The Dreaded Bottleneck

This year’s “big one” hits, and you’re in major restoration mode. There’s work to be done, but personnel are waiting. Damage assessors wait for their assignments.  Crews wait for work packages.  Dispatchers wait for reports on work in the field so that they can update the outage management system.  Phones in the dispatch center are so busy that crews can’t move on to their next assignment.  Call center personnel wait for updated restoration times so they can calm clamoring customers with accurate outage information.  Leadership seems to take forever making the decision on whether or not to bring in extra resources.

The “Perfect Storm?”   No, just bottlenecks.  A well-understood, much-analyzed phenomenon in Process Management.   Easily recognized when input comes in faster than the next step can use it to create output .

Sometimes it’s just an annoyance – but often it’s a serious issue, affecting your customers, your reputation and the morale of your personnel.

Think about the restoration process. Something bad happens and a lot of customers are out of service. You need to figure out what happened (damage assessment), identify what’s needed to fix things (engineering), and then do the work (operations). Yes, this is an overly simplified example, but for the purposes of illustrating the point, it will do.

Damage assessment reports flood in from the field. Engineers look at all the data, organize the information and put together work packages. Meanwhile crews sit in the field waiting to be dispatched to go fix stuff. The bottleneck – in this example, is the function between damage assessment and construction crews. Sorry engineering – nothing personal, we just needed an example.

First, find the bottleneck.

The bottleneck is usually a stressed out resource, with work jamming upstream, and resources sitting idle downstream. In our example, it’s the engineering group, charged with analyzing data and developing work packages. Lots of information coming in, but work packages are slow in coming out.

Perhaps the best time to find such bottlenecks is immediately after a major event, during debrief, before the pain and frustration of the experience fades away.  It’s a good time to take a close look at your flow charts and process maps to see where the choke points were.

Second, determine if the bottleneck area is working efficiently and effectively.

Is the function fully staffed with the right number of trained, competent personnel? Do they have the resources they need? Are they focused on the tasks at hand?

At this point, process analysts frequently use the “Five Whys” method to discover root causes for the inefficiency.  Keep asking why things slowed down until the answer becomes basic and elementary.

Third, equalize the system.

If the resources in the engineering area are working to their full potential, then maybe you have to look at reallocating.  If input is overwhelming your ability to process it, then reducing input volume – as draconian as that sounds – may be the only way to improve efficiency.  Maybe have a few less people doing damage assessment in the field, and assign them to help analyze the data instead. Maybe bring in fewer crews early on, until the work packages are almost ready to go.

Fourth, increase your capacity.

You may need to bump up your efforts by increasing the number of personnel in the engineering role. Consider investing in training and tools for additional staff to temporarily help out. Can you find more people to handle storm jobs?  Have you fully exploited your resources for second roles?  Can you benefit from having utility retirees on standby?  If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then the flow of your work process is only as open as the width of the “neck of your bottle.”

Fifth, start over again.

Once you find and fix one bottleneck, something else could crop up as a new bottleneck area that you need to attack. It’s a cycle of continuous improvement.

Identifying a bottleneck is not always easy.  After all, Xerxes couldn’t figure out what Leonides was doing at Thermopylae.  The French were flummoxed by Henry V at Agincourt.   It takes a strong leader and good intel to deal with bottlenecks. The organization must work together to make sure that the process is as effective as it can be – and you may bruise a few egos along the way. But when issues are identified in the spirit of improvement and in service to the customer, then it’s easier to take.

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