Theory of Constraints

Otis Redding wrote the song “Respect” in 1965.  Aretha Franklin made it mainstream in 1967.

Respect is clearly important.  Most people, I think, want to be able to both give and get respect.  But giving and getting respect is not easy.  Indeed, some of our most painful moments may come when we recognize that we are not respected, or when we fail to respect other people.

One of the times when we can fail to either earn or show respect is when we are responding to an idea.  We respond to ideas all the time.

For example, when you submit a resume to a company in hopes of landing a job, you’re really presenting them with an idea (“You should hire me!”)  How they respond to that idea is almost certainly going to change how you view that company.  If they treat you with real respect, even if they don’t offer you a job, you’ll probably still respect them.  But if they treat you like dirt, well, then you’ll probably have a very negative view of that company going forward.

Of course, if you’re part of an organization, you will both offer ideas and be asked to respond to ideas.  I think all of us have been in situations where someone has come to us with an idea and we hesitate to give them a response.  Why do we hesitate?  As it turns out, there’s a good reason for it!

And finally, what if you are in the position of wanting to offer an idea to someone else?  Maybe someone you really care about, someone who you desperately want to help.  In these situations, offering an idea can carry all kinds of risk.  One of the risks is emotional.  It can hurt when we offer what we believe is an excellent idea only to have it ignored or rejected out of hand.

My good friend Mike Round sent me this poem,  Please check it out, paying special attention to the last two lines:

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven
by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I believe that how we respond to the ideas people bring to us has a huge effect on our personal success and the satisfaction we receive from our work.  If we respond to ideas in a good way we will greatly improve our interpersonal relationships and, ultimately, come to earn real respect from others.  On the other hand, if we respond poorly to ideas offered to us, is it surprising that we would not gain the respect of others?

I think this subject is also important in being able to understand how people will often react to ideas we bring to them.  While I don’t think we can completely eliminate the sting of having our ideas ignored by someone we are trying to help, understanding what’s going on under the surface can help us to properly process the situation and ultimately let go of our anger.

Dr. Goldratt shares his insightful analysis of this subject in his “Satellite Series” of presentations. He did this set of presentations years ago but I still find them invaluable. If you have the opportunity to do so, I think they are worth seeing.

So what is it that makes giving a proper response to an idea so difficult? It is that responding to an idea usually puts us into a conflict (a dilemma.)

Let’s say that you want to respond in the best possible way to ideas that people bring to you. What does it really mean to respond “in the best way?”

Dr. Goldratt identified two necessary conditions.

The first necessary condition for a good response is to ensure that if the idea is implemented, it will not lead to negative outcomes. Said differently, if the idea is implemented, it must bring about a net improvement in the performance of the system itself.

The second necessary condition is that a good response cannot hurt, or damage, the relationships between the person bringing the idea (the “inventor”) and the person to whom the idea is being presented (the “evaluator.”)

Is it clear that we have to achieve both of these conditions in order to be “giving a good response” to someone’s idea? Allowing bad ideas to be implemented cannot be said to be giving a good response. And yet, at the same time, offending someone who is simply trying to help improve the system is also not a good response.

If people always brought us good ideas, there would be no conflict, no dilemma, no problem to speak of. But isn’t it almost always the case that when someone brings us an idea, we have some reservations about it? Maybe we believe that implementing the idea would lead to some bad things, but we can’t immediately say what those bad things are. And even if we can identify some concerns regarding the idea, aren’t we very careful about how we share our concerns with the inventor? Why are we careful? Why do we try to choose exactly the right words? Because we care about the relationship with the inventor. We recognize that he or she might have spent weeks, months or even years thinking about the idea. So we treat it with great care.

Dr. Goldratt has said that “Ignoring a person’s idea is a rude form of disrespect.” I fully agree with this.

If you disagree, please consider the “Town Hall” meetings that were held earlier this summer. Where is all of this anger coming from? I belive it is coming, in part, from a sense on the part of ordinary citizens that their government has not been listening to their ideas (their suggestions, their complaints) for many, many years. The citizens can see what’s happening. And yet, when they present their ideas and concerns, those ideas and concerns are largely ignored. The government, in other words, is responding in a way that is “a rude form of disrespect.”

When you want to share an idea with someone, is it fair to say that you are enthusiastic about the idea? Probably, and usually, the more you have thought and sweated over the idea and its details, the more enthusiastic you become. If the idea seems to be a good one, you might even take some big risks in terms of presenting the idea.

I once had a powerful idea for a client of mine. The idea was so good that I risked getting fired in order to present the idea to the client’s Executive Committee. Do you know how big a risk that was? I jumped about four levels in the command hierarchy to do that. It was a huge risk. Fortunately, the idea was so good that I did not lose my job as a result of it. But I still paid a high price for doing it. And I will probably never take such a risk again for that client.

