Gerwig 2014-09-10

Have you ever turned a 2-liter plastic bottle upside down? If so, you know what happens. The 2 liters comes pouring out, but the speed at which it does so is limited by the size of the bottle’s neck. The larger the opening of the bottle, the faster the liquid comes out. The smaller the opening of the bottle, the slower the liquid comes out. This phenomenon is known as a bottleneck. And whether or not you realize it, you’ve personally experienced the consequences of a bottleneck many times.

When you’re stuck in traffic, it’s due to a bottleneck. When you’re waiting in line at the grocery store trying to checkout, it’s due to a bottleneck. When you’re waiting to go through security at the airport, it’s due to a bottleneck. Get the idea? In fact, any time you’re waiting in line, it’s due to a bottleneck.

Many folks around the world make a good living understanding bottlenecks and reducing their negative impact. For example, many industrial engineers and operations research scientists study queuing theory and the theory of constraints in an effort to improve flow and reduce wait time, time which is not adding value and is frustrating to the one experiencing the delay.

Modern process improvement techniques and approaches such as the Toyota Production System (TPS) and lean sigma focus on improving flow through a facility by reducing the bottlenecks. This can be accomplished many ways. You can add additional capacity (such as the number of checkout counters in a store). You can also optimize the balance of labor across various areas of an organization. For example, though there might be plenty of security scanning devices and lanes at the airport, you might be waiting in line because there aren’t enough security agents to run the scanners. In this case, the bottleneck is caused by a labor shortage, not an equipment capacity issue. Generally speaking, to reduce the impact of a bottleneck requires a combination of equipment capacity and labor balancing.

A case in point: recently I visited a hardware store to purchase 1 item and I was in a hurry for a number of reasons. I went in the store and found the item in a couple minutes. Then I spent nearly 15 minutes trying to check out. I almost left the store out of frustration, but I was desperate. The store had close to 12 checkout lanes but only 1 cashier working. You’ve already done the mental math. Yes, that meant that 11 lanes weren’t being used. There was a labor balancing issue and it was creating a bottleneck.

Waiting, unnecessarily, will negatively impact their cash flow in the future because I’ll shop at other hardware stores before returning. You see, it’s a major peeve of mine, as a customer, to have to wait to give someone else my hard-earned money. I believe the store should do everything it can to facilitate the key transaction for which they exist in the first place. What is the mission of that store? To make money. To satisfy customers. To exchange a good for my cash (or plastic). They had several hundred thousand square feet of space and thousands of items for sale. They had dozens of employees in the store doing a variety of jobs, but they placed a bottleneck right where it negatively impacted their key transaction the most, the exchange of their goods for cash.

In your organization, whether you’re a for-profit or a non-profit, think about your bottlenecks. Where are they located? How restrictive are they? How adversely do they impact your key transactions, those moments of truth with the customer? If you see your customers waiting in line, it’s a sign. If you see a lobby full of patients, it’s a sign. If your appointment book requires a 3-month wait, it’s a sign.

Minimize bottleneck impacts on your customers. Don’t punish your patients by making them wait. Don’t delay your key transactions. Don’t place callers on hold. Yes, organizations can’t always predict demand and limitless capacity is only a theoretical concept. And yes, de-bottlenecking a process can be expensive. But it’s worth analyzing and understanding the impact. Perhaps the money and effort spent on de-bottlenecking will yield a large ROI.

At minimum wage, what’s the cost of adding additional cashiers versus the lost profits when disgruntled customers take their business elsewhere? Why would you ever have a bottleneck at the point where you’re taking someone else’s money? The payment process should be fast, painless and wait-free.

The picture above shows one of my favorite BBQ sauces. And the opening on the neck of the bottle is a bit larger than the opening on a typical 2-liter bottle. Maybe you’ll always have a bottleneck. But at a minimum, increase the flow and relax the constraint. Let more satisfied customers, patients, parents, employees and parishioners flow through your organizational processes by eliminating the bottleneck completely or relaxing the constraint and the increasing the flow. You’ll be glad you did.

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]


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