Get rid of constraints that decrease your personal productivity

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A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. This is one of those common sense phrases and overused cliches. For others, however, it can mean a million dollar business or a life attitude which helps the person to see connections that others can’t.

The second type of such a person was definitely Eliyahu M. Goldratt. Genius in a business management field and the originator of the Theory of Constraints and other techniques for optimizing outcome in any system or organization.

If you haven’t read his book The Goal, you should. Seriously. It would change your view on how to do business. So run to your local bookstore and buy it.

What exactly is Theory of Constraints?

Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints has various applications. From manufacturing, through marketing, sales or finance to personal productivity improvement.

Its basic premise is that every goal-oriented system is limited by at least one constraint. State can’t exist in real life without restrictions because it would mean that system has infinite output.

The clue to improving any system is to focus on the constraint – the weakest person or part of that system. This weakest part is determining the performance of the whole system exactly as in the folk proverb from the introduction.

Here in the weakest link, changes should been made in order to increase the overall flow. Everywhere else it would be a loss of time and money.

Herbie is the constraint

In the previously mentioned Goldratt’s fictional book the Goal is a nice story of Herbie, which helps to better understand how constraints work.

Herbie is a slowest moving kid in the scout troop. The scout troop goes on a hike and they have to customize their speed to that of Herbie. The problem is that with that speed, they aren’t able to reach their goal – come to campground before it gets dark. The solution which shows up as the best is to distribute supplies from Herbie’s heavy backpack to the fastest boys within the troop.

And the lesson from the story is a five step process:

  1. Identify the system’s constraint (Herbie)
  2. Decide how to exploit the constraint with quick improvements (lightening Herbie’s heavy backpack)
  3. Subordinate and synchronize everything else to the constraint (distributing Herbie’s supplies to the fastest)
  4. Elevate performance of system’s constraint (In this case, Herbie was still constraint but the troop was still able to reach their goal. However in a company if the constraint still exists you should consider what further actions can be taken to eliminate it from being the constraint. In some cases, capital investment may be required.)
  5. Go back and see if the former constraint is still a constraint. If not, rinse and repeat.

How does it relate to personal productivity?

With a bit of thinking and creativity this 5 step process can be used on whatever improvement of a goal-oriented system (from earning more money to losing weight, getting better at relationships, etc). Here’s a real example from my life:

I earn my living as a copywriter, so my goal is let’s say writing one article a day (your goal has to always be something measurable). In my case, writing of one article basically consists of these activities:

  • Client gives me an idea of what I should write about
  • I have to do a search for the specific topic and for relevant sources to that topic
  • Next step – Deep study session of the topic (me)
  • Writing an outline (me)
  • Writing a draft (me)
  • Emailing the draft to my editor
  • Editor gives me comments that I have to correct
  • Then the text is added to the web page, graphic designer edits it visually, adds illustrations and stock photos

First step: Identify the system’s constraint

To identify the system’s constraint you can use 3 criteria:

  1. The weakest link is fully loaded with work
  2. Ahead of it in the chain, the work piles up
  3. Behind it in the chain, the resources are idle (employees, machines, etc. are waiting)

I have found that my constraint in the process of writing an article is in that phase, when I do search for a topic and its sources. This part takes me the longest, more than writing a layout, draft and correcting comments together. The other assignments from clients are piling up and editor is waiting for a draft.

Second step: Decide how to exploit the constraint with quick improvements

I spent so much time on doing the research because I thought that I have to know and understand the whole concept.

For example, if I decided to write a review on the new model of BMW, I would study all kinds of parameters (because I am not a very technical type). How does the four-stroke engine actually works, what’s the exact difference between kilowatts and horsepower and similar stuff.

But in fact, I usually end up using maybe 20 percent of the whole bunch of that information. On one hand, just little was really relevant and the second thing was that just a little can be fitted into the article, so it won’t spread onto 10 pages.

So I decided to make a quick improvement. In order to cut the time spent on research I started to follow these 4 criteria:

  • I pick just one book from many
  • The book has to be from an author who has really done something significant in the field I am writing about
  • The book must have good reviews
  • I quickly skim through the book and pick out chapters that seems to be the most interesting to write about – these I study more deeply

Third step: Subordinate and synchronize everything else to the constraint

In spite of accelerating the whole process even more I have agreed with the client to give me clearer assignments with a short layout and maybe some good tips on information sources. My editor and graphic designer knows that I would deliver them all materials on agreed term, once a week. They have dedicated the time, when to solve it at once. Until then, they do other work.

Fourth step: Elevate performance of system’s constraint

If this process of researching information would still stay a constraint and there would be no other solution for it, the capital investment should come. The obvious mistake is that this step comes in first for many companies. In my case it would be for example, hiring a part-time assistant that would do the research and prepare detailed materials on the topic for me.

Fifth step: Go back and see if the former constraint is still the constraint. If not, rinse and repeat

When we’ve applied one improvement, we would repeat the whole process. What is the weakest link of the chain now?


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