What Is a Process Bottleneck? Definition, Causes, and How to Leverage Low-code BPA

The term bottleneck refers to the way a bottle is shaped: wide body, tapered neck. Because the neck tends to be the narrowest part of the bottle, it often restricts the movement of the bottle’s contents — like those glass ketchup bottles we’ve all struggled with at restaurants.  

While the visual of a bottleneck is more recognizable or obvious to spot in a production or assembly line, process bottlenecks can be just as clear once you understand how to spot what causes them.

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What is a bottleneck?

Bottlenecks happen when work or request volume exceeds process capacity or bandwidth. In business, a bottleneck is the point (or points) in a process where the flow of work becomes delayed or breaks down completely. 

Much like a production line, a bottleneck keeps a workflow from moving forward which leaves the workflow essentially useless and employees overloaded — especially if there are multiple bottlenecks affecting various processes at a single time. 

Illustration of a bottleneck (click here to enlarge image)

Common causes of process bottlenecks

There are many factors that can interrupt a process and cause a bottleneck, but the most common culprit is overload capacity.

Bottlenecks happen when a component or person in the process works beyond their capacity and can’t handle any additional demand. Bottlenecks happen when the incoming workload is arriving at a certain point more quickly than the point can handle, limiting the overall throughput of the whole process. This prevents business processes from running smoothly or efficiently.

Common causes of bottlenecks can include:

  • Legacy software
  • Manual data processing
  • Outdated workflows
  • Too much time spent on repetitive tasks 
  • Teams or individuals working beyond their capacity 

The last item in the list of causes is especially troublesome. After all, when the process includes an approval or review workflow, the possibility of a bottleneck is high. 

Types of process bottlenecks

Bottlenecks call into one of two categories: short- and long-term. A short-term bottleneck is usually a temporary or circumstantial blocker and doesn’t grow into a more significant problem. Example: An employee goes on vacation or a computer is temporarily unavailable due to an update. 

A long-term bottleneck is a systemic blocker that consistently occurs and significantly slows down the progression of workflows over time, leading to more significant issues. Example: Business software that keeps crashing and ends up generating a queue.

Within these two categories, there are three types of bottlenecks. Here’s a breakdown and examples of all three:

Bottlenecks created by incomplete or ineffective procedures or rulesBottlenecks that result from people, systems, or tools that lack the capacity to match work volumeBottlenecks caused by a lack of proper resources or process structure
Examples: A process that once worked no longer works following a large company shakeup; a process wasn’t mapped out before being built; too many rules slowing down a workflow.Examples: An approval is required in order for a workflow to progress; a delay in an interconnected process negatively affects other processes and departments.Examples: Critical actors or tasks were left out during process mapping which now creates delays; the wrong software was chosen to run a process, creating issues for productivity.

Why bottlenecks are bad for business

In addition to stalling workflows, process bottlenecks can cause: 

  • Higher resource costs
  • Loss of profits
  • A downturn in productivity 
  • Missed deadlines
  • Increase in employee burnout and turnover 
  • Strained relationships with vendors and/or customers 

In addition to stalling work, bottlenecks create opportunities for additional workflow breakdowns, especially within complex, interconnected business processes. Think finance, HR, IT, or customer success — all departments that require the many moving parts of interrelated processes to flow seamlessly. 

How to find a bottleneck in your process

A process is only as efficient as its most vulnerable point. The best way to resolve process bottlenecks is learning how to spot them before workflows become congested. 

Spotting a process bottleneck takes time and attention, but learning how to do so can keep small pains from growing into bigger problems. Here are two tips for spotting a bottleneck: 

1. Look at the data

The truth is always within the numbers. Start by looking at the data related to your process to assess what’s causing bottlenecks. Are tasks usually stalled at a certain point? Is there a trend related to delays that link back to a particular person or owner? Trends, themes, and patterns is what you should be looking for as you analyze your process data. 

2. Go to the people involved

While data usually reveals process truths, it’s not the only truth that needs to be considered. Speaking with the people that are involved within a process provides an additional layer of insight that data may not offer, such as: Are people overwhelmed with the amount of work? Are there communication breakdowns? Are teams not adequately staffed? 

3. Conduct a workflow analysis

Once you’ve gathered data and spoken to the actors involved in a process, it’s time to take a closer look at the details. A workflow analysis is the opportunity to review the order of tasks and activities that produce a specific workflow outcome. As you review, look for redundancies, existing bottlenecks, and other issues that may create future bottlenecks.

For more on how to identify bottlenecks, check out this post to learn how to master the task in just five steps and how to make it a part of your continuous process improvement plan. 

Solve process problems with low-code automation software

With a low-code business process automation platform, teams are able to manage and even eliminate bottlenecks from their business processes. Pipefy’s low-code platform was specially developed to help you control your processes and reinforce the points that need it most.

Establish a streamlined, centralized, and error-proof workflow with customizable features like: 

  • Rules and conditionals: No more delays due to missing or incomplete information. With rules and conditionals, you can ensure that all relevant information is present before a task or request moves into the next phase. 
  • Automation: Tasks are automatically moved to the next phase of a process, and notifications instantly alert owners of progress or when their review is required. 
  • Dashboards: Make it easy to see the status of all tasks in a workflow, and gather important business intelligence related to processes like 
  • Integrations: No more hopping back and forth between platforms or multiple spreadsheets. By integrating your existing software with Pipefy, you can save time and prevent delays and errors due to manually entering data. Information is collected, organized, and added to a process in real time.
See why more companies choose Pipefy to optimize processes and eliminate bottlenecksWhy Pipefy
Written by
Isabelle Wuilleumier Salemme
Head of Customer Support @Pipefy. She uses her extensive Pipefy knowledge to help users make the best of Pipefy via support and writing informative content pieces. Besides being in charge of support, she's an avid reader, a coffee lover, and a professional photographer.

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