“In the Western Cape, thousands of vehicles were being recorded on the N1… Provincial Traffic Chief Kenny Africa said traffic was bumper to bumper on Sir Lowry’s Pass and added that they expected traffic volumes to increase later.” – Eye Witness News
And there we were, along with thousands of other holiday makers, heading towards our Easter Weekend destination.
Or, to be more precise, there we were stuck on Sir Lowry’s Pass – stationary, motionless, at a standstill, going nowhere!
Every minute or so, the file of holidaymakers moved forward a few metres along the well designed pass, but then came to a halt again. Then. Slowly. We made progress. And nearly an hour later we made it over the top of the short pass.
Soon the four lanes of the pass turned into just two – one going each direction – and for some reason the traffic started flowing with ease. We picked up speed and were on our way to enjoy the long weekend – travelling swiftly along the road!
TWO lanes slower than FOUR
My observant 8-year old daughter – smart, is she not? 😉 – then asked from the back of the car: “Why is it dad that we were so slow on the wide road, while we can travel fast on the narrower road?”
Indeed, why is it that one lane is going faster than two?
Having worked with a manufacturing client the past few weeks, I of course had the answer! It is all about flow! Bottlenecks cause delays and System Constraints set the pace. It does not really matter much what happens upstream and downstream. It is the Constraint that sets the tempo – that serves as the drumbeat of flow.
We were travelling slowly over the well-designed, two-lane section of the pass because our tempo was set by the Constraint – the point where the two lanes joined into just one! Up to that point we were going slowly… But downstream of the Constraint the traffic could flow, even with the road being only one lane.
The same applies to your business processes.
You may spend a lot of time and resources to build your two-lane pass so that you can streamline your processes and increase your throughput, but it may come to nothing if you have not focused your attention on the System Constraint.
The lesson: Identify where your System Constraint lies, focus your attention on achieving efficiencies there, and align the tempo of the rest of your flow to the throughput you can achieve at the Constraint.
Theory of Constraints
Our travel experience of the past weekend provides a very good example of applying the well established business improvement system called Theory of Constraints. It is an overall management philosophy introduced by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt in 1984 in his book “The Goal”.
Theory of Constraints provides a set of tools to achieve the desired improvement in the performance of a system. It specifically seeks to identify the Constraint and restructure the rest of the organisation around it, through the use of 5 steps:
1. Identify the system’s Constraint (the resource or policy that prevents the organization from obtaining more of the goal).
2. Decide how to exploit the system’s Constraint (get the most capacity out of the constrained process).
3. Subordinate everything else to the prior decisions (align the whole system or organisation to support the decision made above).
4. Elevate the system’s Constraint (make other major changes needed to break the Constraint).
5. If, in the prior steps, the Constraint has moved or was solved, go back to Step 1.
A Constraint is anything that prevents the system from achieving more of its goal. There are many ways that Constraints can show up, but a core principle within Theory of Constraints is that there is at least one and at most a few in any given system.