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The Theory of Constraints is a systems-thinking approach that focuses on constraints that limit the flow or through-put of operations, be they manufacturing, distribution, professional services, and, yes, leadership. How is this so?
The Theory of Constraints (ToC) suggests that an integrated process/system has at any one point in time, a single constraint that governs the output or throughput of a system. Think golf ball in a garden hose. The single constraint or bottleneck restricts the flow of a product or service that can be sold, delivered, or it may limit work that needs to be done. The first key to the ToC is to identify the constraint. How do we find it? It’s often easy to see. Queues or waiting lines are an indication of a constraint. Excessive work-in-process inventories are also indicative of a constraint. The step in a process just after the queue or work-in-process is a constraint. Once we identify the constraint, the ToC suggests we do two significant things: 1) we optimize or exploit the constraint (increase it, and never let it stop or go down or dilute), and 2) subordinate every other step in the process to the constraint.
So, how does this apply to leadership? Try this. Either you or another person start doing work that you can accomplish by yourself. Be very conscious of the various obstacles or constraints you must overcome to get the work done. What are the constraints? Inertia? Physical strength? Cognitive ability? Spatial sensitivity? When the work requires just us, we likely execute it without a conscious acknowledgment of the constraints we overcome, but they exist and are conquered, nevertheless.
Now, ask another person to perform a task that is impossible for them to execute by themselves. This might be to move a half-ton item from one place to another. Observe for the constraint? What is it? Is it inertia, physical strength, cognitive ability, or spatial sensitivity as it was when the work required just us? These matter, but they are not the constraint. Is it the weight or size of the object to be moved or the object itself? Many managers observe this is the constraint, but it’s not. The constraint at the moment in time that the work requires more than just you shifts from the object of the work (the half-ton item to be moved in this case), to one’s ability to get others to help them in the work at hand.
Leadership is not required if the work requires just you. Leadership is absolutely required when the work requires more that just you. This is the essence of human leadership. How do you carry yourself in ways that others will commit more fully and willingly to the work at hand? As the ToC suggests, optimize the constraint or the cooperation of others in this case, and subordinate everything else to it. Your ability to get others to cooperate is the ultimate constraint in any business. You will find the Biblical basis for human leadership in Ecclesiastes 4:9a (NIV), “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.”
Is your inability to get others to cooperate with you in the work at hand constraining your business? Apply the ToC. Optimize cooperation. Two are better than one.