Misaligned Efforts

In my extensive career as a data strategist, I’ve encountered too many cases where effort has been applied in the wrong areas.

People were desperate to adopt cutting-edge solutions like artificial intelligence and apply it to their companies.This often results in people investing in obvious, but not necessarily impactful initiatives and projects.

This misalignment of efforts can lead to resources being expended in areas that, while promising on the surface, do not contribute to the organization’s overarching goals.

In all cases, without exception, changing where the effort is applied made all the difference.

Here are some examples from my own experience:

Premature Optimization of Production Capacity

Let’s say you have a company that produces highly customized 3D printed pieces.

On day one, you have the capacity to produce an average of 200 pieces per day and you sell about 20 pieces per day, through your online shop.

You know your 3D processes are currently very inneficient, with slow print times and some wasted material. So you decide to improve on this process.

You focused your efforts into improving this process and after 30 days your technical team is proud to say that you are now capable of producing 275 units per day. That’s a 37.5% improvement, which is quite good.

However, at the end of the month, you have less money that you used to. Your investment had a cost, but you are still only selling 20 pieces a day. This happened because production capacity was not the limiting factor of the system.

Boosting Sales Without Capacity

Now let’s take the opposite example. You have 200 sales per day, but can only produce 20 pieces per day. Would you invest in creating more sales? Probably not.

If you don’t focus on increasing production, you are bound to have delayed orders and will most likely fail to deliver those orders, resulting in lost clients .

These examples, highlight a common pitfall: the rush to make improvements without a clear understanding on where to focus on often leads to misplaced efforts that fail to address the most impactful areas.

The Illusion of Improvement and the importance of focusing on the right thing

Focusing on the wrong thing, or even on the right thing at the wrong time is one of the top reasons why data science and AI projects fail.

Any improvements to what is not the real problem will most likely not yield positive results and might actually hinder the organization as a whole.

From early on, I’ve identified that knowing where to focus on was actually the most difficult thing for the organizations I’ve worked with. When these data and AI projects failed to deliver with expectations, it rarely due to technical problems, but instead due to focusing on the wrong problem.

Years later, I’ve found a theory that defends my ideas and while it was focused on manufactoring, I’ve realised that it can be easily applied to other industries as well.

The Theory of Constraints

The Theory of Constraints (TOC), developed by Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt, is a management philosophy that focuses on identifying and addressing the single most limiting factor (constraint) in achieving goals, thereby facilitating continuous improvement.

Like I said, TOC is usually applied to manufacturing, however, I believe its core concepts apply universally across sectors, providing a structured methodology to identify and systematically improve the primary limiting factor in any system.

Being able to identify and adress the primary bottleneck is critical in the realm of operational excellence and strategic growth.

However, a common pitfall many organizations fall into is the illusion of improvement - making enhancements in areas that are not the system’s current constraint. This not only results in wasted resources but can also inadvertently exacerbate the actual bottleneck, leading to a net negative impact on the organization.

TOC is grounded in a scientific methodology aimed at optimizing performance. It recognizes that whether in manufacturing, services, or any complex system, there are interconnected activities, with one acting as a constraint - a metaphorical weakest link in the chain.

A key attribute of TOC is its inherent ability to prioritize improvement initiatives, focusing squarely on the current bottleneck. This targeted approach is especially beneficial in environments where rapid enhancement is desired, providing a clear pathway to swift and meaningful progress.

Implementing TOC effectively yields significant advantages across any sector, including:

  • Increased Profit: The principal aim for utilizing TOC, aiming at financial growth.
  • Fast Improvement: By focusing on the critical constraint, rapid advancements are made.
  • Improved Capacity: Optimizing the constraint allows for increased throughput or service delivery.
  • Reduced Lead Times: Streamlined processes lead to quicker completion times.
  • Reduced Inventory (or Workload): In service industries, this translates to less work-in-process, enabling a more efficient operation.

TOC’s universal applicability makes it a powerful tool not just in manufacturing but in any organization looking to overcome operational hurdles and achieve strategic goals effectively.

Its core principle is disarmingly simple yet profoundly impactful: every system, regardless of its nature or industry, is limited in achieving more of its goals by a very small number of constraints. There is always at least one constraint, and TOC uses a focused process of identifying and addressing this constraint to drive improvement.

The Essence of TOC: A Laser-Focused Approach

At the heart of TOC lies the conviction that improving anything other than the system’s constraint is an illusion of progress. It’s akin to trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it faster; unless the hole is fixed, the effort is futile. This principle challenges the conventional multitasking approach to problem-solving, advocating instead for a laser-focused strategy that targets the system’s current bottleneck.

