In one of Eli Goldratt’s last essays, his introduction to the TOC Handbook, he wrote: ‘Can we condense all of TOC into one sentence? I think it is possible to condense it into a single word: focus.’
[ Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
He went on to add ‘there are many different definitions to the word focus, but a good starting point is a simple definition such as “Focus: doing what should be done”.’ The 5-Step FOCUS is arguably Goldratt’s most significant contribution to teaching the world to think about systems and system performance. I want to take the opportunity to explore more deeply what it means to me and how it has always been the heuristic with which I start every assignment and to which I return when I get stuck.
It’s worth noting that Goldratt’s official version has the following formula:
1. Identify the constraint
2. Exploit the constraint
3. Subordinate to the constraint
4. Elevate the constraint
5. Avoid inertia, start again
Although the process doesn’t change, despite our change in the wording, I find the language of exploit and subordinate very harsh. It may suit the temperament of an iconoclastic Israeli physicist, philosopher and teacher. Still, for the uninitiated, it puts an unnecessary emotional negative charge in place before they even get started. And, I must confess that I rather like the fact that our formulation creates an acrostic, which spells out the word FOCUS.
But, the truth is that whether we are talking about Goldratt’s definition of focus (doing what should be done), or the 5-Step FOCUS process itself, there are two questions we have to answer before we can even get started. Some have suggested that because of this, it should be called the 7-step INFOCUS where the ‘I’ stands for identify the system under examination and the ‘N’ for nominate the goal.
This article will thus be the first in a series of seven, in which we will explore all seven steps to see if we can draw a fuller meaning from Goldratt’s insight. We will think through how we can use it to consistently deliver the great gifts that productivity improvements bestow.
Let us, therefore, begin with the idea of identifying the system. The definition I like to use is that a system, made up of parts, can do something that the parts alone cannot. A valve, a pump and a motor are each components of a system capable of controlling fluid flowing through a pipe. However, none of each of those components, on their own, is capable of managing the desired flow of fluid.
If we stand back a bit further, we can see that these three components, even when assembled together, cannot do anything useful unless we control them. That control might come from an operator who manually turns the valve and flicks the switch for the motor. Or it might be programmed in from the control room once the system has met certain conditions of temperature and pressure.
Standing even further back, we can recognise the fact that someone had to have programmed the controls so that they actuated the equipment. And the power that drives the actuators is connected to the grid—an entire electricity distribution system, itself tied to a system of boiler, turbine and generator, coupled to the supply chain for natural gas and on it goes to the beginnings of the design of the project to drill and use the gas.
And, in each of these network nodes are groups of people who have been educated in a schooling system, trained in a variety of learning systems, organised into management hierarchy systems, and governed by work planning and execution systems. But, that’s not all, as the plant and equipment, and all the people who make it work, live and breathe in our earthly ecosystem, which is itself a member of the solar system. And on it goes.
Rusty Schweickart, an astronaut on the Apollo 9 mission, had this to say about the view from above: ‘The size of it, the significance of it—it becomes both things, it becomes so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in the universe, that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realise that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing is everything that means anything to you. All of history and music, and poetry and art and war and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it is on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb.’
I believe that when Dr Deming spoke of appreciation for a system as being a prerequisite of his system of profound knowledge, he was considering all of these levels. Thus, when we contemplate the first of the seven steps as identifying the system, we should be cautious before leaping in and choosing only the pump, valve and motor. It’s a principle of systems thinking that primacy resides in the whole and not in the collection of parts. It takes the orchestra to sound the symphony, no matter the virtuosity of each player.
From a practical perspective, what should you consider when drawing your rope around the boundary of your system? There is the familiar concept of your sphere of influence and your span of control, with the former sometimes reaching out well beyond the latter. If you have accountability for an improvement of a system that sits entirely within your span of control, happy days. But that is rarely the case.
The nature of systems is such that you interact with other parts to accomplish a result. Who, then, can you influence to make the changes for which you’re accountable? You should seek to get formal authorities for the work you’ll be leading across the silos and use a practical task assigning method such as that defined by Elliot Jaques in The Requisite Organization.
It would be best if you paused to consider the nature of the system under examination using, for example, Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework. It has summarised descriptors and recommendations for four different domains of complexity, each of which offers decision-makers a sense of place, or habitat, from which to view their perceptions. Depending on the system and the type of complexity, different approaches will deliver different outcomes.
• Obvious: Tightly constrained, no degrees of freedom. Sense-categorise-respond. Best practice.
• Complicated: Governing constraints, tightly coupled. Sense-analyse-respond. Good practice.
• Complex: Enabling constraints loosely coupled. Probe-sense-response. Emergent practice.
• Chaotic: Lacking constraint, decoupled. Act-sense-response. Novel practice.
Ken Wilber offers a very popular Integral Theory framework with its ‘all levels, all quadrants’ systems map, used to examine people in their context:
• Interior Individual – intention
• Exterior individual – behaviour
• Interior collective – cultural
• Exterior collective – social
In our Ensemble, we have developed our spaceship model which examines the process of innovation through the lenses of strategy, culture, language, organisation, resources, operations, people, process and technology.
Whatever the framework you use to identify your system, there is a paradoxical truth. As Peter Senge put it: ‘…we have a new systems axiom ¬¬¬– what is most systemic is most local. The deepest systems we enact are woven into the fabric of everyday life, down to the most minute detail.’
“Each of us has agency in the systems within which we act”
The implication should be obvious. Each of us in our way has agency in the systems within which we act. When we pay attention to our intention, we notice that we entangle ourselves in a continuous process of being and becoming. Reality is not something that exists out there, in an inanimate system that runs like a machine, the levers and buttons of which we can pull and push until the world deems to make us happy. Reality flows through us, and is shaped as much by our personal cognitive and emotional capacities as it is by what our scientific reasoning provides us with empirical truths.
At Ensemble, we find the idea of mythology a useful way to think about systems. The word mythology comprises of its two parts: ‘mythos’ and ‘logos’. Put plainly, the mythos is the story we tell ourselves about where we came from, who we are and why we do what we do. The logos is the objective logic and reasoning behind the how, when and what we enact in our systems, to reach our goals. Put even more simply, the mythos is the narrative, and the logos is the process.
When we take that first step to identify our system, to call out where the boundary is, it’s valuable to spend some time contemplating both the story we tell ourselves, as well as the ‘measured by numbers’ facts of the boxes and arrows. Paying attention to both sets the scene for us to start the process of establishing the system goal.
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