Inspiration

How to Avoid Bottlenecks and Accomplish More

November 21, 2018

In a perfect world everyone on a team would pitch in to meet deadlines and processes would work each time perfectly — but that isn’t the working world we live in, is it? Here in reality bottlenecks hinder our progress and out of date processes slow us down. Despite this, how can we alleviate backlogs in our work and get more done?

Today we’re going to go over actionable tips to avoid bottlenecks as soon as they creep into your workflow to help you and your team accomplish more.

Document the Problem

As soon as you notice that a bottleneck is impacting your team’s work, it’s time to figure out why it’s happening to determine how to stop it. If you don’t already have specific processes in place, write down each step leading up to the bottleneck.

For example, if a company is just starting to iron out its new brand guidelines, it’s not a good plan to decide on colors before strategy and messaging are locked down. The executive team will most likely be responsible for the strategy and messaging will come from the marketing team. If the design team isn’t getting what they need in time, then work backward and see what inefficiencies exist. The bottleneck might be occurring at a surprising place in the previous steps and take significant effort to iron out.

Evaluate Your Staffing Needs

There are two main ways that staffing can impact bottlenecks. One major cause of bottlenecks is understaffing. When you don’t have enough team members, it is easy for work to pile up for one person who is the ultimate decision maker. Dividing up and delegating the decision-making duties will help shorten the timeline for getting a definitive answer.

On the other end of the spectrum, it could be that work is piling up because one employee isn’t doing their fair share of the work. After you’ve determined who is causing the bottleneck, you’ll need to communicate the issue directly and clearly to them. Instead of approaching the conversation with blame, ask what is holding them back. If they are overworked due to the volume of work, consider hiring an additional employee to help shoulder the burden. Or, if hiring isn’t in your current budget, find an existing employee who can devote some of their working hours to the tasks that are holding back the team.

A woman helping another woman with a project on a laptop.
Teams are meant to support each other.

Alternatively, if the employee in question isn’t taking their responsibilities seriously and thus creating a bottleneck, set them up with a performance improvement plan to course correct. If they are unable to boost their performance and continue hindering the team, it may be time to let them go. This, of course, should only be used as a last resort, but it is an unfortunate step to take when all other options have been exhausted.

Be Honest

There is too much stigma about being honest about your workload. If more can get done faster by bringing in extra help, then, by all means, ask for it. In many work cultures around the world, employees take pride in biting off more than they can chew and attempting to juggle more projects than ever. When team members are able to pull off this feat, it’s great, but when they aren’t able to, things can get ugly quickly. If an employee’s work is central to some projects, but they burn out and aren’t able to complete any of them, that’s when you’ve got a major problem on your hands.

To avoid this, deliverables need to be realistic, even in smaller companies. If an employee would have to work 80 hours per week to get all of their to-do items done, then additional help is going to be necessary. Getting existing employees to take on smaller tasks to help out can avoid bottlenecks. At the end of the day, the entire company is responsible for achieving metrics together. The best course of action is to ask for help when you feel like your workload is on the road to becoming severely backlogged. No one works in a silo; what we work on impacts our team members’ abilities to meet their own deadlines. So call on your team members for help early on in the process, as soon as the amount of work appears to be too intense for one person to handle.

Improve Training Across Your Team

Vacations are essential for refreshing our minds and bodies, not to mention for rejuvenating the creative process. But what happens when only one member of the team knows a certain design program that you need help with to meet a deliverable? No matter how well anyone prepares for their vacation, there are always fires that pop up while they are away. If only one team member knows how to put it out, then you’re left with no choice but to interrupt their vacation. But, if you broaden training for your team, the one savant on your team won’t act as a bottleneck if they don’t see your emails while they’re away. Specialization is definitely important in design and beyond, but having multiple employees with the essential skills needed to keep your business running will prevent future headaches.

Three team members looking at a computer screen.

The same goes for sick days and other types of leave. You can’t base your entire app production schedule on one person. We operate on teams for a reason: to help one another out and make it to the finish line faster than we would on our own. Teams that have a basic understanding of what the others do can fill in when needed to keep projects on track.

Empower Your Employees

If your employees need to seek approval or advice on every minor detail, no project will ever be completed on time. Let employees know that they should be making most decisions on their own or in collaboration with their team. Only major decisions should require the approval of a manager to avoid emails and requests piling up.

Communicate

From the beginning to the end of a creative project, team members need to communicate about how key components are progressing. When minor issues are brought up early on, they can be addressed promptly so that they don’t eventually become costly bottlenecks.

Central to communication is assessing how decisions are made during production. How many stamps of approval do engineers need before they can make a significant update to the development plan? The processes you set up when you had a smaller team may not apply to the current layout of your team, so be agile to discuss processes and change them if they are no longer serving your needs. After all, the process is supposed to streamline production, instead of holding it back.

Set Expectations

When random requests come in from team members when we are trying to finish up a key project, it often gets pushed to the back burner. Each request you make needs to have a clearly defined timeline to help everyone prioritize accordingly. Failing to do so can lead to unintentional bottlenecks: one person holding up the progress of someone else’s project because they weren’t given a firm deadline.

A calendar, computer, clock, and day planner on a table.
If a coworker asks for something, they should always provide a deadline.

Update Processes Periodically

Process is needed in each and every business. It is the structure that allows us to make progress on projects. But too much process can stifle creativity (learn how to get it back here). It’s important to find a happy medium and tweak it over time to maintain the balance.

A company may want to have quarterly or half yearly meetings that break down the processes that aren’t working anymore. Just as we celebrate what is working fantastically, we also want to put thought into improving processes that are holding back our teams. Your team needs to be given the autonomy and authority to do what’s best, instead of waiting for approval that may slow them down.

To streamline this, have clear criteria for the types of questions that need to be escalated, compared to decisions that the team can comfortably make on their own. If the CEO of your company is making minor decisions each day, instead of creating a chain of command, then you know your organization needs to have a serious talk about avoiding bottlenecks.

How have you avoid bottlenecks or fixed them in the past? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio.

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