Every industrial workplace has safety rules you ignore at your peril. If you’re not wearing a hard hat and goggles at a refinery, or don’t have steel-capped boots in an aircraft hangar, you’ll be asked to leave. And not politely, either. These are binary metrics: yes or no. In or out. So why don’t we apply the same rigour to how we plan and perform our work?
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
Whilst working on the deployment of Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM), using advanced supporting software, I asked a colleague to share what he had learned about the core principles of making this step change in productivity work sustainably. After much reflection we concurred that, for success, you had to adhere to five core principles.
These are all phrased as an imperative for a reason. For the system to work, they are the five commandments. And if phrased as questions (‘Are you fully kitted for this task?’ or ‘Is this data true?’) there’s a yes/no answer. We have our binary metric.
Let’s take a deeper look at each principle.
Work fully kitted
‘Fully kitted’ means having everything you need before you start. You understand the work’s context and purpose, as well as the outcomes required in terms of quality and quantity. You also have the necessary human, material, financial and information resources to complete it. And you know when it should be finished by.
The Toyota management system famously allows anyone on the shop floor to stop the line when there is a defect. They would rather lose production and solve the root cause of the problem than perpetuate the flaw. Adopting this approach puts a premium on thorough and rigorous planning. Such a mindset demands behaviours which promote high-level coordination and enhanced collaboration across the system. People, parts, equipment, manuals, safety routines, operating procedures and the like must all be in place before the work can start.
If the full kit’s not there when the schedule calls for it, work should not start. Invest the necessary time to address the root cause of why the full kit’s not ready to go.
Act by priority
Theory of Constraints (TOC) is really quite simple. It says that for all systems, the rate at which value is created is governed by very few limiting factors. Often, just one. If our system had no constraints at all, we would have a magical machine that could produce infinite widgets instantly and our project critical paths would collapse to zero time. The laws of physics make the idea of limiting factors incontestable. But it’s easy to lose sight of what it means in reality. Often, a single constraint severely limits the throughput of a system.
There’s another profound—and counterintuitive—consequence that even fewer organisations consider. If we agree there is a constraint, then those people or machines that are not the constraint will, by definition, have capacity to spare. When you know where the constraint is at any given moment, you also know where you have reserve capacity. Every effort should be made to deploy non-constrained resources in a systemic and systematic way to focus on supporting and collaborating with the prime resource assigned to work on the rate-determining activity.
So, for example, if there are two tasks to complete on a project, and one of them is on the critical path and the other has some slack—and the one on the critical path could go faster if the person working on the one with the slack helped out—then deploying the latter to help out the former is being systemically responsive to resource constraints.
As Deming, the godfather of the quality revolution, put it, ‘The object of any component is to contribute its best to the system, not to maximise its own production… some components may operate at a loss themselves in order to optimise the whole system.’
Control work release
A necessary condition for high performance is to work in flow, when the challenge of the task matches the skill level of the person executing it. Similarly, you enable production flow by matching the release of work to the capacity of the system constraint—the bottleneck. In TOC, this bottleneck is called the ‘drum’ because its beat synchronises all component parts of the whole. Push work into the system faster than the drum can complete it and you create a logjam. Release work too slowly and the drum misses a beat. Flow stutters and production drops for minutes or hours, with the inevitable consequence of degraded performance.
When you know the capacity of the drum, you can release the appropriate amount of work to keep things flowing through the bottleneck at the optimum speed. The Theory of Constraints production and project management systems—Drum Buffer Rope and Critical Chain—were invented to solve the challenge of releasing work in the Goldilocks zone—not too much, not too little, but just right.
Resolve issues rapidly
Too often, time is squandered waiting for responses from management. In many cases, managers either ignore queries until the sound of the squeaking wheel can no longer be tolerated, or they tell their subordinates they’re onto it and will revert as soon as possible. When the subordinate asks why resolution of the issue has not yet been forthcoming, the obvious response of the manager is to say, ‘it hasn’t been possible’. We recommend a ‘two-hour rule’ for significant issues. What’s a significant issue? One which affects the system’s ability to meet the promises made to deliver on schedule.
The person who’s received such an escalation notice then has two choices:
In the latter case, the manager signs off on the full burden of the lost revenue, and/or the cost burn rate of the delay, until it has been satisfactorily resolved.
If neither of these two options is taken, the person who raised the issue is obliged to bypass their immediate boss and raise the issue with the boss one level higher. There are occasions when a manager is legitimately not available to respond with one of the two choices above. The idea of bypassing one’s line manager in favour of the next one up in the chain of command should not, therefore, be seen as ‘dobbing in’ one’s boss.
A colleague has a pithy phrase for this context: ‘You can’t push rope’. You cannot expect the person at the bottom of the rope to exert pressure on those above. By mandating all levels of management to follow the two-hour rule, the stigma of being a ‘dobber’ is removed and the tension in the rope is maintained with the pull of policy and behaviour set at the top.
Maintain true data
In one of Eli Goldratt’s lesser read books, The Haystack Syndrome, the fascinating introductory chapter talks about the difference between information and data. Specifically, how to find the needle of information in the haystack of data. Since its publication in 1990, the book’s subtitle, ‘sifting information out of the ocean of data’ has, besides mixing metaphors, become even more relevant in our age of big data and machine learning.
‘Information,’ wrote Goldratt, ‘is the answer to the question asked of the data.’ You have to ask good questions. Crucially, too, the data has to be reliable. From an operational perspective, I’ve found one need only ask about six measures:
Maintaining true data means having a reliable system of record that can provide timely answers to these questions. After all, the purpose of information is to assist in sense making within and across the system being examined. Having a reliable system of record ensures that the best possible sense-making information can be used to support effective decision-making.
At Ensemble, we work with organisations where safety is part of the culture. To make the point, when onsite, my colleague is fond of innocently pointing out a possible breach: ‘What would happen if I went and stood beyond that barrier?’ The answer is always a variation on how the person would be obliged to warn him and, if he didn’t heed the warning, call for his removal from the facility.
He then explains how none of these five principles of high-performance execution can work without a robust system of binary metrics.
Is the work fully kitted? Yes or no? Are you acting by priority? Yes or no? Are you pacing to capacity? Do you resolve issues within two hours? Are you maintaining true data? Yes or no. Binary answers.
In organisations where people can get hurt, or worse, visitors may be surprised by signs exhorting them to hold the handrail when going up or down stairs, or not walk while using a mobile phone. In a different environment, say a tech startup, such rules would be ridiculed. But in an industrial context, it’s all part of the ‘safety first’ culture. If you want to maximise the throughput of your system, create a culture where the principles of work management are just as non-negotiable.
The change from standard thinking to Theory of Constraints (TOC) is both profound and exhilarating. To make it both fun and memorable, we use a business simulation we call The Right Stuff Workshop.
We’d love to run it with you. To learn more:
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