In a Sticky Situation?

Waiting for approvals. Typing three-page emails. Falling behind because employees don't have the materials or information they need.

Workplace stalls come in all shapes and sizes. But whatever form they take in your organization, one thing's for sure--they're bad for business!

The people in your organization rely on one another to get work done. Collaboration allows them to create solutions that extend beyond any single person's vision and abilities.

But when individuals, teams or departments don't collaborate effectively, work piles up. Deadlines get tighter. Frustrations mount. Your company can find itself with a real "sticky situation"--namely, a workplace bottleneck.

How do you get things unstuck? Use these tips to spot and remove bottlenecks--and greatly improve your workflow:

Collaboration allows them to create solutions that extend beyond any single person's vision and abilities.

Identify them.

You can't fix what you haven't identified. So, bring all the players involved in a particular process together (department heads, outside consultants, recruiters, vendors, etc.) to figure out quickly what is broken and where the bottlenecks are. Use sticky notes or a whiteboard to plot the entire process, looking for problem areas.

Ask yourself, "What would work better?" "Why does the process stall here?" "Can we eliminate this step?" "How can we do this more efficiently?"

Get rid of them.

Once you have identified the areas that need improvement, work to remove or manage the bottlenecks. Here are some tips to help get you started:

The best way to eliminate bottlenecks is by keeping them from happening in the first place.
  • Eliminate time-consuming dependencies.
    Are you overly dependent on others to get your work done? Are others too dependent upon you to get their jobs done? Do you have the power to make appropriate decisions, or have you delegated that power to others? The key is to give the appropriate levels of decision-making responsibilities to the appropriate people. Removing interdependencies will benefit your company by speeding up your processes.

  • Cross-train.
    Are you a bottleneck yourself? Do you need additional training or experience to help you function more effectively in your present job? If so, ask for it. If you are a manager, consider cross-training all your direct reports. Cross-training promotes collaboration because all employees understand the scope of a particular job, including how it impacts other jobs in the department or company. When you cross-train, one employee can jump into another's role and help out when needed. The process better equips your organization to keep work flowing--even when employees are absent and workloads are high.

  • Set achievable deadlines and stick to them.
    When establishing a process or coordinating a project, get buy-in on all due dates from all participants. Once buy-in has occurred, nail down commitments, write down responsibilities and deadlines, and then thank everyone for their pledge. Work to ensure that committed deadlines are met, through either a series of reminders, status updates, or collaboration software. Some great ones to try include Basecamp and AceProject.

  • Accept partial delivery.
    Some people are perfectionists, and they have a hard time letting go of their part of a project or process. Left unmanaged, that perfectionism can slow down workflow. So set proper expectations from the beginning. Explain what you need--at a minimum--to keep projects and processes moving forward. Let people know that you can take incomplete information until the complete information is available. If this approach does not alleviate the bottleneck, escalate the problem to a higher level in order to better negotiate a solution.

Prevent them.

The best way to eliminate bottlenecks is by keeping them from happening in the first place. Use these tips to prevent stalls and time-wasters that can gum up your company's gears:

  • Keep an organized workspace.
    We spend 10 minutes every day looking for lost items. That adds up to almost an hour a week! Require your employees to keep an organized work area so that needed data and materials are at their fingertips. To increase compliance, schedule organizational time for employees each week, and recognize individuals who do a great job keeping their work and work spaces in order.

  • Focus on communication.
    In a collaborative environment, communication is key. If there are issues that preclude you or your team from meeting deadlines, make an appointment with your supervisor and have a candid discussion about ways you can be more efficient. Processes may simply need to be tweaked. Signing authority might need to be decentralized. If there is something that is missing or broken in your collaborative process, open communication is the first step in fixing it.

  • Hire high-performing employees.
    When you focus on those employees who have a track record of performing at the highest levels, you inherently remove bottlenecks created by underperforming employees.

  • Utilize staffing firms.
    Every process, no matter how well it seems to perform, has at least one bottleneck. Some employees do not have needed skills; people call in sick; large projects can outstrip the resources of your core staff. When you feel the gears slowing down, staffing firms can provide the workers you need to get and keep everything humming.

Bottlenecks at work are like traffic jams: they can bring everything to a standstill. The "traffic jams" in your workplace will continue to occur until you do something about it. Pinpoint that recurring "thing" that halts your work and put energy into eliminating it. You'll improve the process, alleviate countless headaches and provide value to the company.