The Theory of Constraints says that the path to improvement in an organization is not to make improvements everywhere. Instead, TOC says to find the constraint in your process and focus your improvements on that step in the process. Once you have improved throughput for that step, then find the next constraint. By working on one constraint at a time, you are able to focus your efforts and immediately raise the level of system performance.
To find and break the constraint, use these five focusing steps.
- Identify the constraint.
- Decide how to exploit the constraint.
- Subordinate everything else to the decision in Step 2.
- Elevate the constraint.
- Go back to Step 1, but avoid inertia.
Let’s look at these steps in more detail and see how William Dettmer explains this method to find and break constraints.
1. Identify the constraint. First examine the system and look for the weakest link. Which step in the process needs to be changed? It could be a physical constraint. Or the constraint could be a policy that is constraining the flow of work.
2. Decide how to exploit the constraint. Before you make any changes to the configuration of the constraint, find every way you can to extract efficiency from the constraint in its current configuration. If the constraint is a machine you might do things like eliminate idle time, do preventive maintenance at night, and make sure that all inputs to the machine meet your quality standard. If the constraint were a sales coordinator, you would give non-sales coordination tasks to other people and you would make sure that all sales opportunities going to the sales coordinator are high quality.
3. Subordinate everything else. Once you’ve identified the constraint and have done everything you can to maximize efficiency in its current form, find ways to synchronize the other steps in the system with the constraint. Avoid producing more in other steps than the constraint can accommodate. You might have to let some machines be idle for part of the day. Or have some people at other steps in the system do other tasks for part of the day. Be forewarned, managers have been trained to maximize local efficiencies and so they find it difficult to subordinate to another step in the process.
4. Elevate the constraint. Now that you’ve done everything you can to make the constraint more efficient and subordinated everything else to the constraint, it’s time to re-evaluate. Have your actions so far been enough to break the constraint? Is the constraint you identified no longer limiting the performance of the system? If so, you can go to Step 5 and start looking for the next constraint to identify.
If the constraint you identified is still the weak link in the chain, then you can elevate the constraint by increasing its capacity. Investments to elevate the constraint could be to buy additional equipment or to add additional staff.
The reason we exploit the constraint before we elevate the constraint is that exploiting the constraint requires no additional investment. We simply wring as much efficiency as we can out of the constraint before spending any more money. Once all those efficiencies have been accomplished, then we can consider ways to spend more money on the constraint.
5. Go back to step one, but avoid inertia. Once you have broken the constraint, it’s time to go back to step one and identify the next constraint. Each time you break a constraint it’s important to avoid resting on your laurels. Avoid inertia by returning each time to step one.
Use the five focusing steps to focus on the really important tasks in your organization: the system’s constraint. Why is the constraint the most important target? Because the constraint sets the pace for the entire system. If you want to increase the pace of the system, you must increase the pace of the constraint.