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Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


A fresh take on the theory of constraints (TOC)

On my flight home yesterday, I wanted to reconnect with the Theory of Constraints (TOC) for a project I'm working on and decided to re-read "Critical Chain" by Eliyahu Goldrat.

A few days ago, I posted some thoughts about TOC along with a recommended reading list I built on Amazon. However, after revisiting Critical Chain, I've decided I want to modify my "first book to read" recommendation.

If you want to get indoctrinated into the Theory of Constraints, start with Critical Chain. It presents a concise, very readable, and very applicable primer on TOC and shows how the thinking processes of TOC can be applied to many different personal and business situations.

Essentially, it's about how productivity of an overall system is governed by its weakest link. It discusses how to systematically identify the weak link (the constraint), exploit the constraint to make it as efficient and productive as possible, subordinate all other activities so they never outpace the constraint, then elevating the constraint to improve its capacity.

As you continue to elevate the constraint, you reach a point where you see no top level system benefit from improving the constraint. This indicates that that particular process/activity is no longer the weakest link, so you start over again.

I got energized reading this - why not give it a whirl yourself?

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Cosmic nudging

OK, so stick with me on the following sequence:

  1. A couple of days ago, Bren (Slacker Manager) wrote about a "cosmic nudge" that caused him and me to listen to the same audio book at about the same time. 
  2. Today, I found out that my friend Gene Kim just finished reading the same book, "Leadership and Self Deception."
  3. Today, I re-read Bren's post and noticed that he also mentioned Eli Goldratt, of whom I'm a huge fan (I've read all of his books, along with related works).
  4. Even freakier: as part of some research and "evangelization" of IT best practices we're working on, the aforementioned Gene Kim talked with Goldratt a few months ago
  5. Here's where the nudge comes to fruition: I've had an article on Goldratt fermenting in my drafts folder for about 6 weeks, but haven't gotten around to finishing it up.

Consider me nudged. Here is the article, in all its obtuse glory:

Back in the 80's, I read a book called "The Goal" by Eliyahu Goldratt. It is a "business novel" used to discuss Goldratt's "Theory of Constraints" model for productivity and throughput (keep in mind, this is not about individual throughput - rather, it's about the throughput of systems and processes).

Goldratt's theory (called TOC by us fans) is very complex, and was originally written about in very sterile, technical papers. It was geared toward optimizing manufacturing processes, but Goldratt recognized that it had applicability in many other aspects of business.

Back when Goldratt began writing about this stuff, he held what were considered to be contrarian views about process optimization, inventory, and other aspects of manufacturing resource planning. I found his analysis and premises to be very intriguing and, even though I'm a software guy and not a manufacturing person, in the last 20 years or so I have found that his concepts apply to lots of other contexts if you squint just right.

For example, one of the core assertions of Goldratt is that achieving "local optima" within a system will not optimize the system's throughput. Instead, you have to find the system's constraint (or bottleneck) and elevate it by subordinating all other parts of the system to the constraint.

The premise: throughput of the system can never exceed the capacity of the bottleneck, so what's the point in optimizing the usage of non-bottleneck resources?

Goldratt's principle follows a methodical approach to resolve constraints, at which point you always uncover another bottleneck. So, the cycle repeats as each bottleneck is discovered and resolved.

You can adapt this philosophical approach to many things, such as personal workflow - at any given time, there is probably one key bottleneck preventing you from optimizing your effectiveness. Focus on it and subordinate all other activities until it's resolved, then rinse and repeat.

If you are a GTD follower, your constraint is probably one of your next actions that you've either neglected or have failed to articulate. OK, so maybe I'm stretching it a bit, but I'm one of those people who looks for patterns all over the place (which, of course, means I find them).

If you're interested in more about the Theory of Constraints, check out this link to my top 8 list of TOC books, listed in the order I recommend.

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