On his deathbed, Eli Goldratt was asked if he could advise, in the most general terms, where one should be looking for the constraint. After all, if the constraint governs the rate at which we create value, wouldn’t it help to know where it consistently shows up?
[ Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
As the inventor of the Theory of Constraints, Goldratt might be expected to know. In his famously iconoclastic way, his answer came roaring back: ‘Management attention.’
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an executive in possession of a production target must be in want of more time. Whenever I interview executives or managers, a consistent complaint is about getting ‘pulled down into the weeds’. They will dwell far too long in today’s minutiae and, in so doing, neglect the important work of realising their vision for the future. Why is this so?
What prevents the management team from functioning at the level of work required to both safeguard today’s results and simultaneously make steady progress toward the glory of the imagined future? Are there deepseated issues common to most organisations?
Before proceeding, it’s important to identify precisely what level of management I am writing about. When I talk of managers, I mean those responsible for the work of their function within the organisation for the next one to two years. These people belong to that echelon of the organisation accountable for the continuous improvement of the extant systems of management. Their projects do not change the basic system of management but look to incrementally improve operations using those systems.
The manager’s bosses, the executive, should be attending to a horizon between three and five years out. They will be accountable for transformational change within their function, coordinated with the overall plan of the CEO of the strategic business unit, whose remit extends out to the 5-10 year horizon.
Now that we know who we are thinking about, let’s return to the conundrum: ‘How do I safeguard today’s results while holding true to our grand vision for the future?’ One clue to finding a solution is to ask if everyone on the team has clarity about the content, purpose, outcomes and decision-making rights they have and how these accountabilities should be cascaded down the hierarchy of their subordinates.
‘How do I safeguard today’s results while
holding true to our grand vision for the future?’
It’s one thing to participate in the annual strategy session and nut out with your colleagues your goal and what initiatives you will undertake to achieve it. It’s quite another to fully understand the nature of the work you need to do such that your subordinates and colleagues—and their subordinates—know where accountability begins and ends. How will you coordinate between the functions? How will decisions get made in terms of tradeoffs between one path of action and another? How will these tradeoffs fit in with the organisation’s longterm goal, assuming that this is clear to all—which it often is not.
It takes a substantial effort to change up to a level of thinking capable of taming the complexity of the deeper horizons of the managers’ and executives’ work. Far easier to hide away in the day-to-day grind. After all, it’s familiar territory, and we can be the hero in our own story by resolving the small stuff for today’s satisfaction. Who will notice if I ignore the deeper horizon today, especially if I’m running around telling anyone who’ll listen that I’m putting out a very important fire? Let tomorrow take care of itself. It’s not a trivial exercise to apply the mind to what will happen next month, let alone next year, the one after that and the one after that. ‘She’ll be right,’ may be the culturally accepted response, but you have to ask, ‘Will she?’
So why, then, at a deeper level, do we avoid the work of creating the systems and processes commensurate with the roles we occupy and the horizons they are intended to address? Are we hiding away from ourselves in the midst of the firefight? Do we doubt our own ability to operate at the next level, scared that we’ll be found out? Having the mental smarts is often not enough when they come without the first of the virtues—courage.
When it’s our judgement by which we’ll be judged, who amongst us relishes the idea of sticking our necks out and trying something bold and innovative? Success at designing and implementing a new, better system of management is a risky proposition. Failure could be catastrophic, and then what happens to our ability to pay the mortgage and give the kids the life we wish for them? What happens to our social status when we have to tell our family and friends that we got fired for screwing up?
‘She’ll be right,’ may be the culturally accepted response,
but you have to ask, ‘Will she?’
But it’s not only about our ability to perform. As a manager or executive, we have to rely on the work of those who report to us. Perhaps we don’t have confidence in their ability to satisfactorily do the work of the level we’ve left behind. And it’s true that, on many occasions, the people in our teams are not competent to pick up where we left off—whether in terms of skills or attitude. Being buried so deep in the day to day, did we take the time necessary to develop our team so that they are ready for the new role as we step away? Have we been effective in our capacity to delegate work and taught our team how to do likewise? Do they know how to manage work that crosses the silos?
A devastating consequence of the inability to put in place the structures, processes and managerial leadership practices required to consistently achieve high-performance goals is the mismatch that arises between accountability and authority. To be just at work, you cannot hold a person accountable for the timely completion of quality work if you don’t match that accountability with the authority over the resources required to get it done. Those resources may be human, material, information or financial, and indeed can often be all of them. The higher the management level, the deeper the horizon of the work and the greater the demand on the organisation’s resources—everyone competing for their piece of a limited pie.
All of this brings us back to Goldratt’s famous response as to where the real constraint lies—management attention. Thus, if you are a manager or executive, where should you be placing your attention? Will you advance the cause of your grand vision by constantly returning to the firefight of the day? I’ve heard it so many times before when I ask the question as to why these otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people end up in the weeds? ‘I haven’t got the time’ means they’ve placed their attention on the trivial many at the expense of focusing on the significant few.
On one assignment, I recall being almost overjoyed when in a workshop setting, one of the managers told his story of how he got himself out of his bind. He was an elder of the group and was very well respected for his expertise in the field. His team somehow always turned up energised, committed and thinking of how to make their contribution count for the benefit of all. The room went silent when he started to tell the story of his heart attack.
He recounted his work habits prior, and they were the kind of frantic ‘be everywhere, do everything’ sort we had been talking about in our dialogue. He told us that when he was recovering in his hospital bed, he thought deeply about his family, the job he loved and the colleagues he considered a second family. He asked himself how he had let the situation get so out of hand that he would barely know which day of the week it was. And then it struck him. His job was not to do the work at the level he was doing it. What he had to do was to design the system of management that would give everyone the chance to bring their best selves to the challenges of growing the business that they all loved deeply.
“You only have sixteen hours of attention in a day.”
He talked about how he resolved that, before he went back to work, he was going to put together a plan that would cover the new design of his part of the organisational accountability hierarchy, what processes would be essential to its design and what a program of education and training could do to lift the skills of his managerial leadership team. Where necessary, he would recruit people to fill skills gaps and say farewell to the troublemakers. He was very clear on what investment would be required to bring his vision into being, but was also equally sure about his commitment to the difference his new organisation could bring to business performance.
When he finished, the mood was sombre but filled with hope. The team leader turned to everyone in the team and said, ‘Now we have hit the bedrock.’ None of us had to say anything more, as we all knew where the attention had to be—not in the daily details of operations, but in the development of the system of management.
You only have sixteen hours of attention in a day. If that’s your life’s currency, which it surely is, be sure you spend it wisely.
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.
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