As the inventor, not only will you often be enthusiastic, but you will often tend to focus on the benefits of implementing the idea (“This is going to be so great ….”) and you will tend to be blind to any problems that would result by implementing the idea. When people ignore the negative ramifications of their ideas, we often call this “hand waving.” It means not giving a satisfactory answer to a perceived problem with the idea.

If inventors are usually blind to the problems that their ideas will create, then when someone brings you an idea, it’s quite likely that you will recognize those negatives. You will, in fact, have valid reasons for wanting to criticize the idea.

And yet, if the inventor is enthusiastic about the idea and expects that it will bring big benefits, then he or she is almost certainly expecting to be praised for the idea. When presenting the idea the inventor does not expect to be criticized; he or she expects profuse thanks.

So now the final elements of the confict are clear. When someone brings you an idea, it’s often the case that you find yourself having to criticize the idea and, at the very same time, praise it. Criticize the idea so that the negative aspects of it are identified and hopefully corrected. Praise it in order to maintain good relations with the inventor of the idea.

It might seem as if there is no solution to this dilemma. Isn’t praising something exactly the reverse of criticizing it?

As he always does, Dr. Goldatt has a solution to this dilemma. I’ll talk about that solution in my next blog post. Perhaps, in the mean time, you can think of your own solutions to this dilemma.


I have said for years that TOC applies to software engineering, even once going so far as to write a somewhat tedious article (warning: pdf) on applying the Evaporating Cloud to software engineering. In fact, I once showed it to a really bright guy who is now the CEO of a respectable company.  He said, “It’s good, but you didn’t give the answers.”  Perhaps that shows the degree to which I missed the mark.  The paper wasn’t about giving answers to specific problems in software engineering; it was about sharing a general technique for problem solving.  Oh well.

At any rate, here’s an interesting post and video for folks interested in Agile and systems improvement methodologies like TOC and Lean.

I think I delivered some shocking news at the Woodinville City Council meeting last night.

During Public Comment I shared some data provided by Realization on their website.  This data documents some of the successes organizations have had when they implement Critical Chain.  For the record, while I believe it’s fair to consider Realization as the top-tier provider of Critical Chain implementations, other companies and organizations that have implemented Critical Chain have reported similar results.

Here are some of the examples I shared last night, with results before and after Critical Chain implementation:

  1. Medtronic USA
    Before: 1 software release every 6 – 9 months.
    After:  1 software release every 2 months.
  2. Medtronic Europe
    Before: Average cycle time 18 months.
    After:  Average cycle time 9 months.
  3. Valley Cabinet Works
    Before: 200 projects / year
    After:  334 projects / nine months
  4. BHP Biliton
    Before: 25,800 man-hours to be completed in 8 months.  2 weeks late.
    After: 19,500 man-hours used.  Projects finished 3 weeks early.  25% productivity increase.
  5. HP Digital Camera Group
    Before: 6 cameras launched per year; only 1 on time
    After: 15 cameras launched per year; all were on time; R&D 25% lower

When you’re inside an organization like the City of Woodinville and enmeshed in the day to day affairs of the City, it’s easy to believe that big jumps in the performance of the organization are not possible.   And so perhaps it’s a bit shocking when reality proves that other organizations, far more complex than yours, have made big jumps in their performance.

Please note that Realization provides many customer testimonials in video format on their website.  If you want to see some of the full presentations you can contact me.  For a period of time, Realization was giving away DVD sets from their yearly conference.  I have some of those for recent years.

On a related note, the Japanese Government’s Public Works reform, for example, has mandated that all contractors working for the Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transportation must use Critical Chain.

You can also find references to Critical Chain in the Project Management Institute’s “Project Management Body of Knowledge,” also known as the “PMBOK.”  It’s important to understand, however, that because Critical Chain’s “new rules” for managing projects sometimes clash with what PMI has been preaching for many, many years, PMI is not yet embracing Critical Chain as vigorously as (in my opinion) they should.

Finally, I can give you a personal data point.  When I have used Critical Chain to manage projects it has always worked “as advertised.”  It’s hard to put into words the level of focus that Critical Chain (and Buffer Management, which is a critical-but-sometimes-overlooked aspect of Critical Chain) brings to project planning and execution.

I shared this data with the Council last night.  I asked them to look in to Critical Chain.  My hope is that some of them will do this.  If they do, I think they will find that the City of Woodinville could complete projects in about 2/3rd’s the time that those projects would take if managed as projects are managed today within the City.

Finding success stories on Critical Chain is not difficult.   Any City Council member that can use Google can find such results.

