How Walmart “feeds the bottleneck”

By | November 18, 2013

Walmart produce

Vegetable pricing machine. I was walking through Walmart the other day and saw this simple machine that weighs and prices veggies and fruits. On the surface it seems simple enough – shoppers can price their produce, and save time at check out.  To this consultant’s mind, it was a prime example of how Walmart is “feeding the bottleneck” to improve the throughput of people shopping at their stores. Produce pricing is cumbersome, and takes a lot of time at check out.

Theory of Constraints (TOC) was made famous by the  book, The Goal (affiliate link). It’s a no-nonsense approach to improving flow. Namely, you look for things that slow down or stop flow – because that is where you should focus your attention.

In the Walmart example, the veggies and fruit are the bottleneck because it takes time for the cashier to look up the SKU, guess the price etc. We have all been stuck behind the person with a basket full of loose vegetables, waiting and waiting.

In my experience, we see all kind of things inhibiting flow: old equipment, antiquated policies, poorly training, manual processes, data quality, and poor communication.

  • Whatever the constraint, you need to get rid of it.
  • Whatever the bottleneck, you need to keep the bottleneck busy.
  • The rate of your business is the rate of the bottleneck, everything is waiting around.


Doctors. The biggest constraint at the doctor’s office will be the physician. As such, It’s important to keep the doctor busy – even if it means queuing patients in separate rooms. Feed the bottleneck.

Lawyers. Same thing goes with a law office. It’s the office manager’s job to make sure that the paralegals and assistants keep the flow of work piling up at the lawyer’s desk. The most valuable resource (often the slowest, or the least available) should not be idle. Feed the bottleneck. At the very least, it’s fun to think of the boss (lovingly) as the bottleneck.

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3 thoughts on “How Walmart “feeds the bottleneck”

    1. Doug

      I meant Oncken and Wass with commentary by Covey, of course. Bottlenecking and monkey care, I love it when businessfolk resort to the use of poetic analogy to analyze, assess, and come up with solutions for their problems. Just another reason why we should not be cutting art, music, expression from our schools’ curricula.

      1. consultantsmind Post author

        Thanks Doug. Completely agree that talking about business things – or otherwise – without putting it in terms the audience can understand or care about is, well, boring. Also agree that the idea of cutting the arts from public school curricula is short-sighted and dumb. So much of innovation is the cross-breeding of ideas and meshing of seemingly disparate things. The idea that innovation is when ideas have sex:

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