Getting real with the theory of constraints

Three top tips for high-performance from our DevOps Product Manager, Ed Pearson

The theory of constraints gets bandied about a lot in DevOps. It’s rooted in the idea that any process, system or organisation is only as strong as its weakest component. Which makes perfect sense. But like any theory, making practical use of it in the real world can be a challenge.

Digital organisations looking to achieve or maintain high-performance status need to actively address weaknesses that could harm the customer experience. So, how can the theory of constraints be applied in a meaningful way to facilitate this? It all boils down to focus: taking a scientific approach to identify the primary factor limiting performance, then working on it until it’s no longer a problem.

If that sounds like something your organisation needs to do, these three tips will get you off to a good start:

1. Identify your bottleneck

All systems have a bottleneck somewhere, and improvements made anywhere else can only offer illusory benefits. That’s why assessing and benchmarking current capabilities is an important first step on the high-performance journey. Ideally, this should done objectively and systematically to gather insight-rich data from all corners of the business. The goal is to obtain a complete picture of your organisation which reveals the bottleneck. Then you can work ruthlessly to remove it, improving the flow of work through the system so that value is delivered sooner.

Here at DevOpsGroup, we recently partnered with DevOps Research & Assessment (DORA) to offer a sophisticated evaluation and benchmarking service. Conducted via online surveys, the front-end of the process is streamlined, efficient and comprehensive. It’s further enriched by statistical modelling which draws on data from Global 2000 companies to plot results against a wider framework. Findings provide evidence of where strengths and weaknesses lie in relation to other businesses’ capabilities. And this enables more intelligent, risk-based decision making about where action should be taken and investments made.

2. Develop and implement a targeted solution

A robust initial assessment provides focus and direction for the next phase, where internal processes are refined to boost capabilities. This is where the theory of constraints really swings into action.

When the concept was first outlined in Eliyahu Goldratt’s book The Goal in 1984, it was intended as a model to reduce waste, boost collaboration and streamline the flow of work in a manufacturing context. Yet strong parallels exist between manufacturing and technology value streams. After all, they both rely on throughput of work through a system.

Goldratt’s ‘five focusing steps’ are as relevant to systems optimisation in the digital age as they were to streamlining manufacturing processes in the mid-80s:

  1. Identify – what part of the process limits the rate at which goals are achieved?
  2. Exploit – make quick improvements to throughput using existing resources.
  3. Subordinate – ensure all actions are geared towards eliminating the bottleneck, everything else is deprioritised
  4. Elevate – if the above steps don’t help, deploy additional resource. Attack the constraint aggressively until it’s resolved.
  5. Repeat – once the constraint is removed, move on to the next problem causing a bottleneck elsewhere.

When the bottleneck hindering the pipeline has been identified, DevOps professionals can deliver targeted IT improvements. An empirical understanding of which problem has the biggest impact on productivity underpins a prioritised, speedy approach.

3. Optimise for continuous improvement

The theory of constraints represents a logical way to tackle complex problems. It involves ongoing iteration and testing with multiple actions that escalate as required until resolution is achieved. The weakest link is tackled tenaciously and methodically – nothing else matters.

Concentrating efforts in this way quickly results in a more streamlined process. But for true high-performance IT, proactive steps need to be taken to avoid future problems. Core principles of DevOps methodology come into play here. It’s about optimising systems and eliminating bottlenecks to ensure the development pipeline remains lean and agile through proven measures such as:

  • Working in small batches
  • Reducing the amount of work in progress
  • Limiting handoffs between teams
  • Shortening feedback loops to improve flow of work and delivery of value.

A high-performance mindset

In the digital age, businesses that can’t keep pace with consumer demand or market disruption are fundamentally at risk. DevOps is a critical enabler for those that want to transform the way they operate, enhancing speed and predictability in the delivery lifecycle for better, more reliable customer experiences. Applying the theory of constraints to this process ensures IT improvements are precise and focused, spring-boarding a business from good performance to high performance.

Ed will be on hand at the DevOps Enterprise Summit from 25-26 June 2018. Pop along to stand G14 if you want to chat about how DevOps can drive fast and effective digital transformation. You’ll also have a chance to win a Kindle loaded with some of our favourite books

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