Breaking Bottlenecks using the Theory of Constraints

white and blue labeled disposable bottled water

In today’s fast-paced business environment, companies are constantly looking for ways to improve their processes and increase efficiency. One of the biggest challenges that businesses face is bottlenecks, which can slow down production and lead to delays in delivering products or services to customers. The Theory of Constraints (TOC) is a management philosophy that can help businesses identify and overcome bottlenecks, leading to increased productivity and profitability.

What is the Theory of Constraints?

The Theory of Constraints was developed by Eliyahu Goldratt in the 1980s. It is a management philosophy that focuses on identifying and removing constraints that limit a company’s ability to achieve its goals. The theory is based on the idea that every system has at least one constraint that limits its performance. By identifying and addressing these constraints, companies can improve their overall performance.

1. Identifying Bottlenecks

The first step in using the Theory of Constraints is to identify bottlenecks in the system. A bottleneck is any process or resource that limits the output of the system. It can be a machine, a person, or a process that is slower than the rest of the system. Bottlenecks can be identified by analyzing the flow of materials or information through the system and identifying where the flow is slowed down. Think about your product or service. Where are the constraints? What steps take the longest or put everything else on hold? For example, a trial attorney might find a significant bottleneck in researching the case law related to clients’ legal matters.

2. Exploiting Bottlenecks

Once a bottleneck has been identified, the next step is to exploit it. This means making sure that the resource(s) at the bottleneck is/are working at full capacity and is/are not being underutilized. Reducing downtime, increasing the speed of the resource, or providing better tools dedicated to the task might reduce the bottleneck. Our example attorney might meet with the intern handling her research to find out what methods are being used. Perhaps there are some improvements the experienced attorney can suggest that will improve efficiency. Maybe there is a way to incentivize quicker results from the intern.

3. Subordinating Non-Bottlenecks

The third step in the Theory of Constraints is to subordinate non-bottlenecks to the bottleneck. In other words, don’t let the tail wag the dog. By making sure that the non-bottlenecks are not working faster than the bottleneck, further inefficiency can be prevented. When I had my coffee truck (mobile coffee shop), I quickly learned that the register will always outpace the kitchen. If the cashier simply continues to take order after order, the kitchen will be overwhelmed and the customers will be waiting longer and longer for their drinks. It’s far better to slow the pace in the line and have the cashier help the kitchen get drinks out faster.

4. Elevating the Constraint

The fourth step in the Theory of Constraints is to elevate the constraint. This means investing in the bottleneck to increase its capacity. This can be done by adding more resources, improving the technology, or by redesigning the process to eliminate the bottleneck. For the coffee truck, this would mean hiring additional staff to make drinks or buying better equipment that would make drinks more quickly.

5. Repeating the Process

The final step in the Theory of Constraints is to repeat the process. Once the bottleneck has been addressed, the system will have a new bottleneck. The process of identifying and addressing bottlenecks should be repeated continuously to ensure that the system is always improving and operating at the maximum possible efficiency.

Toyota is a company that successfully implemented the Theory of Constraints to maximize efficiency. In the 1980s, Toyota was facing a bottleneck in its production process caused by a shortage of parts. This led to slowing down the production line. Toyota addressed the bottleneck by implementing a just-in-time inventory system, which ensured that parts were delivered to the production line exactly when they were needed. Eliminating the bottleneck dramatically increased the efficiency of the production line.

The Theory of Constraints is a powerful management philosophy that can help any business identify and overcome bottlenecks in its systems. It’s a different mode of thinking that is not difficult but requires intentionality. By following the five steps of the theory, businesses of any size can improve their efficiency, increase their productivity, and ultimately increase their profitability. And by continuously applying these principles, companies can ensure that their systems are always improving.

Taking Action…

Here are some questions to help you start breaking bottlenecks (in terms of these questions, “resources” can refer to people, vendors, software, tools, processes, etc.):

  • What is the most significant bottleneck in my business (impacting my results and/or profitability)?
  • What are the causes of the bottleneck? How can the existing resources be maximized?
  • Are any resources working “too fast” and therefore need to be redirected?
  • How can I improve the bottleneck by adding new/additional resources or changing/swapping resources for better options?
  • AFTER ALL OF THAT IS COMPLETED, now what is the most significant bottleneck in my business? Rinse and repeat.