No matter what industry you work in, there is often scope for boosting overall performance. A great way of doing this is to identify and eliminate "bottlenecks," or things that are holding you back.
But how do you identify these bottlenecks?
One approach is to use the Theory of Constraints (TOC). This helps you identify the most important bottleneck in your processes and systems, so that you can deal with it and improve performance.
Understanding the Theory
You've likely heard the adage, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," and this is what the Theory of Constraints reflects. It was created by Dr Eli Goldratt and was published in his 1984 book "The Goal."
According to Goldratt, organizational performance is dictated by constraints. These are restrictions that prevent an organization from maximizing its performance and reaching its goals. Constraints can involve people, supplies, information, equipment, or even policies, and can be internal or external to an organization.
The theory says that every system, no matter how well it performs, has at least one constraint that limits its performance – this is the system's "weakest link." The theory also says that a system can have only one constraint at a time, and that other areas of weakness are "non-constraints" until they become the weakest link.
You use the theory by identifying your constraint and changing the way that you work so that you can overcome it.
The theory was originally used successfully in manufacturing, but you can use it in a variety of situations. It's most useful with very important or frequently-used processes within your organization.
Applying the Theory
Let's look at a step-by-step process for using the theory:
Step 1: Identify the Constraint
The first step is to identify your weakest link – this is the factor that's holding you back the most.
Start by looking at the processes that you use regularly. Are you working as efficiently as you could be, or are there bottlenecks – for example, because your people lack skills or training, or because you lack capacity in a key area?
Here, it can help to use tools like Flow Charts, Swim Lane Diagrams,Storyboarding, and Failure Modes and Effects Analysis to map out your processes and identify what's causing issues. You can also brainstorm constraints with team members, and use tools like the 5 Whys Technique and Root Cause Analysis to identify possible issues.
Remember that constraints may not just be physical. They can also include intangible factors such as ineffective communication, restrictive company policies, or even poor team morale.
Also bear in mind that, according to the theory, a system can only have one constraint at a time. So, you need to decide which factor is your weakest link, and focus on that. If this isn't obvious, use tools like Pareto Analysis or Queuing Models to identify the constraint.
Step 2: Manage the Constraint
Once you've identified the constraint, you need to figure out how to manage it. What can you do to increase efficiency in this area and cure the problem? (Goldratt calls this "exploiting the constraint.")
Your solutions will vary depending on your team, your goals, and the constraint you're trying to overcome. For example, it might involve helping a team memberdelegate work effectively, modifying lunch breaks or vacation time to make workflow more efficient, or reorganizing the way that a task is done to make it more efficient.
Here, it's useful to review approaches used in Lean Manufacturing, Kanban, Kaizen, and the 5S System to see if these can help you manage your constraint.
Again, you'll also find it useful to brainstorm possible solutions with people in your team, and to use problem-solving tools such as the Five Whys and Cause and Effect Analysis to identify the real issues behind complex problems.
Step 3: Evaluate Performance
Finally, look at how your constraint is performing with the fixes you've put into place. Is it working well? Or is it still holding back the performance of the rest of the system?
If the constraint is still negatively affecting performance, move back to step 2. If you've dealt with the constraint effectively, you can move back to step 1 and identify another constraint.
Remember that the theory says that every process has at least one constraint. While this may be true, be sensible in how you apply the theory – sometimes removing this constraint will have a minimal impact on performance.