks With the Tools You Have

In this issue, we’re going to continue our exploration of the problems and challenges of bottlenecks. Previously, we covered understanding and identifying bottlenecks and the steps you can take to alleviate constraints. Although bottlenecks are a fact of life in manufacturing, as well as being a total pain in the neck, you probably already have (and may be using) tricks and tools that you can readily apply to constraint relief.


The first step to alleviating your constraint is to identify it. Our example of the WidgetMaster XL7 was a bit of a no-brainer. The pile of parts in front of it was a clear indicator. You may have something similar and are already working on relieving that bottleneck. The pain of bottlenecks is that they are ongoing. When you fix the obvious one, like the WidgetMaster XL7, another one takes its place that may not be so obvious. Lean manufacturing practitioners often use Gemba, the idea of walking through the plant for first-hand observation and to gain in-depth understanding of exactly what’s happening on the shop floor. In the words of Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Gemba is a great tool for identifying bottlenecks.


For less obvious constraints, you may want to employ value stream mapping. This Lean tool forces you to document every step in the flow of production or in a process. Yes, there can easily be process constraints rather than equipment constraints that are obstructing or delaying your throughput. Process bottlenecks can occur anywhere in the company, from order taking to shipping, and your constraint improvement should not be limited to the shop floor! Value stream mapping often makes them more obvious.


The second step in alleviating constraints is to exploit them – make quick fixes with whatever you have on hand. Two Lean tools that can allow you to exploit your bottlenecks are 5S and Kaizen. 5S (sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain) helps productivity by improving poorly organized work areas. If your bottleneck is a piece of equipment or department, don’t add to the problem with disorganization. Fix it now with 5S.


Kaizen, by its very nature, focuses on taking small steps toward improvement… small, easy-to-take steps. By combining the collective ideas of workers, quick wins are easily identified. Quick wins that you can put in place immediately to improve throughput.


The third step is to synchronize to the constraint. Keep in mind that the constraint dictates the speed for the entire operation. Your throughput cannot exceed the speed of the bottleneck. Kanban regulates the flow of materials with visual indicators that signal the need for replenishment of parts and supplies. By using a Kanban method (whether it’s a simple red card or fully automated software), you can easily create the synchronization you need to keep your bottleneck flowing at top speed.


Improving the constraint performance is the fourth step in alleviating the bottleneck. TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) fits the bill for this by focusing on proactive and preventative maintenance to optimize the amount of time your bottleneck operates. With TPM, you reduce minor stops and unexpected breakdowns and can schedule maintenance to occur at optimal times – times that least impact your throughput.


In addition to improving the uptime of any constraint, ensure that it is not processing defective parts or mistakes. Poka-Yoke, or “mistake proofing” should be employed. Ensure that the proper parts (or conditions) exist before moving them on to the constraint.

The final step in alleviating the constraint is to repeat the entire process on the next bottleneck that occurs. You can turn to MPower for help. We’re ideally suited to not only help you identify your bottlenecks but to help you employ the techniques that are probably already at your disposal to improve your productivity… and your bottom line.