People Bottlenecks

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 06-20-17

In the flow of a manufacturing plant, the bottleneck should often be the most valuable, or at least most expensive asset. We actually should be designing our processes around that fact, and then ensuring there is no unnecessary waste in the process that affects that bottleneck. In the Theory of Constraints, this is called “elevate the bottleneck”.

But do we do the same thing when it comes to our people?

What happens to the flow of work through people? Our most valuable employees have too much channeled through them and the result is that they become the bottleneck. Too many decisions, large and small. Too many actions, valuable and less-so. Do you want your most valuable people to be your organization’s bottleneck?

Are we elevating the bottleneck? Are we eliminating any waste from that resource? Are we ensuring only the most valuable activities are consuming their energy?

The one difference between those physical assets and the human ones, and the most important difference, is that humans can make other humans more valuable. How? By sharing knowledge, coaching, teaching, and building systems that make other people better.

In one organization, there was a really effective improvement facilitator. He led kaizen events, ran problem solving, and generally led a great deal of improvements. As demand for lean improvements increased, he became the bottleneck. The greatest leverage was prioritizing improvements so that he was doing the most important work. But the capacity didn’t increase. I insisted on a rule – he wasn’t allowed to do another kaizen event or improvement project without an apprentice. Every improvement had to have two results: one was the value of the improvement, and the other was the transfer of knowledge and skill.

In another company, they had one of the most innovative and high-impact executives on the team within the industry. Almost everything was channel through him – decisions, improvements, execution, people. The company grew, and then it grew past his ability to maintain control. The company then collapsed under the weight of itself. To solve the problem, we changed his role to one where he was out of the flow of daily work, but also had a great influence on new employees as the company grew. Today it is 40x the size and doing well. His capabilities were leveraged for growth.

So, are you using your people to make other people better? Are you escalating your human bottlenecks in productive ways?