Understanding how Critical Chain delivers its improved performance is more challenging.  Council Members that want to understand how Critical Chain really works will have to invest a little “mental sweat equity” to do it.  However, once this investment is made, I think they will understand why I consider Critical Chain to be an integral part of the “pot of gold” that I believe is waiting to be claimed by any City Council Member (current or future) that is willing to do the hard work required to claim it.

I remember watching “I Love Lucy” when I was a young boy.  I was watching re-runs, but it was the mid-sixties and I have fond memories of watching that show, along with others, like “Andy Griffith” and the “Beverly Hillbillies” with my mom, whenever I was sick and staying home from school.

The video associated with this post is one of Lucy and Ethel working in a candy factory.  It’s a good video and I hope you’ll watch it.  If you do watch it, perhaps you will recognize some parallels to the subject of this post.

I’d like to offer you an alternative view of the City of Woodinville.  That view is of the City of Woodinville as a problem-solving machine (or problem-solving system, if you prefer.)

In my view, the City solves problems on behalf of its citizens. For example, let’s say that you are a citizen, and your neighbor is collecting junk cars and leaving them in his front yard. You may contact the City and ask them to do something about this problem of yours. If they solve it to your satisfaction, then the City acted in this instance essentially as your problem-solving machine. Of course, the City may have created a problem for your neighbor, but you are probably happy to have the issue resolved.

When I attend City Council meetings I see our good and capable Council Members working to solve problems on our behalf. I also see them interacting with a highly capable and involved City Staff.

The problem-solving machine today runs at some rate. Every so often, the machine takes a problem from a pile of problems waiting to be solved, chews on it for some period of time, and ultimately outputs something that we hope is a solution to the original problem.

Adopting this view of the City as a problem-solving machine allows us to ask some good questions:

  1. Is the machine running at a rate that is greater than the rate at which new problems arrive?
  2. How big is the current backlog of problems waiting to be solved?
  3. How good are the solutions that the machine generates for the problems it has solved?
  4. What steps are being taken to improve the performance of the machine?
  5. What’s the most important problem for the machine to work on?

It’s not my objective in this post to answer these questions.  However, I do want to offer the following.

First, there is a kind of “factory physics” that can be applied here.  That is, we already know some things that can be done to improve the performance of the problem-solving machine that is the City of Woodinville.  For example, we can recognize that the machine has only so much problem-solving capacity at any point in time.  By recognizing that we are talking about a finite-capacity system, we can start to think about how to make the best use of that capacity.

For example, consider the City Council as a group that has a large say in what problems the machine works on.  The Council can either direct the machine to work on very important problems, thereby making effective use of the capacity we have today, or they can choose to direct the machine to work on relatively less important problems, thereby wasting much of the available capacity.

I may be wrong but I think I sometimes see the City Council getting bogged down in issues that seem to be a poor use of their time.  For example, arguing over some minute aspect of some rule or regulation, when they could instead be using their available time working on more important questions.

What is a more important question — or problem — that the Council could choose to address?  Well, how about “How can we improve our performance as a ‘problem-solving machine’, as Sambrook calls it?”

It’s kind of like the case where someone gives you a magic lamp.  The genie from the lamp appears in a puff of smoke and tells you that you have three wishes.  What’s the first thing you should wish for?  My suggestion is to ask for an infinite number of additional wishes.

There is a little bit (understatement of the year) of stumbling block here:  Before anyone will ask — really ask — how the machine can be improved, they first have to believe that it’s actually possible to improve it.  I wonder how many Council Members — if any — really believe they can become better problem solvers.

This is also one of the reasons that I find chronic conflict to be such a damaging behavior.  If mutual trust and respect is required in order to be able to improve the machine, and if chronic conflict destroys mutual trust and respect, then how can an organization captured in a state of chronic conflict ever improve?

Is improvement necessary?  Absolutely.  And Dr. Deming (the man who “taught quality to the Japanese”) would certainly have agreed.  Dr. Deming invested much of his life working to improve organizations.  One of my favorite quotes of his is this:

“Change is not necessary.  Survival is not mandatory.”

I think this is a quote worth keeping in mind.  It’s time to stop believing that “Well, somehow, it will all work out.”  Rather, I think it’s time that we realize that 1) we are all in this together, and that 2) it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start fixing government from the bottom up.

Who’s with me?

Dr. Alistair Cockburn

Dr. Alistair Cockburn

Just a short note — and one that is not totally about the City of Woodinville.  I know that I have been on a tear on that score lately.  But I can’t help it — improving local government is important to me.

