A very common question once people get familiar with Theory of Constraints and the notion of bottlenecks and constraints is how to find them in a process. Identifying the constraint is key as the constraint, by its nature, controls the performance of the whole system.
The trouble with examples given in textbooks or case studies is that they are rather simple compared to finding the constraint in real life. This difficulty grew over time as processes got more complex, adding new layers of rules, standards and regulations. This complexity grew to an extend that many constraints remain elusive to people searching them, leading many people to be wrong when identifying “their” constraint.
Facing this kind of difficulties, readers asked me if a formal procedure to identify the constraint exists. I am not aware of such a procedure and from my experience the search for the constraint is much more like a detective’s job requiring investigation skills than applying a recipe. Some common patterns and similarities may exist, but every organization has some specificities that make the search for the constraint a special case. Therefore intuition and experience are definitely of great help.
In this series of post, I propose to review such investigations, that may help readers to transpose in their own situation, and eventually try to wrap up guidelines to identify constraints.
The usual suspects
First let’s review common bottleneck resources, keeping in mind that being a bottleneck is not synonymous of being a constraint and, as a general rule, a constraint is (and should be) a resource too long or too expensive to get more of it, or put differently turn it in a non-constraint.
A constraint was long said to be a very expensive piece of machinery or equipment which is too expensive as an investment to afford another one for additional capacity or which is not currently available.
Big stamping machines or presses, painting booth, heat treatment, surface treatment or sophisticated machine tools made good candidates for being bottlenecks and ultimately constraints.
Bad news is that things evolved, as we will see, and even if those bulky expensive or scarce equipment still make good candidates for the constraint status, they are not always the constraint.
For instance, I worked in a engineer-to-order company designing and manufacturing heavy mechanical equipment. The heat treatment was said to be the constraint and was managed by-the-book as a constraint.
After a short diagnostic, it turned out that heat treatment was not the constraint. It wasn’t because the true constraint was elsewhere in the process and those heat treatment operations could be subcontracted nearby at short notice and reasonable price. The subcontracting gave sprint capacity and provided relief whenever necessary. So heat treatment, even with long cycle times, was nothing really scarce nor excessively expensive.
Why was the heat treatment mistakenly thought to be the constraint? Because literature on the subject point this kind of process as usually being a bottleneck (remember: not enough capacity with regard to average demand placed on it). If indeed the workload often exceeded the capacity, the heat treatment was not the constraint. Failing to understand the difference between bottleneck and constraint led to a wrong conclusion.
Where was the real constraint? In engineering department where equipment are designed: people with specific skills that are long to learn.
More usual suspects
Very slow processes are usually also good candidates as bottlenecks: drying, curing, maturation, chemical or biological reactions, etc.
People with specific skills (as we have seen), knowledge, abilities, expertise, etc. that cannot easily be hired can also become constraints. So are some raw materials that are rare or dependent on harvest, climate, embargo, shortage, etc.
In some areas it is difficult to find some qualified workforce like welders, forklift drivers or specialists in some trade, which makes them constraints even so their profession is not so scarce at a larger scale.
When the constraint is not obvious nor easy to find, its identification becomes a matter of investigation. Investigation will start in part 2: observations on shop floor.