Monthly Archives: August 2007

Is the Theory of Constraints (TOC) a Theory?

By Jon Miller – August 18, 2007 10:52 PM

Is Lean a scientific theory? As a management system, Lean is
scientific in terms of the thinking process. Lean has been
experimentally verified in many cases over decades. The theoretical
premise, or basic hypothesis of Lean, can be stated as:

1. The customer defines value by what they are willing to pay for
2. Whatever is not value is waste
3. Eliminating waste reduces cost

Waste is specifically defined in the seven types (overproduction,
transportation, motion, inventory, defects, waiting, processing) as
well as safety losses, wasted space, energy losses and environmental
harm. If reducing inventory, defects or motion did not in fact reduce
cost, then this theory could be proven false.

It is worth noting that Taiichi Ohno, the person who is credited
with developing and advancing much of what is known today as Lean
management, often spoke out against TPS being a theory of any kind. The
words “practice, not theory” or “practical, not theoretical” were his
rejoinder to managers and professors alike who poked and prodded at the
workings of TPS. So perhaps “is Lean a scientific theory?” is the wrong

Lean appears to pass the test of falsifiability. But what about the
Theory of Constraints? The steps to managing through the Theory of
Constraints are:

0. Identify the goal (that which is being constrained)
1. Identify the constraint
2. Decide how to exploit the constraint
3. Subordinate all other processes to the constraint
4. Elevate the constraint
5. If the constraint has moved, return to Step 1

My concern here is that it appears to say in step 5 is “if the
Theory proves false, repeat the test until it is proven true”. Does TOC
admit the possibility that identifying and exploiting the constraint
and then subordinating all other to the constraint, and elevating the
constraint will fail to achieve the goal?

Teaching eagles to run

Why do we persist in trying to turn ourselves (and other people) into what we and they plainly are not?

Expectations are major sources of stress, especially those that are more or less doomed from the start. Instead of trying to turn yourself into someone else, with totally different abilities, why not focus on becoming better at being who you are?

It isn’t just crazy expectations about results, workloads, time-scales, or cost reductions that cause so much stress today. Almost worse are the expectations that organizations set for people’s abilities—and people set themselves for their own career paths.

Why do we do it? Aren’t there enough strains and problems to be faced, without adding new ones based on expectations that never had a rational basis?

The curse of competency lists

Many organizations have been tempted into trying to define exactly what skills and abilities are needed to make you “competent” in a specific job—then use those lists as the basis for that other grand form of pointless cruelty: the annual performance appraisal. As so often, it’s an approach based on ideas that seem plausible in theory: those of making performance and hiring decisions more objective. Sadly, ask two people to describe the ideal set of abilities for a job and you’ll get at least three answers—all of them conflicting. Worse, the responses will be expressed in such vague terminology that they can mean almost anything you want them to.

Now bring together a slew of committees to review and reach consensus on the final list and you have the perfect recipe for creating an artificial set of requirements that doesn’t apply to any recognizable job, let alone the one being “defined.”

The resulting demands on actual human beings are enough to create stress in a Zen master. Real, individual skills are ignored in favor of totally artificial patterns.

Running eagles

The next step in the farce is taken by those in charge of training. Armed with the competency lists, plus the fantasies peddled by gurus and consultants, they proceed to attempt to “teach” people how to fit the required patterns.

Eagles are given running lessons and told flying is “not what is required” and “not the mark of a good team-player.” Fish are exhorted to grow legs and take up mountaineering. Lions are told to eat grass and mice are exhorted to become “lean, mean flying machines.”

It would all be funny, if people’s jobs and livelihoods weren’t dependent on appearing to go along with this nonsense.

Self-inflicted misery

Over time, people even come to treat such idiocy as real. They have little choice, since those who rule their working destinies demand it.

Take the example of “leadership skills.” In any logical world, it would be clear that you only need one or two leaders to work with a very large number of people. That’s especially true today, since modern technology makes it easy for a single leader to communicate instantly with scores—even hundreds—of followers. There’s certainly no logical reason for all the layers upon layers of “leaders” present in nearly all organizations.

Why are they there? Because of two myths:

  • The myth that everyone needs to be closely supervised or they’ll slack off and do nothing.
  • The myth that pay should be linked to “added responsibilities” to create a career path.

Neither of these myths is—or ever was—true, but tens of thousands of people’s jobs now depend on them. Indeed, often the only way today to gain consistently higher rewards is by promotion into a “leadership position.”

It is any wonder, therefore, that huge numbers of people—many with no true interest in, or aptitude for, leadership— try to force themselves into displaying some of the fashionable traits of leadership?

The plain truth

We can sum up reality in a few, commonsense statements:

  • Most people have neither the inherent skills nor the real wish to be “leaders” in the true sense. They have many, many other natural strengths, most of which get neglected in the rush to become a leader.
  • The true demand for leaders is a tiny fraction of the number of people and jobs carrying that title. It would be much more rational to find a better way of linking rewards to contribution than inventing spurious management layers.
  • The precise skills and know-how required by any specific job constantly change and are often unpredictable. No list created by a committee is going to cover them. People need to know what they are expected to do, what scope they have to do it without asking permission, and very little else.
  • Jobs are dynamic. They change the person who holds them as those people gain experience. The person doing the job changes it to make it better fit who they are and what they’re good at. Fixing a description at a single time (and often without input from a current job holder) is the proverbial task of nailing jelly to a wall.

A massive amount of needless stress, frustration, and unhappiness—to say nothing of a vast waste of genuine talent—would be saved if we stopped forcing eagles to run and let them do what they’re best at— flying.

