Fixing Bottlenecks

Have you ever seen the start of a Motocross race? 15, 20, even 25 riders are lined up side-by-side at the starting line. When the gates open, they take off at full speed - giving everything they've got, to be in front of the pack at the first corner. This is because the corner forces the pack into a 2-wide or 3-wide column, and the process of funneling into that column causes major slowing down and even crashes.

Racers lined up side by side, waiting to race towards the bottleneck at the first corner. (image credit - flickr micolo j)


We have bottlenecks in our business as well.

Are you great with networking, but no so great with paperwork? It doesn't matter how many deals you start; you only get paid for the transactions that close. You will make more money once you fix that paperwork bottleneck.

Do you have lots of ideas to write about, but you never have time to actually write? Find 30 minutes a day to put your hands on the keyboard and write, and you'll start publishing a lot more frequently.

Can you pick up new business cards everywhere you go, but you're not so good at adding their email address into your contact management system? Guess what? You've got a bottleneck. Your business will improve when you start systematically reaching out to everyone you've met.

I've improved and expanded dozens of bottlenecks over the years. Here are a couple examples:

Too much to write. I used to come up with dozens of blog posts and newsletter topics each day - my mind converted everything I saw, read, or talked about into the framework of "this is how I would share this with my audience", and then I would start building an outline in my mind. But I couldn't possibly publish that much content.

  • I've tried staying up late to publish a post every day.
  • I've tried using various voice-to-text apps while driving.
  • I added a bluetooth keyboard to my bag, so I can type full-speed from just about anywhere.
  • Once I put myself on cruise control and stopped chasing infinity, my writing life got 10 times easier.

I need a photo, stat! There was a time when I spent way too long searching for a suitable image to add to my posts before publishing them. As if writing, researching, and formatting everything wasn't enough, I would then need to scour the internet for a picture that captured the essence of the topic, while also abiding by copyright laws. This took far too much time.

  • I found a few sources of pictures that use the Creative Commons copyright license, which made searching faster.
  • I started taking my own pictures while out and about, to use whenever possible.
  • Now I spend some of my downtime-screentime-relaxingtime curating a collection of good pictures to be used at a moment's notice.

Bottlenecks and Continuous Improvement

There isn't usually a best-forever solution to a bottleneck. Sometimes when you fix one bottleneck, another one becomes obvious in a different part of your workflow. Or you might need to make different modifications over time, as your skills and technology improve.

Finding a Bottleneck is half the battle

There are times when I don't know exactly what my holdup is, but I know the process feels clunky. In these cases it helps to write the steps out, or even to say them out loud, and the bottleneck will usually reveal itself. If that doesn't work, I'll try to explain my process to my wife, and she'll take 3 seconds to say, "That's stupid. Why don't you just do xyz instead?" And she's always right!

Every once in awhile, though, I won't even realize I have a bottleneck, but a friend or client will comment on something I'm doing, and it forces me to take a step back and reexamine my workflow for a better way of doing things.

Additional reading: The Goal: a process of continuous improvement by Eliyahu Goldratt. This book was assigned reading in 3 different classes in grad school (and I was a believer after the first read!)

- Chris Butterworth