Last week I’ve read a very interesting book about bottlenecks. The book was recommended by Mike Burrows during an Agendashift training I attended some weeks ago, and its name is The Bottleneck Rules by Clake Ching.

I usually like to read these recommendations because I think it’s a good way to understand how the ideas on these books influenced other people’s works, Anyway, let’s jump to the review.

The book is a quick read, the type of reading you can do in a few hours. But don’t’ get yourself fooled by its size, because it’s indeed a very good book to help you understand and manager better bottlenecks. The book explains very well what a bottleneck is, the types of bottlenecks – according to Clake’s own taxonomy -, and how to deal with each type of bottleneck in order to achieve better performance without necessarily working harder.

The major contribution of the book, apart from explaining with lots of examples what a bottleneck is, is the FOCCCUS procedure, which provides as a guide on how to properly address bottlenecks.

FOCCCUS stands for:

  • Find
  • Optimise
  • Coordinate
  • Collaborate
  • Curate
  • Upgrade
  • Start again (strategically).

But, what is a bottleneck?

According to Clake’s definition, which I personally like, a bottleneck is: “a resource that can’t keep up with the demand placed on it”.

And what is a resource in this case?

“a resource is a person, a machine, a computer CPU, a traffic intersection, a slow internet connection, and even an airport runway”

I’ve said many times over my career a statement along the lines of: “This step here seems to be the bottleneck in our process”. After reading this book, I’ll probably never say that anymore. I’ll probably say something like this: “We’re seeing a bottleneck here on this step of the process, let’s figure out which resource is causing it”.

Another insight from this particular topic is that in order to analyse a bottleneck you’ll have to map which resources are involved and then figure out which of the resources is the actual bottleneck.

You cannot solve a bottleneck without knowing the resources involved.

You cannot solve a bottleneck without knowing the resources involved.

I remembered a story told some time ago where a coach was coaching a group or middle managers on a traditional company and once the coach entered the room, the first thing he said was: “We’re here today to find a bottleneck, but just so you know: The bottleneck is in this room”. Just a fun memory I had while writing this article. Let’s move on.

Once you find a bottleneck, it will look obvious.

That’s another interesting observation made in the book. Be aware that bottlenecks once identified will always look obvious. That’s because you’re looking at them in retrospect, and now the “Hindsight bias” is working on your brain.  As said in the book: “You’ll find it invisible in a minute and deadly obvious the next”.

Some Types of Bottlenecks

  • Wild bottlenecks – Often hidden and they’re either unmanaged or poorly managed.
  • Tamed bottleneck – Don’t have as much capacity as we’d like, but they are visible and managed.
  • Deliberate bottleneck – Designed to deliberately limit the flow through a system.
  • Right-stuff bottlenecks – Are tamed bottlenecks and their work has been properly curated so they are working on the right stuff.
  • Right-placed bottlenecks – Are not only tamed but they are where they’re supposed to be.

A note on the “Deliberate bottleneck” type: If you’re familiar with Kanban, this is one of the reasons why we use WIP limits. WIP limits are bottlenecks, but the type of bottleneck deliberately placed to limit the flow of work in progress through the System.

Why identifying and managing bottlenecks could be a good idea for you?

  • The bottleneck determines a system’s output. No matter how fast other resources are performing, your global performance will be limited by the performance of your bottleneck. Sad, but true.
  • There’s a myth that says that “If everyone is busy, we must be productive”. Busyness is not a synonym of productivity. You don’t need to work harder to get more done, you must work smarter! If your team runs faster than your bottleneck, they’re just being busy, not productive. Take a look at the book cover illustration again. There are some people pushing rocks down, but there’s only one person moving them forward. This person is representing the bottleneck and no matter how fast others push rocks down, there could be only one rock moving forward at a time. That’s exactly what system’s thinking teach us regarding the benefits of global optimisation over local optimisation.

Be careful about easy solutions

Once you identify a bottleneck, might not be difficult to think about a solution for it. But be aware that usually the first solutions we think are usually not addressing the real issues. In order to address the real issue, you’ll have to dig deeper into the bottleneck, understand which resources are involved and their relationship and finally experiment with some solutions. This won’t come easy for you. You’ll have to open to challenge some assumptions and pre-conceived solutions.

In the book, Clake shares a story of a bottleneck involving a printer that was not printing the pages fast enough. It was not coping with the demand that was put on it. One might think that a solution would be to buy more printers or to buy a modern one that could print pages faster. But when digging deeper into the problem, it was discovered that the bottleneck was not the printer, but the software that was sending pages to the printer. Thus, the printer was just following the speed of the real bottleneck, that was not so apparent as it was the slowness of the printer.

Conclusion

I really recommend The Bottleneck Rules to anyone that wants to learn what a bottleneck is and especially for those who work with software development processes such Scrum or Kanban and want to get another perspective on constraints without necessarily having to read “hardcore” books. This one is accessible both in terms of price and language, practical, and will teach you a valuable tool that you can use in your work with your clients or employers.

Finally, if you read the book, please let me know what your thoughts. I’m interested to know if you also will find it as good as I did.

You can find me on twitter @jcfausto or just leave a comment here below.

Happy reading.

PS: I didn’t say anything about the title of the book, did I? Well, read the book and you’ll know what I’m talking about!

Disclaimer

I’m not affiliated with the author nor receive any benefits for reviewing this book. This review is totally independent and based on my own perspectives and interpretation of what I’ve read.