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Opinion: Have a bottleneck? Remove the constraint in 5 steps

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Big or small, product or service, every organization has multiple roadblocks in achieving streamlined processes. One solution is to tackle workflow bottlenecks.

Bottlenecks occur when there is more work than what the process is capable of handling. Bottlenecks create waiting due to the capacity on either side being full and a trickle of production passing through to the next step.

A visual example is the flow of traffic right before a construction zone. One mile we can drive the speed limit, and the next mile is at a standstill. How do you think those people feel waiting in traffic for 10 minutes or, worse, 20-30 minutes?

This is not about traffic jams. This is about understanding what happens in a process when there is a wait time between steps. Those involved are left with a negative feeling. No one wants to loose money waiting, especially not company shareholders. That also means your customers do not want long lead times when it comes to software development, loans, car maintenance, toilet paper or anything they define as essential or valuable. Customers want the flow of information, products, services and financials to be as effortless as possible.

However, as business owners know, there are always hiccups on the road to success. As much as organizations try to engineer processes without fault, there will always be constraints standing in the way of effortless processes.

There is a solution. The Theory of Constraints management paradigm is a system to remove those constraints that cause waiting and loss of productivity – and the associated opportunity costs.

First, let’s understand a constraint is a resource where the capacity is lower than the demand. When applied, the theory uses a systematic approach toward achieving the goals by improving the constraint until it is no longer a limiting factor in the process.

Here are five steps toward improving the constraint:

  1. Identify the constraint(s). How can you tell if your organization has these constraints in its processes? It is easy to tell. It is all about finding where your process is in waiting, or what we call the work-in-process. If there is waiting, is there a regulation of flow that is causing the waiting? Constraints can look like piles of papers on a desk, a waiting room full of customers, a line at the grocery store checkout or work-in-process at the beginning of an assembly.

It may be that we want to fix the first area of the bottleneck where we find the waiting occurring. But to best fit our objective of creating a higher process flow, we need to identify the bottleneck with the most waiting time, or work-in-process, to be completed.

  1. Exploit to maximize capabilities. This step takes the constraint and squeezes as much of that resource as you can to maximize utility, productivity and value. The constraint must never stay idle; therefore, we want to use it as much as possible. An example of this would be in welding. Every time the welder stops, the operation stops. If we consider all the reasons why the welder stops but keep operations running, we exploit the constraint.
  2. Subordinate everything to the constraint. Now, we are going to take every resource that is regulating the flow, or nonconstraints, of the process. This means providing high-quality products at the beginning of the process, creating “total product maintenance” on the machine, tools, fixtures, training for employees, etc., to make the flow run as smoothly as possible. We want to do this because if we have too many nonconstraints, resources push the capacity of a demand that is still not available through the constraint.
  3. Elevate the constraint. Once the flow of the process has balanced, we can increase capacity by expanding the resources. This usually requires an investment of resources like training, tooling, equipment or employment. Back to our welding example, one reason a welder might have to stop the process is to get a piece to weld or put pieces together. What would happen if there were a jig configured for the operator to weld while other operators were configuring that jig before the welder needed it?
  4. Start again. Theory of Constraints is a continuous process. Once you finish with one constraint, it’s time to find the next constraint that is restricting the flow of the process by starting with the first step.

The ideal goal for every organization is to create value for their customers by providing the product or service within the time range that the customer requires. We can improve our financials and customer ratings by having lower lead time using an effective process of removing the burdens that create slower productivity.

Valorie Hendrix is the owner of Dynamic Empire Consulting. She can be reached at


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