In 1984, Dr Eliyahu Goldratt authored what is now known as the “Theory of Constraints” or TOC for short. At first glance, TOC is a simple (but elegant) concept that suggests every manufacturing system is limited by its most significant constraint, or put another way, can move only as fast as its weakest link. The school of thought goes on to say that all improvement efforts must be focused only on that limiting factor, otherwise the aforementioned constraint will remain the problem and no gain will be made. Think of it like moving deck chairs on a sinking ship.
While I’ve hardly scratched the surface of TOC thinking, I think this broad understanding offers an important insight: Our fixation on constraint removal is often our default way of thinking. We look at a problem, isolate what we believe to be the constraint and seek to eliminate it. For example, if one provides a budget or timeline for a task, how often is the first reaction an attempt to expand the limits? Or on a larger scale, if the challenge is to increase revenue within a professional services firm, the constraint is quickly identified as one of the immediate limits – the hourly rate, the number of hours worked or hours billed – and so we respond by raising the hourly rate, focus on time management, or if we believe the market is the constraint, (so I can’t charge more) we simply work more.
It seems to me this pattern of “constraint removal”, while very applicable in a manufacturing environment, has overflowed the boundaries of efficiency and has leaked so far into our thinking it may be harming effectiveness. We have developed a habit of responding to constraints by blaming them — the budget is too small, there is no way to complete the project in that amount of time, the resources for this project are too limited. What began as naturally seeking to remove a limiting factor, has become a conditioned response.
What would happen, if instead of seeking to eliminate constraints, we embraced them. What if instead of saying, “You need to increase the budget,” we asked, “How can we do more within this budget?” Instead of saying, “I need more time,” we said, “I need to find a new way.” Instead of pushing the boundaries, we would be pushing ourselves, which underscores the danger of being able to remove boundaries — it can provide an opening for complacency. That is, we can begin to lose the grit and determination in life that constraints provide. Just look back at the past accomplishments you are proudest of. Among them, you will likely see a pattern of behavior similar to this: your determination meets a barrier, your persistence and innovation creates achievement. In short, boundaries create the motivation it takes to overcome them.
Constraints have been and always will be the guard rails that force creativity, innovation and better performance. And while seeking to remove constraints may lead to efficiency, if our response to a challenge is to always avoid it, efficient or not, it will be a short matter of time until we simply run out of roads we can take.