Book Notes: The Bottleneck Rules by Clark Ching

My notes on The Bottleneck Rules.

Full Title and Author

The Bottleneck Rules: How To Get More Done at Work, Without Working Harder by Clarke Ching.

Overview

This book is an introduction to the way we can make processes more efficient by finding and managing their bottlenecks. Inspired of the work of Eli Goldratt, it seeks to distill the core message of “The Goal“, making it easier to understand and apply. Although the book is short, it is packed with information. It is very easy to understand, and uses simple real-world examples to illustrate key ideas.

A supplement to the book can be found on the book’s Facebook page. This includes a brief summary of Ching’s method, and provides additional information on how to apply it.

What is a Bottleneck?

A bottleneck is a resource that constrains the output of the process. The bottleneck is not caused by a step in the process, but by a limiting resource.

Why Do Bottlenecks Matter?

All processes have a bottleneck, a resource which determines the maximum output of the process (page 39). If you can make the bottleneck more efficient, you can speed up the entire process (page 7).

Making other parts of the system more efficient won’t increase the output of the process. On the contrary, if you don’t address the bottleneck, you won’t increase output. That’s why the belief that keeping everyone busy to maximize productivity is mistaken (page 40).

Instead, focus on finding and managing your bottleneck, and your whole process will become more efficient.

Comments

The Bottleneck Rules is an introduction to the Theory of Constraints. For the sake of simplicity, the book assumes a simple process with a clearly defined goal that has a single, static bottleneck. Unfortunately, real-world systems can be more complex.

  • A system may involve multiple inter-connected processes, each producing different outputs. Each of these processes can have its own bottleneck. The bottleneck for one process may not be the bottleneck for another.
  • Bottlenecks are not always static, but can move around the system.
  • First, the a system can have different purposes, depending on your perspective. A factory, for example, produces goods for customers, wages for employees and profit for owners. The bottleneck for each of these value streams may be different, and the bottleneck you want to tackle differ according to your interests.

How to Deal with Bottlenecks

The bottleneck can be addressed by using the FOCCCUS formula:

  1. Find
  2. Optimise
  3. Coordinate
  4. Collaborate
  5. Curate
  6. Upgrade
  7. Start again (strategically).

Three of these steps (Find, Optimise and Upgrade) work on the bottleneck directly, and three (Coordinate, Collaborate and Curate) ask if non-bottlenecks can help the bottleneck. (page 52).

The final step (Start again strategically) recognizes that you can’t eliminate bottlenecks from a system, you can only shift them somewhere else. Once you have shifted the bottleneck, you can start working on the new bottleneck to improve system performance even more.

The FOCCCUS formula isn’t intended to be a rigid formula, but as a set of prompts to help brainstorm the best solution. Once you have found your bottleneck, use the “OCCCUS” steps to generate ideas about how to reduce the effects of your bottleneck. Pick the best ideas, try them out, and then watch and wait to see if things work out. Use feedback to guide your next actions.

For the sake of clarity, Clarke uses different terminology from Goldratt. The relationship between the two systems is shown in the following table:

GoldrattClarke
IdentifyFind
ExploitOptimise
SubordinateCoordinate, Collaborate, and Curate
ElevateUpgrade

Finding Bottlenecks

If you don’t know where your bottlenecks are, you can’t improve your process. We must therefore begin by finding the bottlenecks.

If you can see it, you can manage it. If you can’t see it, it’s managing you.

Page: 12

The steps that follow shouldn’t be followed blindly. Every situation is different. You need to think, and to test your ideas to see what works and what doesn’t. (Page 104)

Note that the bottleneck is not the process that takes the longest time. but the one that impedes the flow of work (page 45).

The basic method, then, is to:

Look for the build-up of work (the queue) in front of it. Your bottleneck step will be nearby. Look for the idle resources. Your bottleneck step will happen before that.

Page 102

So, by looking at the steps between the queue and the idle resource, you should be able to find the step that contains the bottleneck.

Steps for Finding the Bottleneck

Step 1: List Steps

Start by listing the major steps in the process:

List the major steps in your process (there will be between 2 and 8 steps). You can’t manage what you can’t see, so make your work flow visible.

Page 101

Step 2: Start Looking

Try a combination of the following methods:

Method 1: Look for Queues

Look for the parts of the process where there are queues. The bottleneck will be after the queue.

Method 2: Look for Idle Resource

Look for parts of the process where there are idle resources. The bottleneck will be before that.

Sometimes you find that all processes have spare capacity.

If all the resources are idle (imagine a factory with no work), then the part of your organisation that brings in the work (that’s the sales and marketing teams in a business) is your bottleneck.

Page 102

Method 3: Estimate Capacity

Estimate the capacity of each step in the process over a given time, e.g. widgets produces / day. If possible, use actual measurements. You may find that the location of the bottleneck becomes obvious.

