I was about to name this post “Pillars of TOC”, but after second thoughts I believe these pillars are equally useful outside of their immediate Theory of Constraints context.

Do you need to be able to think more clearly? Or maybe you know someone who would benefit from clearer thinking?

Goldratt asserts the pillars described below as foundational to “clear thinking”:

  • Inherent Simplicity
  • Every Conflict Can Be Removed
  • People Are Good
  • Never Say I Know

Pillar: Inherent Simplicity

This first pillar is a choice. An intention to look at situations as if they were always inherently simple. As if the nature of reality itself is simple (and harmonious).

“Reality is simple and harmonious.”

If we choose to proceed as if this were true, then we will be less likely to get trapped in looking for sophisticated explanations and complicated solutions. We will be less likely to channel our attention towards just those things we allow ourselves to see.

“The first and most profound obstacle is that people believe that reality is complex, and therefore they are looking for sophisticated explanations for complicated solutions. Do you understand how devastating this is?”

~ Goldratt, Eliyahu M.. The Choice, Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 213-215).

For clear thinking, we must choose to proceed as if we accept the idea of Inherent Simplicity, as a practical way of viewing reality, any reality. We may even go so far as to choose this as our approach to life in general.

“The biggest obstacle is that people grasp reality as complex when actually it is surprisingly simple.”

~ Goldratt, Eliyahu M.. The Choice, Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 219-220).

So what exactly do we mean by Inherent Simplicity? In a nutshell, Inherent Simplicity is the cornerstone of all modern science, as stated by Newton: “Natura valde simplex est et sibi consona.” We may translate this as “nature is exceedingly simple and harmonious with itself”.

Note: Goldratt states that with the Theory of Constraints, he takes a “Hard Science” perspective in all situations.

In practice, this means examining the cause-effect relationships within a given situation. And, contrary to our intuition, where we would expect some form of combinatorial explosion of complexity to result, Inherent Simplicity (and Newton) tells us that the system will converge, and common causes will inevitably appear as we drill down. If we drill down deep enough, we’ll find just a very few, or maybe even just one, root cause. So the result of systematically examining the cause-effect relationships in a situation leads us not to enormous complexity, but to wonderful simplicity.

If you doubt this, take a look at this article explaining the relative simplicity of two systems.

Hint: If I’m a scientist or a manager, I’m not so much interested in how difficult the system is to describe, but more in the difficulty of controlling and predicting its behaviour, especially when changes are introduced. The scientist or manager’s definition of complexity is: “the more degrees of freedom the system has the more complex it is.”

We’re not claiming that reality is not overwhelmingly complex; we acknowledge it in full. But what we are claiming that we can see things more clearly, think more clearly, when we choose to proceed on the basis that reality is exceedingly simple.

Note: We may begin to see how this perspective renders the idea of “complex adaptive systems” irrelevant.

Pillar: Every Conflict Can Be Removed

Let’s come back to the earlier proposition about Inherent Simplicity, that “Reality is simple and harmonious (with itself).”

We may choose to interpret “harmonious with itself” to mean that there are no contradictions in nature. In the material world. In “reality”.

“There are no conflicts in reality.”

For example, if we measure the length of a rod, by two different methods, and get two different answers, we don’t compromise. We don’t say “let’s split the difference and use the average between the two methods”. The contradiction between the two methods signals us that somewhere along the line we have made an erroneous assumption of some kind. And so we’ll go looking for that flawed assumption, and never accept a compromise. Such is the strength of our belief that there can be no contradictions in nature.

But this pillar is about conflicts, not contradictions. A conflict can occur any time we have opposing requirements, such as the need for an aircraft wing to be both strong and light. All undesirable effects (in the cause-effect relationships within a given situation) stem from such conflicts.

So this pillar is about choosing to proceed such that we treat every conflict like a scientist treats a contradiction. Which means, examining the conflict to uncover the inherent erroneous assumption(s), and refusing compromise as a way out.

“Don’t accept conflict as a given.”

Note: All forms of optimising and optimisation fall into the category of “compromising”. Such a waste of everyone’s time and talents.

Pillar: People Are Good

With this pillar, we come back again to the idea of harmony. This time we’re interested in another obstacle to thinking clearly: blaming others.

“Blaming another person is not a solution.”

In fact, in many cases, blaming others points us in the wrong direction, away from a solution. Even if the person we blame were to be fired, in most cases the problem will remain. Blaming is a sure-fire way to undermine the harmony in our personal relationships.

And we need that harmony, so that we can collaborate effectively with other people (our peers, our suppliers, our customers) in finding the solutions we seek.

So, we choose to proceed with the deep conviction that harmony exists in any relationship between people (even though in most cases, by default, we don’t bother to find and implement it). We choose to proceed on the basis that

“Win-Win is always possible.”

This perspective allows us to think more clearly, and find solutions that work for all parties involved, not just one side. Yes, it’s more work, but it gives our solutions much more stickability.

And, incidentally, for effective harmonious relationships, we have to care about the people involved. We have to invest the time and effort into knowing them and their true needs (cf. The Antimatter Principle).

Pillar: Never Say I Know

When we choose to proceed on the basis that we know about a situation, we’re unlikely to seek improvements, to check for holes in our logic or understanding, or to believe that the situation can be improved.

So, let’s always proceed as if we DON’T know. This choice can help us think more clearly, examine the situation afresh, and discover different, more effective ways of doing the things that need doing.

“Every situation can be substantially improved.”


You may see the above pillars as largely philosophical, as a way of looking at the world. Personally, I choose to see them as pragmatic, as a way of interacting with the world. And, returning to the notion of harmony, we may begin to see how all these pillars complement each other, harmoniously.

Harmony: “the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.”

– Bob

Further Reading

The Choice ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Efrat Goldratt-Ashlag


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