What are Non-Obvious Systemic Constraints?

What are Non-Obvious Systemic Constraints?

In Theory Of Constraints (TOC), Eli Goldratt explains how “constraints” in a system such as a manufacturing plant, limit the throughput of the whole system (plant). In his later books, he talks more about “policy constraints” in non-manufacturing situations, and how these can be even more pernicious and damaging to the throughput (effectiveness) of a system or organisation.

In that constraints, by the TOC definition, affect whole systems, we may reasonably regard all constraints as “systemic constraints”.

This post is about those kinds of systemic constraints – particularly those that dramatically impact knowlege-work organisations – that are not so obvious. Not the capacities of machines, teams or people. Not the policies of the organisation – explicit or implicit. Not even the individual attitudes and beliefs of the folks within an organisation.

Some of these “non-obvious systemic constraints” have limited (or maybe more accurately, invisible) impact on the day-to-day work of the organisation, but remarkable impact on the ability of the organisation to evolve, improve, and raise its effectiveness (what I refer to as Rightshifting).

Examples of Non-Obvious Systemic Constraints

So what kinds of “non-obvious systemic constraints” am I talking about? Here are some examples:

  • Business As Usual – being busy “getting stuff done”, to the detriment of spending time, attention, etc. on improving the capabilities of the organisation.
  • “Work ethic” – paying people (and promoting or demoting them) based on how “willing” or “busy” they appear, rather than on how much of a contribution (often in very intangible ways) they actually make to the success of the organisation (some may describe this as “bureaucracy”).
  • Fundamental Attribution Error – e.g. ignorance of Deming’s 95% rule – a lack of an appreciation of the role of “the system” in constraining the productivity of individuals.
  • Hierarchy – the way in which conflating report lines, rewards systems, coordination mechanisms and responsibility systems contributes to what Roger L Martin describes as “The Responsibility Virus“.
  • Low Trust – when trust is absent or at a low level, this constrains the degree to which people talk to each other about things that matter (and thus to the festering of those issues, with concomitant “temporary” work-arounds).
  • “Not-Invented-Here” – collective arrogance or hubris constraining folks’ enthusiasm and opportunities for looking outside their own immediate surroundings to learn about how others have studied and maybe even solved issues.
  • Isolated learning, hard limits on exploration – many organisations (generally, unintentionally) make it difficult or impossible for folks to get together and mutually learn about and explore issues and opportunities.
  • Fear of conflict – when people try to be “nice” to each other, often to compensate for the inhumanity of their working conditions, the value of conflict gets misunderstood – and even productive, positive conflict becomes something to avoid rather than embrace.
  • Pigeonholing – a prevailing, unspoken belief that everyone has their own work to do, their own (non-overlapping) sets of responsibilities, and that there’s negative value in folks getting involved in, helping with, or taking over, elements of others’ work.
  • Poor appreciation of value-add – a limited or lack of understanding about where it’s best to focus time and effort, for optimum value-add.
  • Professional detachment – particularly the kind of professional detachment that constrains people’s willingness and ability to relate to each other as fallible, emotional, joyful, inconstant, messy human beings.
  • Homogeneity – the belief that all situations, all people, all clients, must be treated in the same way, to be “fair” and “consistent”.
  • Conventional thinking – adopting “work-arounds” for problems by borrowing from popular culture, previous experience, or “industry best practice”, rather than getting to the heart of an issue and finding an apposite solution (preferably, a dissolution). Typical work-arounds include the concept of managers (see also: pigeonholing, hierarchy, Theory-X); command-and-control; bonuses; and functional decomposition of organisational structure (silos).
  • Mandatory optimism – aka “Don’t rock the boat”, or “wilful ignorance”. When people realise that any doubts, negative comments or criticisms, however constructive or realistic, are not welcome, this severely constrains any attempts to surface and thus fix troublesome issues. See also: “Smile or Die” animation; and “All Executives are Unethical”.
  • Disjoint purpose – different people working disjointly or at cross-purposes for lack of a clear understanding of a common, shared purpose for the system. This constrains people’s ability to constructively resolve issues, as well as constraining their day-to-day work activities.

“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the [purpose] of the system. A system must have a [purpose]. Without the [purpose], there is no system.” ~ W E Deming

  • Theory X – and authoritarianism in general. When an organisation believes it better to have folks that do the work, and other folks to tell them what work to do (Scientific Management aka Taylorism), “process police” ensuring homogeneity and conformity, and even how to do the work (micro-managing), this constrains the natural motivation and engagement of the people.

I’m sure you can think of others. If you do, please let me know – I’d love to add them to this list.

Which of these “non-obvious systemic constraints” are limiting the effectiveness, and the rate of change, in your organisation? (Note: following Goldratt, I posit only one of these is the key constraint in any one organisation, at any given time).

I’m open to suggestions about how we might refer to these kinds of “non-obvious systemic constraints”. What do you think?

It Starts With Awareness

Are you aware of these non-obvious systemic constraints and the role they play in your organisation? How about other folks? Given how some of these constraints reduce or prevent discussion, would you even know what other folks think, whether they’re aware or not?

And when awareness dawns, what then? Even though just one constraint may be key, the web these constraints weave, collectively, may seem as intractable as the Tholian Web. Personally, I’d consider applying the TOC tools known as “Current Reality Tree” and “Future Reality Tree” to identify the key point(s) of leverage (key constrain(s)), and the future state that we’d like to see happen. Ackoff might suggest “Reference Projection”. What approach would you favour in this situation?

