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Problem-Solving Using the Five Focusing Steps

After a four-decade career, I’ve come to realize that most organizations, and most managers and leaders, aren’t very good and finding and fixing the problems that hinder success. The result is significantly reduced efficiency and effectiveness with business consequences ranging from low profitability to lack of competitiveness to bankruptcy and dissolution. The very few leaders who are good at problem-solving are the rock stars in their organizations, earning accolades from many and envy from a few of their peers who attribute their success to luck.

Photo by dogherine on Unsplash

If you think repeated success is mainly due to luck, then I’d encourage you to challenge that belief and read on. Sure, luck is something that happens to everyone occasionally, but if a few people continue to achieve success under challenging conditions it isn’t luck. Or perhaps it is, if we consider luck to be what happens when preparedness meets opportunity, when a problem arises in an organization and a leader with the ability to understand, diagnose, and solve problems is there to handle it. In short, we make our own luck by preparing for the inevitable opportunities disguised as challenges that will arise.

Follow the Science

Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt, the Israeli physicist who conceived the Theory of Constraints and subsequently became one of the world’s foremost business consultants, believed in a science-based rational approach to identifying and eliminating problems in business that limit success. His Theory of Constraint teaches us to understand, identify, and remove constraints in our business in order to increase business efficiencies and thus boost profits.

Goldratt realized that all businesses produce value through a continuing series of transformations of work, from an initial state of raw materials and/or ideas, to a final state of a business delivery in the form of a product or service. Those continuing series of transformations comprise a workflow, which can be more narrowly defined as a sequence of stages that work moves through, with each stage transforming work from the stage’s entry state to a final or exit state. Each stage in a workflow has a capacity constraint or a capacity to transform a specific amount of work over time. Capacity constraints vary across stages in any workflow based upon some combination of process and resource capability at each stage.

The value in identifying capacity constraints (‘constraints’) is that it’s a necessary precursor to reducing or eliminating them. Goldratt created a strategy, a series of actions that lead to achieving a goal, that provides guidance on improving throughput. He called this strategy The Five Focusing Steps, and they are as follows:

1. Identify the primary constraint

2. Exploit the constraint

3. Subordinate the constraint

4. Elevate the constraint

5. Don’t let inertia be the constraint

The Five Focusing Steps are simple in concept, but require understanding to utilize effectively. Let’s explore each step in depth.

Step 1: Identify the Primary Constraint

As previously discussed, each stage in a workflow has a capacity constraint, defined as a finite capacity to transform a specific amount of work over time that is dependent on some combination of process and resource capability, and across a workflow the capacity constraint varies from stage to stage. However, one stage will have the most stringent constraint; we call this stage the bottleneck because it will be the limiting factor for throughput across the workflow. We can identify constraints by looking for a large queue of work waiting to be processed by a particular stage, and we can identify the bottleneck by it being the last stage in our workflow with an accumulation of work queued in front of it (all downstream stages have a higher constrained capacity). Goldratt realized that focusing on improving any stage that was not the bottleneck was ineffective and inherently wasteful because it didn’t improve throughput across the workflow.

Key Strategies: Focus on identifying and eliminating the bottleneck, instead of trying to optimize multiple stages of a workflow independently and/or simultaneously. Seek to be able to describe and explain the problem to others in order to create consensus by shared agreement… get people to agree on the problem if you want them to agree on the solution.

Step 2: Exploit the Constraint

Often capacity is limited in a stage because the equipment or resources at that stage are not fully devoted to performing work at that stage. Instead, the resources are idle or directed at other activities in a misguided effort to increase throughput by increasing utilization. For example, we see tests not being executed because the tester on our team is off working on another project, or a server with the required testing environment is being used for another non-critical activity. Instead of increasing capacity by hiring additional employees or buying more equipment, we should focus on using the resources we already have more efficiently and effectively. Exploitation is the complete focus and utilization of resources responsible for a workflow stage solely on the work that must be done in that stage to the exclusion of any other work, even at the cost of lower utilization of those resources. We have to remember that more utilization at a non-bottleneck stage doesn’t increase throughput or productivity, while less utilization/availability at the bottleneck decreases throughput across the entire workflow.

Key strategies: Ensure that all resources assigned to a constrained stage are 100% available and focused solely on the work that needs to be performed in the bottleneck. Focus on process improvements to improve productivity by eliminating unnecessary work in the bottleneck (work that does not add value by directly transforming the work as per the stage). .

