What is a constraint?

In the Theory of Constraints (ToC) body of knowledge, a constraint is a limiting factor to a process or organization’s performance.

Every process or organization faces at least one constraint, otherwise it could achieve infinite performance.

Easier to understand in physical world

Theory of Constraints originated in manufacturing, while trying to improve production processes flow and resources scheduling. A constraint in a flow is usually called a bottleneck, a metaphor widely accepted and matching the reality everyone can see:

  • flow is slowed by the bottleneck
  • material accumulates in front of the bottleneck
  • subsequent resources in the process are starved from supplies as the bottleneck cannot deliver enough to saturate them

>Learn more about bottleneck resources

With the successes in physical production, the principles of ToC were also used in office and administration work, where files, documents or data flow through processes and face bottlenecks too.

As ToC continued to evolve, it became clear that a limiting factor to the organization’s performance is not always a bottleneck resource, but can be of different nature, like beliefs, policies, decisions, etc.

A new term had to describe the intangible equivalent of the bottleneck. This is where “constraint” appears.

Rules and methods that helped to manage physical bottlenecks were not suitable for broader constraints, so the Thinking Processes were invented to cope with constraints and solve problems.

Thinking Processes (TP) are as well tools (mainly descriptive diagrams and trees) as a structured and logical way to analyze problems and design solutions.

I usually describe Thinking Processes as a subset of Theory of Constraints, even so they tend to represent more and more ToC compared to initial bottleneck management rules, methods and techniques. For me ToC is the whole, TP came later and are a part of ToC, thus a subset.

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