The path of least resistance is a familiar concept from nature. It can be observed in patterns of water on glass. Flow is created where least energy is required. But is there a way to make this principle apply to the way organizations work? There is, and we take a look at it here.
An example from physics
A point particle that moves on a surface is “constrained” by the surface so that it can only move along it in certain directions. In other words, the surface “limits” the degree of freedom of the particle.
However, this limitation, doesn’t mean that the particle cannot move. As a matter of fact, we know that motion is always possible. Once the actual forces acting on the particle are taken into account, the particle follows a path that obeys something known as “the principle (path) of least action”. The more familiar term for this is the path of least resistance.
Organizations are dynamical systems
Is there a “path of least resistance” for an organization? The answer is yes, and we find it by identifying the constraint.
The first chapter of any serious book on Analytical Mechanics always starts with the definition of “constraint”. The line of reasoning follows the idea that any dynamical system is constrained. What has that got to do with organizations? This is the great insight of Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt who developed the Theory of Constraints. He realized that organizations are also dynamical systems and they also have constraints. By leveraging the constraint, performance can be dramatically improved.
Some people may be under the impression that this concept only applies to limited areas of an organization, like a production line. In fact it is possible to identify the constraint of an entire organization to improve overall performance. We can actually decide to choose strategically the constraint of the organization in order to manage it. When we do this, we are able to find the “path of least resistance ” for managing the entire organization.
This is the essence of the Theory of Constraints.
Organizing around the constraint
Anchoring the system to one point, the constraint, and understanding the interdependencies (the actual forces in a dynamical system) is the way we manage and lead it toward the maximization of Throughput (value), which corresponds, in dynamics, to the path of least resistance.
In our methodology at Intelligent Management, we take organizations through a ten-step process that involves identifying the constraint, but we embrace two apparently different ways of managing, both of which are systemic:
- identification of interdependencies, understanding variation and its impact on the network;
- identification (choice) of the constraint, exploitation and subordination of the network to it.
The reason why we need both of these approaches is because one substantially fortifies the other. Understanding and managing variation creates stability and predictability, and identifying and subordinating to the constraint radically focuses and simplifies the efforts of the organization.
Ten steps to propel performance and continuous improvement
The ten steps of ‘The Decalogue’ methodology represent a path the organization can follow in order to manage complexity and to acquire the right behaviour for continuous improvement:
- Establish the goal of the system, the units of measurement and the operational measurement (without a common goal there is no system);
- Understand the system (draw the interdependencies);
- Make the system stable (understand variation and its impact on the network, make sure that the oscillation of the processes is statistically stable);
- Build the system around the constraint (subordinate the organization to the constraint, the only part of the system that can never stay idle!);
- Manage the constraint (protect the constraint from the intrinsic variation present inside the system with a “buffer” – buffer management);
- Reduce variation at (of) the constraint and the main processes (wider variation implies poorer management; low variation improves predictability, reduces inventory and WIP);
- Create a suitable management structure (choose the right people, improve/change the network of interdependencies to improve the performance of the system);
- Eliminate the “External Constraint”(sell the excess capacity, if present);
- Where possible, bring the constraint inside the organization and fix it there (an “internal”constraint is much easier to manage than an external constraint);
- Create a Continuous Learning Program (motivate people to learn, improve the system through personal improvement).
Path of Transformation
Working through these ten steps is not just about change, it is a transformation process. As Dr. Deming has said, “The prevailing style of management must undergo transformation.” This process not only affects the organization but also the people working within it. This can be avery positive experience. As Deming puts it, “The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions
However, this path of transformation is not simple. Conflicts and misunderstandings arise, personal biases clash and all this must be managed to smooth the path of change. Thanks to Dr. Goldratt, we have access to a full set of thinking process tools. In almost 20 years of application, we have seen how these tools can effectively overcome the “change vs. don’t change” dilemma. Consistent use of the tools can harmonize behaviours and allow people to follow procedures (the rules of the system) with success.
The ten steps provide a complete solution to managing complexity and change. It is not a path that is suitable for everyone, but it provides the foundation for an ethical, sustainable and ultimately more rewarding market.
This post was jointly authored by the Intelligent Management team, Dr. Domenico Lepore, Dr. Giovanni Siepe and Dr. Angela Montgomery.