Step 3: Subordinate the Constraint

Once we’ve exploited the primary constraint, we may still not be able to keep up with upstream stages. The next step is to subordinate the constraint, or ensure that every upstream stage is producing only at the rate at which the bottleneck can consume. Because we are reducing demand on the upstream stages, we are also freeing up capacity, and we should be able to use some of that excess capacity to help increase capacity at the bottleneck, e.g., if developers can produce more code than testers can test on our project team, the developers should help the testers once the accumulation of untested code exceeds the testers’ capacity. If the capacity cannot be used at the bottleneck, then we should try to use it elsewhere in the organization. For example, if our testers cannot keep up with the developers on our project team, and the developers cannot add testing capacity, then we should consider reassigning the developers to another project where development capacity is the primary constraint.

Subordination requires employees to be flexible, to be willing to contribute where their efforts directly increase throughput instead of insisting on working only in their functional role. If employees are unwilling or unable, and management cannot afford to hire additional staff to increase capacity at the bottleneck given the current staffing, then reduction of excess staff to mitigate the bottleneck has to be considered as a business imperative.

Key strategy: Utilize excess capacity from upstream stages to improve capacity at the bottleneck, or move it to other projects where it can be productively utilized. Do not allow less-constrained stages to create excess work in-progress (WIP).

Step 4: Elevate the Constraint

Finally, if our efforts to exploit and then subordinate the constraint are insufficient to eliminate the bottleneck, we must add enough capacity to do so and accept the cost of doing so, whether incurred by hiring staff or buying equipment. This step is, obviously, expensive, and should be the last resort. Too often companies make this the first resort without exploring other alternatives because adding capacity is the straightforward, brute-force solution. Unfortunately, additional resources in the form of staff or equipment is often added without sufficient analysis, and in the wrong areas. Adding unneeded capacity (capacity in a stage that is not the bottleneck) not only wastes money on unnecessary staff, it exacerbates problems around throughput by creating excess capacity that cannot add to throughput, but only adds to incomplete work in progress. Be mindful that, initially, added capacity in the form of resources may not be fully productive due to ramp-up time, and be willing to allow sufficient time along with sufficient direct management involvement in the form of mentoring.

Key strategies: Hire as a last resort, based upon process metrics, and after experimenting by temporarily adding capacity by moving it from another area of the organization to see if insufficient capacity is, in fact, the problem. Ensure that new resources are appropriately and sufficiently trained and mentored before expecting to see requisite throughput increases. Never elevate before first exploiting and then subordinating.

Step 5: Don’t Let Inertia Be The Constraint

The process of identifying and removing bottlenecks across the value stream is never-ending, resulting in continuing Kaikaku/Kaizen cycles. Each time a bottleneck is removed by increasing capacity, the next-most constrained stage becomes the bottleneck, and the Five Focusing Steps must be repeated ad infinitum. The Goal, as Dr. Goldratt would have said, is to improve until the market becomes the constraint, until your organization can produce and deliver faster than the market demands.

Rinse and Repeat

Continually applying the Five Focusing Steps is one of the primary responsibilities of management… arguably the primary responsibility. Thus, understanding how work is done across the organization, knowing how to value stream map the flow of work from stage to stage, how to measure throughput (not just utilization) in each stage quantitatively, how to spot bottlenecks, how to employ root-cause analysis techniques to determine the fundamental reason for the bottleneck, and then how to use the Scientific Method to experimentally evolve process and practice… these teachable skills are the basis of effective management. Simply put, if you can’t measure it, understand it, and improve it… you can’t manage it. Good managers employ these techniques to produce an organization with clear, explicit policies and minimal, effective process that allows for productivity without crisis, or guessing, or putting out fires continually.

Summary

When we talk about the Four Rungs on the Problem-Solving Ladder (Ignoring, Resolving, Solving, Dissolving), we talk about four increasingly-effective approaches to problems. The Five Focusing Steps apply to the second through fourth steps (Resolving, Solving, Dissolving). Be mindful that increasing throughput always starts with increasing quality; be willing to slow down the process of transforming work until it is well understood and thus can be done without fault. Then seek to gradually increase the rate at which quality work can be done by removing impediments to throughput. The act of slowing down to the rate of quality will, by itself, increase throughput through the elimination of rework. The rate of quality is not dependent on any external cadence; quality work will take as long as it takes under a specific process regardless of a cadence, but we should not let it take longer. Do not let work expand to fit the time available; seek to improve processes so that quality work can be completed in less time. That is the purpose of the Five Focusing Steps.

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John Clifford

John Clifford

Recovering software engineer, manager of engineers, and consultant. See my bio on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johngclifford/

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