One of the most efficient ways to achieve a robust and highly productive business operation is to pay close attention to the bottlenecks in your system and manage them effectively.

In his book ‘Theory of Constraints’, Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt defines a bottleneck as “anything that limits a system from achieving higher performance versus its goal”.

The key to manage these highly undesired success inhibitors is to fully recognize but not fight the symptoms. Instead, managers need to adhere to a comprehensive bottleneck analysis that focuses on boosting performance, leveraging improvement efforts and avoiding crippling delays.

Where Is Your Time Getting Wasted?

Analyzing our cycle times is the best way to identify bottlenecks which hinder our performance and negatively impact delivery times. 

As work flows through the process, cards move across the Kanban board. Each task spends its time in the different process states and adds up to the time needed to finish what we’ve started. By tracking our cycle times, we evaluate the efficiency of our workflow and identify process bottlenecks.

Evaluating Your Improvement Efforts

To optimize your workflow performance, you need to break your delivery times down to smaller pieces and evaluate the improvement opportunities. This is best achieved in the Cycle Time Breakdown Chart. The diagram displays the cycle times of your completed tasks split by process state. The horizontal axis is a timeline, while the vertical axis tells you how long in total tasks have taken to complete. By glancing over each bar, you can assess how the time spent in each process state affects the overall time needed to finish your work.

Cycle Time Breakdown Chart

The most important information to get from the Cycle Time Breakdown Chart is how the data changes in time. It is an indicator of continuous improvement. If the longest sections are going down, this is a sign that your improvement efforts are paying off. But, if the cycle times are going up, it is better to take a step back and analyze the reasons behind that behavior.

Analyzing Your Workflow Performance

The Cycle Time Breakdown can be of great help when it comes to bottleneck analysis. This is best achieved by looking into your process state cycle times vs the overall cycle time needed to finish your work. Spotting the states with the longest sections on the diagram, analyzing their cycle times and identifying the root causes of delays is a tremendous step towards improving flow efficiency and reducing delivery times. 

Cycle Time Breakdown Chart - Process States - Stacked Bar

A quick glance at the Cycle Time Breakdown reveals the states in our workflow that slow us down the most. This insight provides a good basis for further investigation and selection of remedies for improving workflow performance. The steps that have taken the most of the time, impeding the entire flow, become glaringly obvious. That instantly fires off the alarm and helps us start asking the right questions, sooner.  

Product managers from various industries leverage the power of making data-driven decisions using Kanban analytics. It is fast, simple and extremely effective. Try it out for free on your favorite platform.

Highlight the Disruptive Nature of Your Waiting Times

The approach of analyzing our data using the Cycle Time Breakdown is extremely powerful if we maintain a Kanban pull system. Kanban pull systems enable users to assess how much time the workflow sits in each queue state. 

In the example below, we have a process with the following steps – Development, Code Review, Testing, Deployment and Done, and the queue states Code review (Done) and Testing (Done). On the Cycle Time Breakdown, it is clearly visible that 20% of the workflow is spent in the Code Review (Done) step. As this is a queue state, it means that our work is not able to move to Testing, it is just sitting and waiting in the queue due to a bottleneck in the Testing state. 

Cycle Time Breakdown Chart - Process States - Pie Chart Bar

An obvious solution may be to hire more testing specialists. We could assume that adding more testing capacity would remove the bottleneck. This approach is also known as “elevating the constraint”. However, it costs both time and money. So, rather than jumping immediately to elevation, it might be better to try to fully exploit the capacity of the people responsible for that step and relieve them from activities that could be handled by someone else or completely nixed. For instance, testers are quite commonly also responsible for creating user manuals. This can be very easily handed over to other departments.

Another alternative is to assign some of the idle team members to that step. You can categorize your work using risk profiles to specify the requirements that must be tested by the professional test team and delegate those that could be covered by people from other functional areas. 

The team performance will increase by 20% only by resolving the bottleneck in their Testing step. Their customers will receive what they have requested 20% faster, which will lead to a significant rise in customer satisfaction and so a firm loyalty to your brand.

The Best Course of Action

Here are some tips to help you improve your workflow performance once you have identified the bottlenecks in your system.

  • Revise your process policies – Reconsider the policies on the step with the longest cycle time and try to identify what needs to change to help reduce the time spent there.
  • Reduce WIP limits on the states with the longest time – Pay special attention to your queue states and make sure that the number of tasks in your queue states counts towards the WIP limit of its active state. As you decrease the time spent on those columns, you’ll reduce the total cycle time.
  • Allocate idle team members to work together on the problem area – Delegating responsibility to people with different expertise encourages knowledge sharing and drastically improves collaboration. And that ultimately boosts your employees’ engagement and motivation.
  • Evaluate your cycle time breakdown over time – By observing the split of the cycle times throughout your process you’ll be able to assess your improvement efforts and keep track of how trends build over time.

Short delivery times are essential for developing a strong competitive advantage. Breaking your cycle times down to small segments and improving them independently, essentially leads to decreasing your overall cycle time. 

By keeping your focus on resolving bottlenecks in your system, you’ll ultimately reduce your cycle times, become more efficient and deliver customer value, faster. And that is crucial for sustainable business agility.

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