In Praise of Constraints

Peter Saddington is an Agile coach and certified Scrum Trainer, who is on my short list of preferred Agile thinkers. He blogs at Agile Scout, and is the author of “The Agile Pocket Guide.” Peter posted an interesting article on removing constraints over at Agile Scout earlier this week. In it, he says:

Removing constraints to delivery will allow speed of delivery to increase, but not for the sake of speed. Speed becomes an outcome of the removal of constraints.

Well, that can be one outcome. But there can be others. The trick is to remove constraints that impede the goals of the business, without adding risk or reducing quality.

Knight Capital – Deployment Constraints

On August 1, 2012, market maker Knight Capital deployed an untested software configuration to a production environment. The cause? A technician forgot to copy the new Retail Liquidity Program (RLP) code to one of their eight production servers, which were Knight’s automated routing system for equity orders. When released into production, Knight’s trading activities caused a massive disruption in the prices of 148 companies listed at the New York Stock Exchange, resulting in 4 million executions for more than 397 million shares in approximately 45 minutes, at the wrong price. Losses for the day cost Knight Capital far more than their market capitalization (which fell dramatically by the end of the next day), and the company was acquired a few months later.

Firefly – Process Constraints

Firefly RestaurantThe best restaurants are run not to optimize throughput (unless you’re a big fan of drive-through windows), but to optimize the dining experience. That’s why they operate under process constraints for everything from cleanliness to the temperature at which food is stored. Small changes in a restaurant operation can make a huge difference in the dining experience, for better and for worse. When a stressed-out employee at a tapas restaurant here in Las Vegas called Firefly decided to minimize the time for his bathroom break by not washing his hands, about 300 customers got very sick with Salmonella. John Simmons, Firefy’s Head Chef, later said, “We’ve hired a food safety consultant with over 30 years of experience to double and triple check our methods and we’ll operate in the mode of continuous improvement, constantly upgrading our practices with new technology, new methods, and additional training.” In other words, applying constraints to the food preparation process. They’re still in business at a different location, but revenues have not recovered.

Mindfully Managing the Process

Some constraints can and should be removed, as part of maturing the process; others should be added, as part of the same maturing. Mindful management frequently reviews and tailors the process to optimize for the desired outcomes, usually with the active participation of the people doing the work. Mindless management does … well, other things. If your management is doing other things, maybe you need to find a better organization.

Image of Firefly restaurant copyright Las Vegas Sun, 2013.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Constraints

  1. Constraints that only serve to justify bureaucracy: Bad
    Constraints that prevent errors, enforce safety, security, and quality, and serve strategic goals: Good

    Coffee: Very good.
    Decaf: Evil.

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