Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tracking the Wrong Constraint

I took advantage of this morning’s surprising warm weather to do some work outside. When I started, I knew I wouldn’t spend the whole day at it, but I didn’t know exactly what would stop me. Would my arms and shoulders get tired first? Or would my lower back or lower legs get sore from all the lifting and carrying? Would I get called away by something more pressing — or more interesting? Or would the weather turn rainy and send me indoors?

Any possibility like this is considered a constraint. It’s something that limits how much you can produce in an area of work. Yet in the end, it is just one constraint that stops you first. If you know what that constraint is, you can manage your work accordingly and get more done.

This morning, for example, if I knew I had just two hours before the rain would hit, I could move more quickly and get more done in the short time I had. But my guess was that my back would be the constraint that would stop me, so I took extra time to lift carefully to protect my back. If I had thought I might get bored, I could have introduced more variety into the way I was working.

What actually stopped me was not any of the things I had considered. I stopped because my toes were starting to hint at blisters and bruises from the effort of carrying heavy objects up and down hills. It came as a surprise that my toes were the limiting factor for my work. If I had expected to go as far as my legs and back could go, I would have been disappointed by having to stop sooner because of my toes.

We rarely know, when we first get into something new, what constraint is going to stop us first. Much of the disappointment people run across in their work comes when they guessed wrong about the constraints they were facing. Usually people focus on just one obvious constraint, and don’t even think to look for other constraints that may be more important. They’re tracking the wrong constraint from the beginning, and then they’re frustrated when they get stopped sooner than they expected. If you take the attitude that you will find out what your constraints are, you can get past this initial disappointment and manage your work better in the long run.