Theory of Constraints: Part 1

The Theory of Constraints is a popular methodology for organizational change and improvement that was first conceptualized by Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt and introduced through his bestselling novel, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. The Theory of Constraints popularity grew quickly and is now a very popular methodology among many organizations. It’s growth and popularity has driven many to compare it to another improvement methodology that is also very popular –Lean.

This is the first in a series of posts that will dive into the Theory of Constraints and its concepts, methods, and goals. Later, I will compare and contrast it with the continuous improvement methods and thinking behind Lean.

What is the Theory of Constraints?

Key to success road sign for Theory of ConstraintsYou’re only as strong as your weakest link. The basic concept behind the Theory of Constraints is that every organization has a weak link in the form of a constraint. Constraints can be defined as any limiting factor that inhibits an organization from achieving a desired goal or anything else they might be striving for, which is usually profit. This could also be referred to as a bottleneck.

The Theory of Constraints is a methodology backed by a scientific approach to define and eliminate your weakest link. The hypothesis is that all complex systems consist of multiple linked activities like a chain, including manufacturing processes and in each chain, there is a weak link. This is then the constraint that is to be removed in order to improve your organization.

One of the strengths to the Theory of Constraints is that it emphasizes focus in world of information overload. It prioritizes improvement activities down to the current constraint and the methodology for rapidly improving it.

Constraints 101

To fully understand the Theory of Constraints, you have to understand what a constraint is. As stated earlier, a constraint is anything that prevents an organization from making progress towards a goal. They can take shape in many forms and to help you better understand them, here are some common categories of constraints:

PhysicalUsually equipment, but can also be other items, such as lack of materials, not enough people, or insufficient space.
PolicyHow you are supposed to do the work described. This could include company procedures, union contracts, or government regulations.
ParadigmThe habits and beliefs engrained into the culture that performs the work.
MarketWhen you begin to produce more than you are selling.


The goal of just about any manufacturing company is to make a profit. The Theory of Constraints includes a set of tools to help you do just that, including:

  • The Five Focusing Steps
  • The Thinking Processes
  • Throughput Accounting

The Five Focusing Steps

  1. Identify the current constraint:  The constraint can be identified through various methods. This could be any one of the before mentioned constraints, but is the single part of the process that is currently limiting the rate in which the goal is achieved.
  2. Exploit the constraint: Now that you have identified the constraint, you need to decide how to exploit it. Goldratt says the change agent needs to obtain as much capability as possible from a constraint, without undergoing expensive changes or upgrades –make the most of what you currently have.
  3. Subordinate: You can now make and implement decisions to ensure rules, behaviors and measures enable, rather than impede its ability to exploit the identified constraint.
  4. Elevate the system’s constraint: If the first three steps are successful, you can now take whatever action necessary to eliminate the constraint. All major changes to the existing system are considered in step four.
  5. Don’t allow inertia to set in: Remember this is a continuous improvement process. Once you have eliminated the constraint, return to step one and repeat. There will always be another constraint.

The five focusing steps are the keys to keeping focused and on task with the big picture. They allow you to keep track of where you are in the process and understand what still needs to be done to eliminate the constraint.

Stay tuned for future posts in this series that will expand on the thinking process, throughput accounting, as well as a breakdown the Lean and Theory of Constraints similarities and differences.

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Kyle Holland

As a Content Developer for Creative Safety Supply, I pride myself on creating educational, well researched content to a niche audience of safety enthusiasts and safety managers around the globe. The philosophies and concepts of Kaizen, 5S, and Lean play a significant role in my own personal ideologies and help fuel the creativity behind my writing. Via the many communication channels offered by CSS, my goal is to help educate, motivate, and improve the safety of people, both at home and at work.