Theory of Constraints in Project Management

Instructor: Laury Hales

Laury has taught in professional adult education settings for over 10 years and is currently working on a PhD in Organizational Psychology.

The theory of constraints is a method for optimizing project processes to boost overall project performance. In this lesson, we'll look at the 4 steps of the theory of constraints as it relates to successful project management.

Defining the Theory of Constraints

Halfway through an important project to upgrade your IT network, you are experiencing bottlenecks that are impacting the progress of the project. You need to get to the bottom of the bottlenecks to get the project back on track, so you utilize the theory of constraints.

The theory of constraints is the belief that every system has a constraint, or bottleneck, that hinders the system's performance. The idea behind the theory is to find and manage that constraint and evaluate performance with improvements in place.

The theory of constraints is often associated with the old adage 'a chain is only as strong as its weakest link' because the process of finding a weak link in a chain is very similar to finding a bottleneck in a system. To fix a chain, you tug on its links to find the weakest one, replace that link, and tug on it again to be sure it holds. You repeat this process until you find and replace all the weak links in your chain, ending up with a strong chain.

Using the theory of constraints is similar; you review your project for the biggest constraint or bottleneck, address the issue, and test the performance. This process is repeated until the project's performance is optimized and there are no constraints impeding the project.

Let's take a closer look at the steps you'll use when utilizing the theory of constraints to resolve your project issues.

Identify the Constraint

The first step in the theory of constraints is to identify the constraint. Identifying the constraint can be done using many methods, such as reviewing external processes, reviewing project assignments, looking into project processes and timelines, and brainstorming with the team.

If the investigation into identifying the constraint shows more than one bottleneck exists, you must determine which one is impacting the project the most and address that first. Remember that a system can only have one constraint at a time. Using quantitative tools, which can give each constraint a numerical score, to determine the impact of each constraints is helpful to make data driven decisions.

In your IT network upgrade project, you first look at the supply chain, an area known to slow projects. In this project, however, the supply chain is keeping up with your project demands. You don't see an instance where the project was on hold awaiting materials. Next, you turn to the project assignments.

You have 4 engineers assigned to the project with tasks equally distributed among them. In reviewing the progress of the assigned tasks, you notice that one of the engineers has been significantly behind schedule since early in the project. While it was not very noticeable in the beginning, there has been a snowball effect on this engineer, and he now has several tasks that are overdue.

In talking to the engineer, you find out that he has been given assignments for another project that you weren't aware of in addition to his daily workload. Admitting he's getting behind because he's overloaded and doesn't have time to complete everything, the two of you decide to look into how to manage his assignments better.

Manage the Constraint

Once the constraint is identified, the next step is to manage the issue to optimize project performance. The solution, of course, depends on the constraint. If the supply chain is not keeping up with project demand, it could be managed by ordering materials earlier to avoid impacting the project schedule.

After identifying one of the engineer's heavy workload as the constraint in your project, you bring together the team of engineers to brainstorm how to manage the issue and improve project performance. Looking over his tasks, the team realizes that many of them don't require a senior engineer to accomplish; a junior engineer will be more than capable of handling those tasks. The team proposes bringing on a junior engineer to accomplish the lower level tasks and remove this constraint.

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