The Five Focusing Steps: A Blueprint for Continuous Improvement

The Five Focusing Steps of TOC provide a structured approach to identifying and overcoming constraints. This cyclical process ensures that once a constraint is resolved, the system doesn’t become complacent but instead looks for the next constraint to tackle. Here’s a closer look at each step:

  1. Identify: Pinpoint the system’s current constraint. This requires a deep understanding of the process and an ability to discern the bottleneck that is truly limiting throughput.

  2. Exploit: Optimize the constraint’s output with existing resources. Before considering any significant investment, the goal is to maximize what you already have.

  3. Subordinate: Align all other processes to support the needs of the constraint. This step ensures that the entire system works in harmony, focusing on supporting the constraint rather than outpacing it.

  4. Elevate: If the constraint still exists after optimization, consider actions to fundamentally change or elevate the constraint’s capacity. This may involve investment in new resources or technologies.

  5. Repeat: With the constraint addressed, the system’s throughput increases, and a new constraint will emerge. The process then starts anew, fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Types of Constraints

Constraints are essentially any obstacles that impede an organization’s journey towards achieving its objectives. In the context of manufacturing, these obstacles are commonly known as bottlenecks. However, constraints are not limited to physical impediments and can manifest in various forms. The categorization of constraints, although debated, is often delineated as follows:

PhysicalPrimarily includes equipment but also encompasses other tangible obstacles like material shortages, insufficient personnel, or limited space.
PolicyEncompasses formal and informal operational guidelines. Informal policies may be communicated to newcomers as the customary way of operation. This category includes organizational policies (e.g., calculations for lot sizes, bonus structures, overtime regulations), labor agreements (e.g., restrictions on cross-training due to union contracts), and statutory requirements (e.g., compulsory breaks).
ParadigmEntails deeply rooted assumptions or practices. An example is the conviction that maintaining continuous equipment operation is essential for minimizing manufacturing costs per unit. This type is closely related to policy constraints.
MarketArises when the organization’s production capabilities outstrip market demand, leading to sales becoming the bottleneck. In scenarios where the Theory of Constraints is systematically applied, the market often becomes the focal point of constraint over time.

Common challenges with TOC

While the TOC offers a powerful framework for identifying and addressing the primary limiting factors within a system, there are however some common challenges:

Over-simplification of complex systems

Challenge: Some critics argue that TOC oversimplifies complex systems by focusing on a single constraint, potentially overlooking the multifaceted and interconnected nature of modern organizational challenges.

Mitigation: While TOC emphasizes the importance of a singular constraint, it does not ignore the complexity of systems. Instead, TOC provides a structured approach to manage complexity effectively. By prioritizing efforts on the most critical limiting factor, organizations can achieve significant improvements without becoming paralyzed by complexity. Furthermore, the iterative nature of TOC - whereby the focus shifts to the next constraint once the current one is addressed - ensures a continuous and holistic approach to improvement.

Difficulty in Identifying the True Constraint

Challenge: Identifying the actual constraint in a complex system can be challenging, leading some to question the practicality of implementing TOC in real-world scenarios.

Mitigation: The challenge of identifying constraints is real, yet TOC offers tools and methodologies, such as the Five Focusing Steps, to systematically approach this challenge. It encourages a deep analysis of processes and systems, fostering a culture of ongoing assessment and reflection. Moreover, the application of TOC is not a one-time effort but a continuous process that adapts as the organization evolves, becoming more adept at recognizing constraints over time.

Resistance to Change

Challenge: Implementing TOC principles often requires significant changes in organizational processes and mindsets, potentially leading to resistance from stakeholders accustomed to traditional methods.

Mitigation: Resistance to change is a common challenge for any transformative initiative, not just TOC. Successful implementation of TOC principles involves effective communication, education, and engagement with stakeholders. Demonstrating quick wins and the direct benefits of addressing constraints can help overcome resistance. Additionally, involving teams in the process of identifying and addressing constraints fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to the change.

Applicability Across Different Industries

Critique: Critics sometimes question whether TOC, originally developed with manufacturing in mind, is applicable to service industries or knowledge work, where constraints are less tangible.

Counterargument: While TOC originated in manufacturing, its core principles are universally applicable across sectors. The concept of constraints extends beyond physical bottlenecks to include policy, paradigm, and market constraints. Adapting TOC to different contexts involves identifying the specific nature of constraints within those industries and applying the principles accordingly. Numerous case studies and examples demonstrate TOC’s successful application in healthcare, software development, and even education, proving its broad relevance.

Conclusion: The Power of Alignment

The Theory of Constraints, with its emphasis on identifying and addressing the primary limiting factor, has been a cornerstone of my approach as a data strategist. It has not only informed my analysis of failed AI projects but also shaped my understanding of how to achieve sustainable success across various industries. By focusing on the true bottleneck and aligning efforts accordingly, organizations can unlock their full potential, paving the way for growth and improvement that is both impactful and enduring.