– Bob

Further Reading

Five Dysfunctions of A Team ~ Patric Lencioni
Deming’s 14 Points ~ W E Deming
The FIfth Discipline ~ Peter Senge
The Responsibility Virus ~ Roger L Martin
Treatment For Problems ~ Russell L Ackoff

    • Hi RIchard,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I’m assuming I know what you mean by “Groupthink”, but am less sure about your chosen meaning for “Discipline / Clear Thinking”. Can you help me understand these terms more clearly? And how they constrain the effective knowledge-work organisation?

      – Bob

      • Hi Bob, I think the Wikipedia definition for Groupthink is fine, i.e. “The mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives”

        As to Discipline / Clear thinking, maybe they don’t belong on that list . . . I’ll try and explain more. Looking again, they probably need to be negated, so they should probably be:

        Undisciplined, or Unsystematic (which was an interesting synonym), being the lack of rigour in the activities of people. In CMMI, this would be level 1. This is the thing you see all the time in software process is when people just “do Agile” but it’s really chaos because the reality is that Agile needs more personal and group discipline than Waterfall (which abdicates responsibility)

        Just googled Clear Thinking and one match was to a scientology term – that’s certainly _not_ what I meant, so I’ll switch that to Clarity of Thought as there is an element of focus in the term. There’s an interesting item “Clarity of Thought 11-Mar-10” at http://www.churchillclub.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=79 which kind of hints at concept I’m after. I’m now thinking the best term may be:

        Fuzzy Thinking aka Lack of Clarity of Thought – this is related (or maybe the root cause?) of Undiscipline. A general “woolliness” in the approach people take to something e.g. fixing the symptom not the root cause; accepting “truths” from others without critical analysis; doing something without analysing it – causes or effects. It’s a hard one…

        Maybe they’re too generic, but I think they should be on some list for things that damage systems. In thinking this through I did think up another one though : “Box Ticking”

  1. gusjpower said:

    Hi Bob,

    Interesting post.

    In her TOC book ‘Thinking for a Change’, Lisa Scheinkopf describes ‘policy constraints’ (or managerial constraints) as being “rules and measures that inhibit the system’s ability to continue to improve”, while ‘paradigm constraints’ (or behavioural constraints) are “those beliefs or assumptions that cause us to develop, embrace, or follow policy constraints”. Perhaps her classification is useful in thinking about your list above?

    The odd one in your list is ‘Co-learning, co-exploration’ – perhaps you could rephrase it as a constraint for consistency?

    A constraint I would add would be ‘positive thinking’, perhaps a subset of ‘conventional thinking’. Barbara Ehrenreich has an interesting RSA talk about it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5um8QWWRvo). I’ve witnessed quite a lot of “smile or die” behaviour prevent real information coming to light and being acted upon.


    • Hi Gus,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. And for the pointer to Lisa Scheinkopf – will look into her book, and her classifications.

      Have amended the list as per your suggestions.

      – Bob

  2. Tu quoque!
    There’s no “Deming 85% rule” nor a “Deming 95% rule” (you are the only one to claim Deming measured 95% instead of 85%”.

    Anyway, no: Deming never ever wrote a single line about that fantastic 85% rule.

    “Deming’s 85% figure for managerial blame is not a statistic. It’s another, more striking way of saying that management very largely or almost entirely bears the blame. It isn’t even an estimate, since any estimate worth having must be based on measurable facts.”

    Sure, the great statistician’s misuse of the 85% number rubs in a crucial point. But, please: stop spreading the myth.

    • Hi there,

      I’m sorry you choose to remain anonymous, it detracts from your arguments.

      Maybe you’d like to Google for e.g. “Deming 94%” (179 hits) or “Deming 96%” (7 hits). I use 95% (as does Scholtes) to split the difference. Most folks that cite the source cite “Out of the Crisis”, page 315.

      The collective opinion as LKBE11 was that 95% seemed a fair number to use in this context. So please stop spreading the myth that this is a myth.

      – Bob

      • The actual quote is:

        “I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to proportions something like this: 94% belong to the system (responsibility of management), 6% special” (Out of the Crisis, p. 315)

        I also quote the great post “The Deification of Deming” which you can find here: http://www.leanway.no/?p=362

        The 94% quote
        A prime example of the deification of Deming is what can be called the “94% is the system” quote. When people discuss how best to change an organization, Lean proponents will invariably cite Deming and argue that since he has shown that 94% of the potential for improvement is in the system there is little point in working with organizational culture. This is disingenuous for two reasons. First of all, Deming was not being precise when he said this. The actual quote is:

        “I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to proportions something like this: 94% belong to the system (responsibility of management), 6% special” (Out of the Crisis, p. 315)

        The first thing that is apparent here is that Deming’s thinking is a lot better than his english… More to the point is that he is obviously not saying that 94% is an accurate measurement. If you think about it, there is no way Deming could have measured the relative importance of these things with this kind of precision.

        The second (and most important) reason you should treat this quote with caution is that Deming was speaking of one particular context. Most of Deming’s work is in manufacturing. Even if 94% was the correct number in manufacturing, it is very unlikely that all other types of business follow the same rule. The relative importance of “the system” must vary depending on what your context is.

        If lean is ever going to become more mainstream people must start treating it less as a religion with its own gods and more as a collection of insights that have to be carefully tailored to the context you are working in.

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