Step 3: Identify the Bottleneck Resource

Once you have identified the step in the process that contains the bottleneck, you may find that several resources (e.g. machines, people) are involved in that step. You need to identify the one that is actually slowing things down (page 104).

Step 4: Double-Check your Findings

If you have misidentified the bottleneck, you could waste a lot of time and resource on solving the wrong problem. For this reason, it makes sense to double-check your conclusions before proceeding.

Once you think you’ve found your bottleneck, try to prove yourself wrong. If you can’t, you’ve probably found your bottleneck. If you can, keep looking.

Page 104

Managing the Bottleneck

Before spending lots of cash on more resource, think about your options.

Over the years, we’ve discovered that thinking costs nothing, is often quicker and more fun, and is also more powerful than just chucking wodges of money at the problem.

Page 47

As mentioned above, the following are not steps to be followed in order, but are prompts to generate ideas. Rather than trying the first thing you think of, take time to generate more ideas, and then pick the best ones.

Once you have some ideas that could work, start by trying the ones that will cost the least time and effort. If they are successful, there is no need to try more expensive options. If not, you are likely to have learned some relatively inexpensive lessons.

Optimise

The first thing to do is see if you can squeeze more from the limiting resource. For example, could you:

  • Remove parts of the step?
  • Re-arrange the step?
  • Change the timing of the step?
  • Do it more often?
  • Run it more hours?
  • Start it sooner?
  • Do it slower, and therefore more accurately?
  • Maintain the resource better?
  • Prevent interruptions?
  • Stop multi-tasking?

Coordinate

Organize other processes so that you can get the most from the bottleneck:

  • Ensure that there is always work ready for the constraining resource.
  • Ensure that the work leaving the constraining resource is never blocked.

Collaborate

The next approach is to see if the non-bottlenecks can help the bottleneck. By definition, non-bottlenecks have spare capacity, and you may be able to use this to improve the performance of the bottleneck, and therefore the performance of the whole system.

  • Can you offload some of the bottleneck’s work to a non-bottleneck? This can be worthwhile even if they are not as efficient as the bottleneck at a specific task, as they will still reduce load on the bottleneck.
  • By getting people from different areas of the process together, you can often generate new ideas on how to tackle the bottleneck.

Curate

Carefully prioritize the work that passes through the bottleneck to make best use of the limiting resource.

This isn’t just about what we do, but also what we don’t do, e.g. which customers we drop, which contracts we re-negotiate etc.

In an example from the book, a factory owner recognized that his staff did not have the same broad of the business as he did. In response, he created a few simple rules for them to follow, that would kept the entire factory running smoothly (page 89).

Upgrade

It may be possible to invest in upgrading the bottleneck to add more capacity.

In many cases, upgrading the bottleneck is the most expensive option, so should only be considered if other options have really been exhausted. In other cases, however, it is cheaper to simply get on and upgrade the bottleneck rather than spend time and effort trying alternatives.

Start Again (Strategically)

As you increase capacity at the bottleneck, the bottleneck will move elsewhere in the system. It is impossible to remove all bottlenecks from a system, so if you want to increase capacity further, you need to find and tackle the new bottleneck by following the FOCCCUS steps again.

Types of Bottleneck

The book identifies several types of bottlenecks:

Wild Bottlenecks

The worst type of bottleneck, these are often hidden, and are either unmanaged or poorly managed.

Tamed Bottlenecks

These don’t have as much capacity as we’d like, but are both visible and managed.

Deliberate Bottlenecks

A type of tamed bottleneck that is used to deliberately limit the flow through parts of a system (page 55).

Right-Stuff Bottlenecks

A type of tamed bottleneck, whose work has been properly curated so they are working on the right stuff.

Right-Placed Bottlenecks

A type of tamed bottleneck. These are bottlenecks where they’re supposed to be.

For example:

A hotel’s bottleneck should be its bedrooms, and all the other hotel resources should be able to cope with the demands placed on them by the guests staying in those rooms.

Page 95

In many cases, you want your bottleneck to be your most expensive resource, because you don’t want your most expensive resource standing idle.

Conclusion

If you have never thought about bottlenecks before, I highly recommend that you read The Bottleneck Rules;it won’t take long, and it is an enjoyable read. And while The Bottleneck Rules won’t make you an expert, it will certainly give you a solid grounding in how to identify and tackle the capacity limits of your workplace. I have found it invaluable, and I am sure you will, too.

Additional Resources

Author Clarke Ching has a web site:

He has also set up a group for discussing the ideas in the book:

The following sites also discuss the book and the ideas in it:

If you want to know more about bottlenecks, I recommend the series of posts on Professor Dr. Christoph Roser’s blog:

Declaration

I have no affiliation to the author of The Bottleneck Rules, and have received no financial reward for producing this article. The opinions expressed here are my own. If I have written anything of value, the credit is due to Clarke Ching; whereas any mistakes, inaccuracies or misinterpretations are my own.

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