The Goal of Process Improvement

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The theory of constraints builds off the weakest link proverb to help you identify the weakest link in a process. By fixing that link, you can strengthen the entire process. The theory of constraints (TOC) is a problem-solving methodology to help you identify the most important bottleneck or limiting factor standing in the way of your objectives and goals.

The TOC was introduced in The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. The book focuses on bottlenecks during manufacturing and operations processes and suggests the theory of constraints as the biggest limiting factor preventing companies from achieving their goals.

According to the theory, a constraint is the number one limiting factor that prevents or slows throughput. Using the TOC isn’t about finding any constraint, it’s about finding the biggest blocker or bottleneck in the entire system and solving that constraint.

Once you identify and resolve the biggest constraint, you improve the process and hit their goals faster, better, and more effectively. After you solve the first constraint, there will be a new biggest constraint. You can then work to iteratively address that constraint, and so on.

A constraint can show up in any element of a project or process—from the planning process to the implementation process, or even within the project team itself. Understanding the different types of system constraints can help you better identify them later on.

– Policy constraint example: Company procedures are reducing velocity or increasing manual, duplicative work. (Policy constraints are the most common constraints that show up during a project or process.)
– Internal constraint example: Team members don’t have the specific skills.
– Market constraint example: There is less supply for the product than anticipated or is ideal.
– Resource constraint example: There are fewer resources, tools, or team members available for your project compared to what’s required by your resource management plan.
– Financial constraint example: There is an unexpected lack of capital to invest in a project.
– Culture constraint example: A project isn’t efficient or effective due to a bad process (especially a process that’s explained away as “how things are done here”).

Goldratt’s theory of constraints is an effective way to identify and improve upon inefficient processes by resolving any bottlenecks or issues.

You might use the theory of constraints to:

– Improve ongoing processes with significant business impact
– Respond to a disappointing product roll out or missed company goal
– Empower a team to improve while only using what they already have (and without additional investment or team members)
– Anticipate and solve potential problems for key projects
– Supplement the project risk management process

Identify and address a constraint using the Five Focusing Steps.

Step 1: Identify the project’s main constraint

To kick off the five focusing steps, start by looking for the bottleneck. This could be the process that takes the longest, the person or process that’s holding your project back, or the biggest risk for your project to succeed.

Step 2: Exploit the constraint

During step two, you will exploit the constraint while using resources you already have. One of the benefits of using the theory of constraints is it helps you minimize any additional investments or needs. At this stage, ask yourself: how can you maximize your constraint with what you already have available? If you successfully solve the constraint so that it is no longer the top limiting factor, that’s called “breaking” the constraint.

Step 3: Subordinate everything to the constraint

During this step, elevate the constraint to make sure everything in the project is supporting your proposed fix to the constraint. Subordinating means making sure everything that’s less important than that constraint is following suit. Keep in mind that the constraint you’re solving for is the biggest bottleneck or blocker, so everything else in the project is, by definition, less important.

Step 4: Alleviate the constraint

This step is only required if you have yet to fix the constraint. At this point, if the constraint is a serious blocker, consider bringing in more resources to fix the problem.

Step 5: Repeat as needed

You’ve solved the biggest limiting factor for your project. Congratulations! Now that you’ve solved the biggest constraint, the second biggest limiting factor is now the biggest constraint. If necessary, go through the process again to solve that constraint, and so on.

The theory of constraints is a great way to mitigate risks and improve bottlenecks on existing projects. If you’re feeling stalled on project improvement efforts, consider using the theory of constraints to identify the biggest limiting factor. Then, use the five focusing steps to solve the constraint. With the theory of constraints, you can continuously evolve your projects and processes in order to get your highest-impact work done.

From Asana, by Julia Martins; June 10, 2022