Productivity

Identifying and Solving Productivity Bottlenecks when Working Remotely

a person diving into a pool meant to evoke the idea of a 'bottleneck' while still showing a active scene

A guest post by the remote team over at Docsketch.

When you pour beer from a large bottle that has a tiny opening, or neck, it’s frustrating to see the congestion near the opening that results in the beer pouring out slowly. 

A productivity bottleneck is something that slows the progress of everything else. It’s a flaw in the system.

There are many causes for productivity bottlenecks. Identifying them is often tricky and needs to be done on an ongoing basis. As your business changes, new bottlenecks naturally happen.

Many companies spend thousands of dollars hiring consultants to come into their workplace and identify these bottlenecks, which might not be obvious to the untrained eye. 

How do we do this as a remote company with a team that’s distributed across the globe?

The Theory of Constraints

To help us identify and fix productivity bottlenecks, we’ll use a methodology called Theory of Constraints

Business management expert Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt developed the Theory of Constraints and it’s been successfully used by thousands of multinationals around the world, including General Electric and Intel.

Productivity is limited by the slowest part of any process or task. 

Identifying and removing this “system constraint,” or bottleneck, is the key to dramatically improving productivity and unlocking performance.

We’ll show you how to find and fix these bottlenecks using the Theory of Constraints method.

How do we Identify Productivity Bottlenecks?

First, we need to find where work is backing up. Then, we need to identify where potential output is wasted.

Here are some clues that you have a bottleneck:

These are all symptoms. To find the source of the bottleneck, you have to dig deep using the 5 Whys Framework.

The 5 Whys is a technique originally implemented by Sakichi Toyoda from Toyota Motors in the 1930s. It helped find the root cause of errors. Those findings were then leveraged to create systems that prevent future failures.

The trick is to keep asking “why” until we go beyond the symptoms and find the cause (the bottleneck). Then, when a potential bottleneck is found, we can implement the 5 Whys methodology to find the root cause. 

Let’s take a look at the 5 Whys in action:

Potential Productivity Bottleneck

We keep missing design deadlines, which makes the rest of the project late.

Q: Why did we miss our last deadline? 

A: Because each change I asked for took a full day to fix and review again.

Q: Why were so many changes needed? 

A: Because the work wasn’t complete.

Q: Why was the work incomplete? 

A: Because the necessary details were missing upfront.

Q: Why were the necessary details missing upfront? 

A: Because the Business Analyst in charge didn’t write complete design requirements.

Q: Why didn’t the Business Analyst write these requirements?

A: While they have experience writing business and technical requirements, they lack experience writing requirements for designers (and were never trained in that area). 

From there, we can move on to solving the core problem.

Handling Difficult to Find Bottlenecks

Sometimes it’s still not clear what the real problem is, even when you’ve identified a potential bottleneck. 

That’s where time tracking comes in.

Keeping track of where your time goes can be a powerful way to understand where bottlenecks are occurring. Each hour, log where your time went. 

When using time tracking to troubleshoot productivity, try to avoid big buckets like this:

  • Client calls and project work
  • Lunch
  • Q1 project work

Instead, break things down into more specific activities:

  • Client onboarding call 
  • Client status call for compliance update
  • Team call to discuss potential red flags with VIP clients 
  • Q1 project outline
  • Clarify Q1 project requirements with Sam

After doing this for at least a week, patterns and blind spots will become visible. As a result, you’ll be able to see what needs to change and what can be optimized. 

Toggl is wonderful for tracking time; especially when your productivity bottlenecks include team members or external stakeholders (like partners and clients). 

Making time tracking a regular habit will ensure that you always have data about how you spent your time that you can reference when needed.

Fixing Productivity Bottlenecks

The next step in the Theory of Constraints framework is fixing the productivity bottleneck.

Example

Greg is a team lead, but is also doing the actual work, so he becomes a bottleneck when things get busy.

Try to optimize the bottleneck

  • What if Greg started with the smaller, easier tasks that take less time? 
  • Will changing the order of any of his tasks make an impact?

Eliminate key parts

Look at each of the things that Greg is doing. 

  • Is every step necessary? 
  • Can any be removed completely? 
  • Can any be moved to another time in the process?

Reuse existing resources

  • Can someone else on the team do any of the tasks that Greg is doing? 
  • Is Greg the most efficient person at each one of those things? 
  • Can working together with another team member on a specific step speed up results?

Cheatsheet: Common Bottlenecks (and Fixes) in Remote Work 

Everyone’s bottlenecks will be unique. However, here are common bottlenecks that tend to slow down remote working companies the most:

  • Slow-Moving paperwork
  • Inefficient communication
  • Lack of transparency

Slow-Moving Paperwork

Start by identifying any paperwork that’s not currently being managed digitally. Non-digital paperwork is slow and error prone, so it’s a great place to focus first.

Using Docsketch for electronic signatures can speed up internal and external paperwork like:

  • Legal agreements and contracts
  • HR paperwork
  • Sales contracts and estimates

Docsketch saves on time spent scanning, printing, and sending out documents. Over 3,000 businesses have used Docsketch to speed up their sales and HR documents.

As a bonus, Docsketch provides legally valid e-signatures, detailed audit files, and instant view/complete notifications.

Inefficient Communication

Communication problems have a bigger impact in remote companies than companies where everyone is located in the same place.

Think about your processes and where you have a lot of back-and-forth communication. 

Here are a few simple (but not always easy) ways to fix communication slowdowns:

  • Better upfront planning and documentation
  • More frequent check-ins (instead of at the end of a project)
  • Ensuring all team members are properly trained early on
  • Use screenshots and videos to clarify instructions (tools like CloudApp and Loom can help)

Lack of Transparency

Sometimes you’re not attacking one big productivity bottleneck, but many small ones.

Here are some tools that can help you get several quick, just-in-time (JIT) productivity wins:

  • I Done This: Simple, daily remote team check-ins. We use this at Docsketch and it’s hard to think of operating without it.
  • 15Five: Continuous employee/team feedback software. Once a company gets to a certain size, it can benefit from using software for employee feedback.
  • Lighthouse: One-on-one meeting software. We rely on one-on-one meetings to keep everything running smoothly in our own company.
  • Slack: Group or team chat where communication is visible and available to everyone. 

Remain Vigilant

Once you have fixed a productivity bottleneck, you’ll want to continue identifying and revisiting bottlenecks.

As the saying goes, “old habits die hard.” You might find that some bottlenecks you previously solved will reappear, maybe in a slightly different form.

By checking for bottlenecks frequently, you’ll be able to catch productivity problems. As a result, your company will become more efficient and run more smoothly.

March 5, 2020