What is keeping your employees from finishing their work faster? Is it a lack of support, customer delays, or could it be a problem with the workflow itself? Workflow bottlenecks are one symptom of organizational dysfunction. While sometimes hard to recognize, these holdups can be resolved quickly, to remove worker frustration and improve productivity.

What is a Workflow Bottleneck?

A workflow bottleneck is what happens when demands outpace employees’ ability to respond to them. Practically speaking, it is anything that holds up the production or sales process. Workflow bottlenecks can be created by:

  • Outdated equipment
  • Shared resources
  • Improper staffing or task assignments
  • Employment gaps
  • Supply chain issues

Bottlenecks can be temporary – such as when a decision maker goes on vacation or calls out sick or when a supplier runs out of a key material. These temporary workflow bottlenecks generally resolve themselves and, while they may be troublesome while they happen, they don’t tend to cause ongoing productivity concerns.

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When Workflow Bottlenecks Can Create Organizational Dysfunction

The larger concern is when ongoing workflow bottlenecks create or exaggerate organizational dysfunction, negatively affecting employee productivity and satisfaction. They are baked into the company’s processes and procedures in ways that may have been functional or even desirable when created, but now they are holding the company back. These systemic problems can be far harder to identify, and take more work to resolve.

Steps to Resolving Workflow Bottlenecks

1.      Listen to Workers’ Workflow Complaints

Your employees know what is keeping them from getting their work done. However, all too often, supervisors and managers dismiss these workflow complaints as excuses for poor productivity. Instead of writing off workers’ complaints about your policies and procedures, listen for patterns in what is causing the delays. If a worker is “blocked” on a task, ask them why, and what needs to happen before they can move forward. Now you know where to look to identify workflow bottlenecks.

2.      Identify Workflow Bottlenecks

Sometimes, your employees will be able to explicitly tell you what the workflow bottlenecks are. Long lines at the copier are straightforward and easy to spot. But other times, what is actually causing the delay may be less apparent. For example, if you find that tasks sit idle for hours or days at a time, it could be that someone who needs to sign off on the project either (1) isn’t being notified or (2) is unable to give approvals promptly.

Think of your company’s workflow like a river. To identify workflow bottlenecks, follow tasks through the workflow pipeline and identify where the they gather or become stagnant. Then, examine that point in the process for log-jams (i.e. technical obstacles or supply issues) or narrowing of the pipeline (i.e. staff shortages or overburdened employees). Once you know where the dams and narrow places are in your river, you can make changes to widen the pipeline and remove the debris.

3.      Upgrade Equipment, Staffing, or Procedures

Exactly what you will need to do to remove workflow bottlenecks will depend on the problems holding your employees back. You may need to:

  • Purchase new equipment or software to better match employee demands
  • Hire new staff or promote employees to distribute high-demand tasks
  • Streamline procedures to remove unnecessary steps or redundancies
  • Remove unnecessary approval processes to flatten the organizational structure
  • Find alternate suppliers or vendors to avoid supply-chain issues
  • Adopt task trackers and notification systems to improve team communication

If you have found multiple bottlenecks, be aware that too many changes at once can hurt productivity and make it hard to tell what works and what doesn’t. Role your changes out gradually so you can track your company’s progress.

4.      Train Your Team on Improved Workflow

All too often, business owners seeking to improve productivity will announce the company is converting to a new software or streamlining their processes, but then leave their employees to sort out what that means for them all on their own. If you want to take full advantage of your new equipment, staff, or procedures, you need to include adequate training as part of your workflow bottleneck removal plan. Teach your employees the new process and give them time to get used to the change. Remember that any new thing will take adjustments, so everything may not be perfect on day 1 of the rollout.

5.      Follow Up on Workflow Bottleneck Complaints

Once your team has settled into their new procedure, or gotten used to the new equipment, it is time to listen to them again. Did the change address their concern? Are there still bottlenecks or delays? Are they satisfied with the new process? Following up with your employees will make them feel like they are part of the collaborative team, and provide you with important data about the success of your project and their ability to be productive using the new system.

Get Help Identifying and Resolving Workplace Bottlenecks

If your employees are complaining that they can’t finish their work because of low-productivity systems and workplace bottlenecks, it’s time to get help. Working with an organizational development specialist can help you listen to employee complaints, review your workflow processes, identify impediments, and implement the changes necessary to get your team working smoothly.

David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 25 years’ experience in resolving organizational dysfunction. Through business consulting and facilitation, David helps employers eliminate workflow bottlenecks and improve productivity. Contact us to meet with David to move toward high organizational functioning today.