Clarke Ching has created a new book to try to help people understand what is blocking their work (or life?). The Bottleneck Rules: How to Get More Done (When Working Harder isn't Working) is a quick read and got me thinking more about how I talk about this topic with people. [Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book. And I consider Clarke a friend.]
The book is intended to be a fast read to introduce people to the concept, share a number of examples, and get them thinking. It certainly got me going. And for people who know Theory of Constraints (and The Goal in particular), Clarke pays homage while trying to simplify the language for people who aren't managing factories or big companies. He uses un-complicated examples, drawn from his experience and that of others to drive his points home.
In short, bottlenecks are anything (people, machines, rooms, computers, services) that slows down your work. Or any step in a sequence where the demand is greater than the ability to finish the work in the desired time. When there is a (growing) queue, it's a sure sign of a bottleneck. On the other hand, just being always "busy" doesn't mean that is where the bottleneck is. In fact, a bottleneck may only be temporary, like a (popular) restaurant's tables during the lunch rush.
Whether we think there is a bottleneck or not, they MUST exist in any situation where there are multiple steps involved. If we don't know where the bottleneck is (it's one of Clarke's "hidden" bottlenecks), then we often take actions that appear to be the right thing to do but don't ever seem to create the desired effect: getting more of what we want out the other end. When the bottlenecks are exposed ("tamed"), then we can get to make choices about the best ways to operate with that knowledge. Clarke identifies several types of bottlenecks that might cause us to think about the bottleneck in different ways, but it is still the limiting factor.
The book's title is intentionally punny (as is Clarke in general). A bottleneck rules the ability of the system to create its output (widgets, reports, airport landings, etc). And if we don't know where it is, it will rule us anyway. When we know where it is, we can create simple, powerful rules so that we can rule our destiny.
Clarke also re-phrases the classic Theory of Constraints "Five Focusing Steps" into an acronym that might be slightly easier to remember: FOCCCUS:
- Find the bottleneck. This can be powerful all by itself, particularly when people are "always busy" but nothing ever seems to improve.
- Optimize it. Once you know where the bottleneck sits, you can check to make sure it is operating as best it can. But even if it is "optimized" the next steps can really make it sing.
- Coordinate, Collaborate, Curate everywhere else. There is a lot packed into these three words, but the general idea is that all the other steps in the operation MUST work to the pace of the bottleneck - or they must work to find ways to enable that bottleneck to work more effectively: don't waste time at the bottleneck. There is a lot of power in really thinking through how everyone else can support - finding ways to open up the bottleneck is the only way to generate more in the entire system.
- Upgrade the bottleneck. Once the work is flowing the way it should and you STILL need more capacity, then consider buying another or hiring. This is a reminder that it does not make sense to spend a lot of money on automation or new equipment or new hires before ensuring that the work flow makes sense first. ("Automating bad processes, just gives you faster bad results.")
- Start over (Strategically). The bottleneck might move - you might open up one step in a flow that and the bottleneck moves elsewhere. In that case, find the new location and have at it again. I love the addition of Strategically here, because it offers the opportunity to think differently about how we want the system to behave. Is the current bottleneck where we think it should be? (Should a hotel's breakfast room capacity prevent it from selling more beds?)