This note however is about some very good news.  In the latest edition of “Crosstalk” (Crosstalk is the “Journal of Defense Software Engineering”) Dr. Alistair Cockburn has written an article (“Spending Efficiency to Go Faster“) on how Theory of Constraints principles can be exploited to improve software engineering.

Many of my friends and clients are involved in the software engineering of complex systems.  They are recognizing, more and more, that the Theory of Constraints is a powerful tool for systems improvement.

Our ability to improve is unlimited.

A dilemma diagram (without injections) related to the sports field project in Woodinville

A dilemma diagram (without injections) related to the sports field project in Woodinville

Let’s say that you are a member of the City of Woodinville’s leadership team.  You’re either on the City Council or you hold a position of significant responsibility and authority within the City.

You also want to improve the City’s performance.  You want to see the City succeed.  You also want to make your own life more pleasant and satisfying.  Maybe you even want to improve the work environment for the many wonderful people employed by the City.  In short, you’re looking for a win-win-win:  A win for the citizens, a win for the staff and a win for yourself.

Is there an “open channel” to doing this?  Is it possible?

I believe it is possible and that the key to doing it is beginning to adopt more advanced problem-solving tools than are currently used.  This adoption — if it happens at all — would require a willingness on the part of the City Council to no longer accept the status quo as good enough.  Will that ever happen?  Beats me.

But do you know — really know — how much opportunity exists to improve the performance of the City?

In saying this I am not intending to criticize what is done today.  We have excellent people, at all levels, and they are doing all that they know how to do to generate good results.  I have no doubt of this.

That being said, it’s sometimes the case that new knowledge and new ways of doing things allows the performance of a system (the City of Woodinville is a system) to be dramatically increased in a very short amount of time.

Now, to get to the point of this post.  I’m starting to identify some of the dilemmas that I have claimed exist surrounding the sports field project that the City has had in-work (along with improvements to the Carol Edwards Center) since 1999 or so.  I am posting these dilemma diagrams on flickr.  Note that you want to look at the photos (diagrams) in their “large” size or download them in their large size to your computer.

I haven’t described dilemma diagrams in detail.  However, if you’re interested, you can find more information on them here and here.  And of course, if you want the in-depth how-to-do-it book, you can find that too on Amazon.

I will be making movies (probably somewhat like this one) explaining these dilemma diagrams and some of the other artifacts I create as I work on this issue.

In the meantime, people who want to do so can follow my work on flickr.

ss-7853536-potofgoldWe have an issue in Woodinville that has been unresolved for many years.  The issue is whether improvements should be made to a sports field located in downtown Woodinville.

Some folks think the fields should be improved.  Others do not.

The issue has been “in work” for a number of years — I don’t know how many, but I’d guess that it’s no less than five years, if you include the time invested in planning the improvements.

This issue has caused dissension among the members of the City Council and among citizens.  That isn’t good.  The degree to which dissension on the Council creates problems for all of us is also not generally understood.  But that’s a big topic and this post is going to be mercifully short.

The dissension over the sports fields is caused by a set of unresolved dilemmas.  These dilemmas are partially, and poorly, verbalized from time to time, and never in a form that enables a win-win resolution.

This should be no surprise — there is no one on the Council, or on the City Staff (to my knowledge) that really understands the process for generating win-win solutions to serious problems.

Don’t fault them for this.  It’s a rare skill.  The techniques for doing it have to be studied and then practiced.  And the years of strife on the Council have created walls of distrust that make the work even harder.

But here’s the deal.  Even if the sports field project is put to a vote and therefore, seemingly “resolved”, the issue won’t be truly resolved unless these underlying dilemmas are dealt with in a win-win manner.

Voting does not resolve dilemmas in a win-win way.  It creates winners and losers.  That is the problem with it.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a role for voting.  But there is also a role for better problem solving in local government.

Perhaps someday the City will be interested in learning more about a systems approach to complex problem solving or about people like John Boyd, who inspired the book Certain to Win by Chet Richards.  Alas, none of this has happened yet.

I’m still hopeful, however.  Here is why.

There is a pot of election year gold available to any candidate considering running for a seat on the Woodinville City Council.  Today, no one sees the pot of gold, because no one has done the work required to be able to see it.  So people see a bunch of disconnected puzzle pieces and not the beautiful picture that is waiting to be revealed when they are properly put together.

The first candidate to understand — really understand — how the pieces of the puzzle fit together would have an unbelievable advantage in the upcoming election.

What would it mean if, for the first time in a long time, a candidate could explain why our City struggles as it does and, more importantly, could offer a road map to a much brighter future?

And what if that candidate had an answer — a valid, compelling answer — to each and every criticism raised by his opponents?

This is the pot of election year gold I’m talking about.  It’s available now to anyone willing and able to do the hard work that will be required to claim it.

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