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6 Process Bottleneck Examples and How to Fix Them

Laurie McLaughlin, Appian
April 19, 2023

If you asked anyone at your organization, there’s no question they could name at least one business process that needs streamlining—probably they could name several. That’s the hard truth for leaders looking to gain digital transformation speed in pursuit of critical business goals, like faster customer onboarding and faster time to market. Continued interest in process automation, also known as hyperautomation, reflects a strong desire to speed up processes and make them more agile, resilient, and compliant. But how do you uncover the places your processes are slowing down—the process bottlenecks? What are some typical examples of process bottlenecks, and how do your peers deal with them? 

Let’s examine common types of process bottlenecks and strategies and technologies to resolve them.

[ Learn how to successfully implement end-to-end process automation strategies. Get the Process Automation Guide. ]

What is a process bottleneck?

Every organization has workflows—sets of activities that lead to an individual business outcome. Woven together, these workflows become a business process. The terms process and workflow are quite similar and have been used interchangeably over the years, but today there’s general agreement that a process is an overall pattern of activities, while a workflow is a piece of that process. A bottleneck occurs when a business process slows down unintentionally, despite your team’s best efforts.

Organizations struggle with two types of bottlenecks. Short-term bottlenecks occur due to a temporary setback, such as a critical employee taking a vacation. A long-term bottleneck is a larger, more serious issue that slows down an entire process repeatedly. Both are important, but this article will focus on long-term bottlenecks. 

Consider these indications and warning signs that a process has a potential bottleneck:

  • A long completion time for one step in a process. 
  • Lengthy wait times between steps in a process.
  • Frequent re-working of process steps. 
  • Significant variability in process completion times.
  • Teams working at or over maximum capacity.
  • Frequent communication breakdowns.

Process bottleneck examples.

If those factors sound familiar, your teams are likely struggling with bloated or broken processes—and could be for a long, costly period of time until you optimize the processes. 

What does a process bottleneck in business look like in action? Perhaps you have encountered some of these six examples:

  • Employee onboarding takes too long, requires too many follow-up emails, and does not feel smooth to the new employee. Meanwhile, the related, repetitive work requires too much time from IT, finance, and HR teams.
  • Accounting processes involve many “swivel the chair” moments where a team member needs to seek out another person to fill in information in order to advance the work product.
  • Vehicle fleet management work involves paper processes and manual signoffs, costing a shipping company time and money.
  • Federal agency acquisition of goods and services slows down when a new rule goes into effect affecting this highly-regulated process, delaying critical goals.
  • Banking customer onboarding slows down due to new regulations designed to combat fraud and money laundering. This becomes a competitive disadvantage for the bank when its rivals whisk customers through the onboarding process faster, while staying compliant.
  • Optimizing manufacturing production of the right amount of goods at a particular plant, improving cycle times, and reducing production slowdowns.

[ For more process bottleneck examples in manufacturing, telecommunications, retail, and transportation, read also: Supply Chain Automation Examples from 4 Industries. ]

How to fix process bottlenecks.

When your organization is facing speed bumps, compliance risks, or employee burnout due to inefficient processes, it’s time to consider process bottleneck analysis and automation tools. It’s critical to take the proper steps with the right tools to make process improvements and prevent future bottlenecks.

Process bottleneck analysis.

Process bottleneck analysis will help you get to the root causes of your process inefficiencies. Not only in heavily regulated industries but also in most enterprises, data hides in many silos. Siloed data can be inaccessible to certain people and teams, which makes it hard to discern where the process slowdowns and twists happen. This is where process mining tools come into play to help you see what’s actually happening and analyze how to improve upon it.

[ For advice on doing this analysis, read also: How to Complete a Bottleneck analysis in 5 Steps. ]

Process mining tools.

Without going deep into how process mining works, this process analytics toolset delivers transparency into your business processes plus related insights and a path to corrective action. It interprets event logs from software you’re using and presents a visual representation of the entire business process and areas that need optimization, making it an essential bottleneck analysis tool. Process mining also enables continuous improvement—an important goal at many organizations.

[ Want an in-depth explanation of process mining strategy and tools? Get the Process Mining Guide eBook. ]

Process automation platform.

A modern platform for process automation enables you to do process mining, then apply a variety of technologies like robotic process automation (RPA), intelligent document processing (IDP), workflow orchestration, and artificial intelligence (AI) to optimize your processes. 

Make sure to choose a solution that has the workflow orchestration layer; it’s not a given and it proves essential for smooth handoffs between humans and software bots. You’ll also need a strong data architecture, so seek out a process automation platform with data fabric capabilities. A data fabric connects data sets across disparate software systems, whether they’re on-premises or in the cloud, ending data silo headaches and improving security and compliance as you scale automation. 

A process automation platform also offers flexibility to add and orchestrate future automation technologies, such as data or natural language processing (NLP) tools, that you decide to add down the road.

Learn how to successfully implement process automation strategy and tools. Get the Process Automation Guide eBook.