So, if you’re an eagle, stick with eagle strengths. If you’re a badger, make digging your career. And don’t let any idiot try to force you into some other path, just because that’s the fashion or the dictat of some committee.

Top 10 reasons why constant complaining is so toxic in the workplace

Workplace complainers

Back when I was still a geek (I was a software developer for a small
consulting company in my second job out of university) I had a boss
that was… shall we say unpopular. My co-workers and I hated his
guts and we complained ceaselessly about him.

It got to the point where we couldn’t start a meeting, have
lunch in the cafeteria, or even go out for a beer without spending half
an hour complaining about him.

We whined about his attitude, his stupidity, his meddling, his
spinelessness … hell, even his dress sense came under fire. But
then again, he is the only manager who has ever interviewed me wearing
a narrow 80s-style purple, fake-leather tie.

But did we ever tell him? Nooooooo! While we were bitching and moaning to ourselves, he blithely went on as usual because no one ever complained to him. Which might’ve made sense when you think about it…

Looking back, I’m not sure that complaining to him would have
worked – I think he was incorrigible – but one thing is for damn sure:
Out bitching about it, fun though it may have been, did not improve
things one little bit.

Because that kind of chronic complaining, justified or not, in the
workplace leads to no good. In fact, in can be downright toxic and can
make a department or even a whole company a terrible place to work.

Here’s why constant complaining is so bad:

1: It makes things look worse than they are
When people complain, they focus only on what’s wrong. Things may
be mostly fine in the company, but complainers only talk about the
problems, annoyances and peeves they perceive.

If things in a company are 80% good and 20% bad and you spend most
of your time thinking and talking about the bad 20% – the situation
will look a lot worse than it really is.

2: It becomes a habit
The more you complain, the easier it gets. In the end, everything is
bad, every situation is a problem, every co-worker is a jerk and
nothing is good.

The more you focus on the negative, the harder it gets to switch into a positive mindset.

3: You get what you focus on
According to Wikipedia, Confirmation bias is:

…a tendency to search for or interpret new
information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoid
information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.

In other words, what you already believe influences your perception
of everything around you. That’s why constant complaining makes
you see everything in a negative light, because your subconscious mind
tries to make new observation fit with what you already know.

4: It leads to onedownmanship
A complaining session might go something like this:

The other day, my boss came in 5 minutes before I was
leaving and asked me to finish two huge projects for him. I had to stay
two hours and missed my football game.

Yeah, well my boss told me to work this weekend AND the next.

Hah, that’s nothing! My boss…

This type of interaction rewards the person with the worst story who can complain the loudest. Not healthy!

5: It makes people despondent
Not only does constant complaining make you see the workplace as worse
than it really is, but because you’re constantly hearing stories
of how bad things are and how they’re constantly getting worse it
also destroys all hope that things can get better.

This of course makes people less likely to take action to improve
their situation, because everybody knows it’s doomed to fail

6: It kills innovation
Because the situations looks so hopeless, people become less creative
and innovative. What’s the point of coming up with ideas and
implementing them – it’s never going to work anyway.

Also, chronic complainers are the first to shoot down any new idea.

7: It favors negative people
The way to get status among complainers is to be the most negative. To
be the one who sees everything in the most negative light.

Any attempt to be positive or cheerful will be shot down and
optimists will be accused of being Pollyanna, naive and unrealistic.

8: It promotes bad relationships
People who complain together unite against the world and can create
strong internal relationships based on this. But these relationships
are based mostly on negative experiences. That’s not healthy.

It also means that you can only continue to be a part of the group
if you can continue to complain, miring you even deeper in a complaint

9: It creates cliques
Being positive, optimistic and appreciative makes you more open towards
other people – no matter who they are. It becomes easy to connect to
co-workers in other departments, projects or divisions.

Complaining, on the other hand, makes people gather in cliques with
their fellow complainers where they can be critical and suspicious of
everybody else.

10: Pessimism is bad for you
Psychologist Martin Seligman showed in his groundbreaking research in
positive psychology that people who see the world in a positive light
have a long list of advantages, including:

  • They live longer
  • They’re healthier
  • They have more friends and better social lives
  • They enjoy life more
  • They’re more successful at work

We sometimes think that pessimists and complainers have the edge
because they see problems sooner but the truth is that optimists not
only lead better lives, they’re also more successful because they
believe that what they’re doing is going to work.

The upshot

Constant complaining in the workplace is toxic. It can drain the
happiness, motivation, creativity and fun from a whole company.
Wherever it’s going on it must be addressed and handled properly.

I’m NOT saying that we should never complain at work – quite
the contrary. If you see a problem in your workplace, complain to
whoever can do something about it.

What we should avoid at all costs, is constant bitching and moaning,
where we’re always complaining about the same things, to the same
people, in the same way, day in and day out.

So what can we do about it? Well first of all, each of us can learn
to complain constructively. This means learning to complain in a way
that leads to the problem being fixed – rather than to more
complaining. Here’s my post on how you can How to complain constructively.

Secondly, we can learn to deal with the chronic complainers we meet
at work. Unfortunately, our traditional strategies like trying to cheer
them up or suggesting solutions for their problems don’t work
because complainers aren’t looking for encouragement or
solutions. Here’s my post on how to deal with chronic complainers.

Finally, you can train your own ability to be positive. Just like
complaining can become a habit, so can being appreciative, optimistic
and grateful. You could declare today a positive day, you could take a few minutes at the end of every work day to write down five good experiences from that day or you could praise a co-worker.

Try it and let me know how it goes!