While it may be desirable to be liked when asking people with whom you work to collaborate, it is not always necessary, and it is never sufficient.
[ Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
To approach a sufficiency, we must feel connected to the system of which we are a part. We need to properly understand our span of control and its associated sphere of influence. We must align toward a shared goal. We need an agreed set of measures to determine if our decisions are navigating us toward or away from that goal. And we need ways of working to know when it’s okay to stop what we are doing and support the work at the constraint.
Collaboration, as we use it within the context of TOC (Theory of Constraints) and the 5-Step FOCUS is referred to in Goldratt’s version as subordinate, and is used with the sense of ‘subordinate to the constraint’, after having done the previous focusing steps of identify and exploit the constraint. While I understand Goldratt’s intention in using the language of exploit and subordinate, it is often counterproductive when introducing these powerful ideas to use those words. People don’t want to subordinate themselves or be exploited—language matters. I, therefore, developed a different, and more memorable acrostic: the 5-Step FOCUS.
No less a figure than the late W Edwards Deming had this to say about components of a system: ‘The object of any component is to contribute its best to the system, not to maximise its own production […] Some components may operate at a loss themselves in order to optimise the whole system’. Let’s unpack that statement within the context of TOC.
For me, the most profound insight of TOC does not reside in the idea that systems have constraints. We can readily arrive at that conclusion by merely examining what would have to be true if that proposition were not the case—then, the system could produce an infinite output. In the world of physics, this would be a violation of the laws of thermodynamics—unlimited output for a finite input. In the more prosaic world of business, I’d be super interested to find that organisation capable of producing an infinite return on investment. Put another way, the Theory of Constraints is not really a theory but is more akin to what I once heard someone say about gravity—it’s the law!
Thus, the profound insight resides in the corollary of the idea that systems have constraints; that is, that non-constraints have capacity available. Simple as that idea might sound, it is not only ignored by the vast majority of organisations, but hordes of accountants and armies of lawyers conspire every day to construct systems of management and contractual arrangements that encourage the parts to optimise their performance, oblivious to the consequence for the whole. They delude themselves into thinking that if they utilise each of the components to the maximum of its capability, then the resulting sum of the work is the most the system can produce. This kind of thinking is akin to the orchestra’s conductor requiring each musician to play as many notes, as fast and loud as possible to ensure a generous return on the owner’s investment.
“In the world of physics, this would be a violation of the laws of thermodynamics—unlimited output for a finite input.”
If the non-constraints have capacity available, how can that capacity be put to best use for the overall result? Let’s assume there is a general awareness of the system within which every contributor does their work and that this awareness is infused with the idea that primacy resides in the whole, not in the parts. Let’s also assume that there is a familiarity with the principles of Constraint Accounting, and the team knows that their goal is to increase Throughput and reduce both Operating Expense and Investment. What are some of the methods and tools which help with the collaboration step within the 5-Step FOCUS process?
For anyone to do what is in the interest of the whole, they have to have a signal that indicates when work is required, or when it would be better to stand down. Furthermore, workers need to know that where they apply their effort will make a difference, not just for what they are working on, but in helping move the product, service, project and ultimately organisation closer toward achieving the goal.
It could easily mean that the work undertaken is not at the ‘home base’ and does not even require the skills for which the worker was hired. It’s useful here to use Goldratt’s word subordinate if what we mean by that is to subordinate all efforts to the horizontal direction of the flow of value. Too often, subordination is done in the vertical direction, as that is how we usually configure the geometry of power. Ask Richard III, who would readily subordinate his entire kingdom for the seemingly inconsequential provision of a horse.
For signalling, TOC has within its body of knowledge the idea of buffers and buffer management across all three of the aptly named proven solutions: Critical Chain Project Management, Drum Buffer Rope Production Management and Dynamic Buffer Management for replenishment. Each system of buffer management works in a particular way, depending on which solution we use. But what they have in common is their ability to focus on what will make a difference to Throughput at the constraint.
Furthermore, each of the buffer management solutions provides an ingenious means of recording precisely the cause of delay in using the bottleneck, with a robust means of using statistical analysis to continuously improve system, and ultimately, business performance. While buffer management is outside the scope of this article, it is, in my view, a prerequisite of effective collaboration.
The fact is that, with buffer management in place, you can rest assured that we can focus attention on the areas within the system where we can gain high leverage and hence the performance advantage. This use of buffer management for signalling is as valid for collaborating across the organisation’s functional silos as it is when there are difficult synchronisation issues with external vendors of product and services.
“Everyone needs to know how to respond to
those signals when the alarm sounds”
But, buffer management is itself a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective collaboration. It’s all very well getting the signal in a timely fashion, but everyone needs to know how to respond to those signals when the alarm sounds. An effective way of accomplishing this end is to study Elliott Jaques’s work and the concepts contained in his book, The Requisite Organization. Of particular use are the ideas which articulate the accountability relationships when working between the silos.
What’s on offer is a comprehensive set of rules that clarify for all parties, who, in any given circumstance, are delegated the authority to instruct someone to stop or start work, ask for information, call meetings, escalate decisions and the like. Clearly articulating these delegated authority rules reduces ambiguity and appropriately defines the powers and limits for all who must collaborate to achieve the collective goal. There is no good reason why these rules cannot be extended beyond the organisation’s boundary, and include the variety of vendors whose supply of product and services is a necessary part of delivering a high-performance outcome.
All of the ideas mentioned above will undoubtedly deliver higher collaboration levels and increased workforce engagement than would be the case if we neglected them. But, we could take it a step further by introducing the ideas contained in the five commandments for high-performance execution: maintain true data; control work release; resolve issues rapidly, work fully kitted and act by priority. These commandments, or more precisely, rules for high-performance outcomes give people at an individual level and, ultimately, define the culture of the organisation.
At the start of this article, I claimed that ‘while it may be desirable to be liked when asking people with whom you work to collaborate, it is not always necessary, and it is never sufficient’. The truth is that if you create the conditions in which you practically support collaboration by embedding the ways of working articulated above, it is almost inevitable that each member of the workforce will like working with their collaborators. Each will have a deep sense of how they contribute to the whole, and they will be living out the true meaning of the word ‘mateship’. They will have the great joy of surprising themselves at the seemingly impossible goals they have been instrumental in making possible, and will feel the world as being a better place for them being in it.
This is Part 5 of our series on The 5-Step FOCUS.
Part 1: Identifying the System
Part 2: Setting the Goal
Part 3: Find the Constraint
Part 4: Optimise the Constraint
Part 5 : Collaborate Around the Constraint
Part 6 : Uplift System Performance
Part 7 : Start Again
The change from standard thinking to Theory of Constraints (TOC) is both profound and exhilarating. To make it both fun and memorable, we use a business simulation we call The Right Stuff Workshop.
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