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Breaking through Bottlenecks: And Keeping them from Coming Back

Breaking through Bottlenecks: And Keeping them from Coming Back

Over the years I’ve spent as a consultant in the IT field, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard from officers how they have all it takes to succeed but their productivity is still low, and they just don’t know why or what they can do to change.

Improving productivity certainly is a reasonable goal, but, as we all know, it’s far easier said than done.

Naturally, companies do what they can to make sure their projects move towards successful completion, but all too often even experienced organizations find themselves suffering from bottlenecks, points in the process that slow down workflow and negatively impact the efficiency of the team as a whole.  Part of my services to these organizations was to identify such points and find solutions, which I did by carefully carrying out an analysis of not only the process flow, but also of the personnel, management relationship, and communication as well.

So what actually causes bottlenecks, how much of an impact do they have on day-to-day operations, and just what options do organizations have to resolve them?

Well, back in 2013, I was involved in restructuring the Project Management System of a Tech Company in Los Angeles.  They had a talented staff but for some reason never seemed to meet their deadlines, and although the finished product eventually ended up being stellar, they were nonetheless losing revenue and clients due to these missed terms.

As usual, I requested to be part of the team and learn about their process for at least two full working weeks, involving myself in all meetings and all lunches, observing the communication, relationships, and timing along the way.  With this information at my disposal, I went about drawing up two charts, one documenting the process flow, and a second secret chart, noting who worked with whom for how long, who was waiting for whose feedback, and so on.

The data was clear, they did indeed have a group of very talented individuals, all eager to work as well, but everyday I could read a layer of frustration on their faces, and I couldn’t understand why.  The company culture was very well established, and the employees were well compensated, so what was the source of this dissatisfaction, what was I missing?

I was about to find out.

Once the two weeks were up, I was allowed to speak one on one with select individuals from my secret chart, to get their personal opinions and add that to my information.  What I found was that as much as they enjoyed working and completing the task at hand, their frustration stemmed from the fact that they simply couldn't see the results of their efforts after they’d submit their assignments for review, in fact, they hardly got feedback at all.  According to their internal policy, all work was to be submitted to the CTO, and if there were any issues the CTO would rather redo the work himself, or let it pile up until he could get back to it “next time.”  On top of that, he would be the one who, in all meetings, would complain about the unrealistic deadlines and lack of time in his busy schedule.  In conclusion, everyone ended up waiting weeks for his feedback on their completed assignments, and waiting days for their next task to even be assigned.

So there you go, this was the source, this one person was creating the jam, perpetuating frustration in the personnel, and making the entire company lose their money and reputation because of it.

After almost a month of drafting the final report I approached the officers with my verdict on the problem, only to learn the real problem was that this man was not simply the CTO. He also owned part of the company, and was the one who built the software from scratch as well, which explained why he was so protective of any features or updates.

It was at that moment that I identified the second bottleneck: the upper brass of the organization who wanted to run a 150 employee company on the rules and strategies of a Mom & Pop Shop.  With the real issues now made clear, I had to stop the meeting and ask for more time to come up with another solution, one that would be able to resolve such a delicate circumstance.  It was during my research on the issue that I came across a survey conducted by Bonitasoft, who had gone out and interviewed businesses and organizations large and small alike, publishing the results they found, which I found were most intriguing, in terms of my case and just in general.

The vast majority of those polled revealed they encountered bottlenecks on a regular basis, but their views on what caused them and what effects they had were quite curious indeed.  While I recommend you read the document for yourself, here is a highlight of the results:

 - The two main sources of slow downs came out to confusing processes at 45% and understaffed IT departments at 43%, followed by too many processes, colleagues not meeting deadlines, technology that was too rigid, and even not having enough processes.

 - The factors that most contributed to these bottlenecks were found to be poor employee communication by 58%, having too much work with too few people by 47%, as well as a lack of employee training by 41%.

 - The biggest impact these bottlenecks caused the respondents was damage to employee morale at 59%, while missed deadlines wasn’t far behind at 53%, neither was angry and unsatisfied customers at 42%, nor loss of revenue at 36%.  What surprised me the most in this study was how three of the 190 respondents, hardly more than 1%, actually believed bottlenecks didn’t impact their operations at all.

Once it’s all laid out like this, it almost seems obvious that bottlenecks are created due to factors such as individual personalities, working styles, and lack of information to accomplish a task.  It just makes sense that individuals are unable to make a decision, or are even afraid to make a decision, when they don’t have the right information at hand, we can all relate to that, I especially could considering the client I was working with at the time.

That team couldn’t move forward if their next step wasn’t clearly defined, so while everyone was waiting for that one man to make all the decisions, promised deadlines would come and go while he was still working things out, overexerting himself while leaving everyone else with too little to do.  This had to stop, this had to be fixed, but above all, this had to be taken care of as carefully as possible.

