The Bottleneckiest Bottleneck
How folding paper airplanes makes spotting bottlenecks easier.
As I have coached teams over the years, one improvement that never gets old is that of helping them identify and improve the bottleneck in their workflow. Eliyahu Goldratt mentions in his book, The Goal, that, “Any improvements made anywhere besides the bottleneck are an illusion.” For the purposes of this conversation, a bottleneck is just a spot in the workflow where work piles up.
While fixing them is often the subject of much debate, spotting bottlenecks is easy enough. Don’t believe me? Story time!
During my time coaching and training at Ramsey Solutions, we would invite each onboarding group of new team members to a day long training where we would focus on the principles and practices of Kanban and managing work. Part of that day-long training included an activity called the Airplane Game.
I can’t take credit for this gem, as it was taught to me by my good friend and fellow Kanban coach Brendan Wovchko, but it was one of the highlights of the class and became a thing of legends. The overall goal of the game is to illustrate change managed well.
While most team members continued to speak fondly of the game, the coaches can also use the game as a way to call back specific lessons from the class. Improving bottlenecks is one such lesson.
Let me explain.
Folding Paper Airplanes…During Work Hours?
The basics rules of the Airplane Game were as follows:
The students self organize in teams of 1 manager and 4 works
They sit together; forming a production line.
Follow the provided instructions to build paper airplanes as a team.
4 Rounds, 3 minutes each.
Each person performs one of the 4 folds to make the final plane.
The third step includes a fold as well as drawing a star on the paper.
Manager tracks metrics.
The objective is profit, so time-to-market must be optimal.
As the facilitator, I would kick off the first round by working the teams into a frenzy. “Each plane is worth $1M dollars! We need SPEED! The goal is Profit!” Then I would ask them, “What’s the goal?” I would continue asking this until all of the team members yelled, in unison, “PROFIT!” Now we were ready to start.
The first round was basically a way to reiterate to the teams what it normally looks like to work in most frantic job situations. They almost always forget the first four hours of training and revert to normal methods, which sets up some great conversation and allows for a small set of improvements after each round. It’s amazing. Tell your friends.
The Bottleneck Lesson
After the first round, the biggest improvement we ask the team to make is implement a Pull System and a WIP (work in progress) Limit of 1. That just means they were not allowed to push the folded piece of paper to the next person, and they could only have one paper airplane in front of them at a time. (I particularly loved yelling “Dirty Pusher” to anyone breaking this rule)
After the second round, we ask the question, “Did the system normalize to compensate for the bottleneck?” Some of you may be thinking, “How in the world could they have fixed the bottleneck so quickly? Surely the answer is no.” Without fail the students immediately recognize that the position where there was two activities, a fold and drawing a star, was the bottleneck.
How were they able to identify it? An excellent question.
In the first round, the position with two activities is where work “piled up.” It took longer to perform the two steps, so the person right before the bottleneck was finishing work faster than the person at the bottleneck. And that’s the nature of any bottleneck. A plain way to say it is a bottleneck occurs when the work in a workflow piles up in one activity. A good example of this would be when writers (I am one, so I am picking on myself) finish their writing and pass it to an editor. If I am a fast writer writing lots of blogs, they may pile up in the edit queue, for various reasons. (Only one editor, no dedicated editor, approvals…etc)
After reducing the work in progress in round 2 for each person to 1 item, the bottleneck normalizes.
I was careful to call the position the bottleneck, instead of the person. It’s an important distinction because I’ve rarely seen progress made when calling the person a bottleneck. It may be true that they are, but starting with a posture of putting focus on the work allows us to quickly find some solutions. It’s easier to fix the work or workflow problems than it is to fix people problems.
Landing the…Paper Airplane
Identifying the bottleneck is powerful, but only part of the equation. Making improvements at the bottleneck is the other. In the Airplane game, the contrast of quickly implementing a simple change highlighted the presence of the bottleneck. There can be multiple ways to fix an issue, but the one tried and true method is to move at the “speed” of your bottleneck. Reducing the work in progress limit to one item at a time does this.
In real life, however, this is not always practical.
If you feel like your work is moving too slowly through your workflow, here are three quick steps to expose and fix a bottleneck.
Expose - Visualize your work. Seeing is believing. That was incredibly cliche, but holds true. Sometimes just visualizing your work, even knowledge work, in it’s natural workflow exposes bottlenecks. I like to use Trello, but there are dozens of tools. Just start visualizing.
Measure - Once you visualize your work, start measuring how long that work is taking from the day you start working on it until it leaves your workflow. We won’t go deeper than that here, but that should get you started. In my writing example, I quickly noticed that things only spent one day being written, but often spent three or four days being edited. That’s a possible bottleneck!
Fix - Run some experiments, like limiting the overall work that is in progress. This almost always starts to normalize the bottleneck. It did in the Airplane game. Try adjusting it to get the right amount of flow. A few practices that support WIP Limits and fixing bottlenecks are:
Swarming - The team collectively jump to one activity that is a bottleneck to reduce the “pile up.”
Slack - I discussed this one in an earlier article. Essentially, instead of starting more work to send to the bottleneck, pause and find other activities that don’t add more work to the system.
I can already hear some of you screaming, “Tristan! If I reduce the WIP, people will be idle or not busy or just twiddling their thumbs!” While that is certainly true, I like to coach teams to take ownership and help the rest of the team. In the writing example, I have coached teams with multiple writers to jump in and edit the work for other writers. That is commonly referred to as Swarming, and it’s an excellent tool for eliminating bottlenecks without having to reduce the WIP Limit to one like our Airplane Game scenario. You have to be willing to move outside your lane, for sure, but the result is delivering value to your customer quicker.
The bottom line is that you and your team should get creative in how you decide to improve your bottleneck. Only you know the culture and context within your business. Whatever method you use, remember the words from Goldratt above. Focus your energy on continuously improving the bottleneck and your systems will start to normalize, allowing it to consistently deliver customer value in a sustainable and predictable way.
Until next week,
Keep on Learning. Keep on Growing.
P.S. If you would like more details on the Airplane game or need someone to help facility, do not hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or just reply to this thread.