I decided to call a meeting with all the officers, including the CTO, to address the situation very lightly, a necessity seeing as the CTO appeared to be a more emotional individual.  In his mind I was supporting a revolution within his ranks, intruding on his hard won territory, leading him to raise his guard and go on the defensive right from the start, making it clear he was more protective of his position within the company than he was of the software he wrote as I initially suspected.

This man had been with the company for 15 years, but only during the past five years had there been such a dramatic expansion and influx of young talented individuals to make him feel so insecure.  Reading between the lines I could see it all spelled out, he was worried one of these young up-and-comers could take his spot, and so to overcompensate he assumed controlling power over all decision making, only feeling secure by having the last say on every project.  Yet in a cruel twist of irony, it was these very efforts to become indispensable that were making him such a liability in the first place.

It can be easy to forget that no matter one’s talents, the fact remains that a person is still a person, with limitations on the time and capital they can invest on the tasks they take on.  The less one lets others work with them, the more work will end up unaccomplished overall, and in the end, the only thing the company ends up sharing is the suffering such actions bring about.

The approach we took in resolving the company’s issue and restructuring their process will be described in the next blog post, but for now, let’s go deeper into what we’ve already established.  We agree, bottlenecks within an organization can often be difficult to detect due to there always seeming to be an excuse for why things just don’t get done the way we want them to.  It’s easy to write them off as unrealistic expectations, or poorly laid out plans, or blame it all on mismanagement.

What’s not so easy, however, is taking a long hard look at the way things work and admitting what needs to change, what needs to be fixed, and what just needs to go, but that’s just what we’re going to do now:

Organization: While once the chain of command was as clear as it was rigid, helping employees see what had to be done and who had to be reported to as much as it locked people down, more modern business models and management styles have become so nonlinear that the lack of hierarchy can actually do more harm than good if taken too far.  Micromanagement may not always be appreciated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not essential to setting a system in place and procedures in order.

Management: While I may have mentioned before that blaming management for an organization’s issues can be an easy excuse, that doesn’t excuse it from being held to the same scrutiny when searching for sources of strife.  Assembling a wide and diverse team of talents and skill sets sounds good on paper, and definitely comes with several advantages that are not to be ignored, but having more hands on deck will only weigh down the boat if none of them know how they’re supposed to help each other set sail.  I have so much more I could say about company wide lack of management structure, but I’ll save that for another blog.

Prioritization: When the tasks on a to-do list begin adding up, the person in charge of doing them starts adding up the importance of each one in relation to the others.  A necessary tactic, or course, but when demands from clients and management pile up alongside it, organizing and reorganizing what needs to be done and when can end up disrupting the entire process and causing whatever work was assigned to suffer accordingly.

Communication: Staff must stay connected in order to accomplish everything in an orderly and efficient manner, and the digital tools at our disposal have made that easier than ever before, opening up opportunities that were infeasible only a few years ago.  However, it’s often too easy, and dangerous, to end up relying on such finicky means and risking key players or important steps being missed in the mix.

Company Culture: People work better when they want to work at all, building up a healthy atmosphere in the office where employees look forward to coming in and completing their tasks allows everyone to achieve more.  Conversely, if the workplace isn’t pleasant, productivity isn’t going to improve.  Office drama and gossip are nothing but a detriment and a distraction best left to the sitcoms on the break room TV.

Job Security: Feeling needed and necessary to the betterment of the business encourages increased output as well as loyalty, but as my little story so neatly demonstrates, an insecure individual can end up costing the company dearly if they don’t realize the effects pursuing their own goals can have on the company’s agenda, as can an overconfident individual who treats their position as a stepping stone and nothing more.

So there you have it, no matter the organization or whatever industry it’s in, bottlenecks are always a problem, and as such, removing them is always a priority.  I understand, admitting that you or your business suffer from such problems is rarely enjoyable, and actually implementing the necessary changes to routines or regulations you’ve grown accustomed to is often even less so, but I promise you one thing.

It’s worth it.

Taking the steps toward improving your operations, no matter how difficult they may seem, often results in productivity increasing by no less than 34%.  I can’t promise you it will be an easy undertaking, quite the opposite actually.  Doing so may involve introducing technology and tools you’re not entirely familiar with, or restructuring the company’s process flow in a way that’ll take some getting used to, or even firing individuals you’ve come to know and respect.  But if taking steps such as these seems out of the question, then ask yourself this instead: what will happen to the business if you don’t?

In my next blog, we’ll go into detail about the steps I took to resolving the bottleneck my clients were facing, and how you can learn from their mistakes before making your own.


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