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Sustainability: Moving from Common Sense to Common Practice
2016 International Conference
Leesburg, VA - National Conference Center

September 18th - 21st


TOC for Academic Research - Moving From Common Sense to Common Practice

Dr. Vicky Mabin - Professor of Management at Victoria Business School, Victoria University of Wellington



Academic research into complex problems draws from a range of research methods which often include the methods of qualitative research. These methods have served the social science research community well, and assisted researchers to explore fascinating topics, collect rich data, and engage in intriguing discourse. The methods have been used by millions of researchers worldwide and are in widespread use throughout the academic world. The methods have been honed to overcome many difficulties, with many improvements and refinements such as greater reliability and ethicality of the research, and dissemination of results.

However, researchers still face many difficulties at various steps in the research process: for example, constructing initial workable research questions, collecting the right data, making sense of the data, and communicating the logic of the findings.

Over a decade of academic research involving several postgraduate research projects, we have explored the use of TOC tools to address these concerns and especially to complement qualitative research methods. This has been applied to variety of deductive, inductive and abductive research and in combination with a range of qualitative methods, including questionnaires, action research, case study, and sets of case studies. We have also used 3 approaches in using the TOC tools: sequential use of the thinking process tools as proposed by Dettmer (2007); the 3-cloud approach as advocated by many authors (Cox, Blackstone & Schleier, 2003; Scheinkopf 2010); and standalone or free-form usage as suggested by Schragenheim (1999).

As a result of such experience, we advocate for the use of a goal tree (Dettmer, 2011) at the outset of the research to set the direction and identify where the holes are, either in knowledge to be explored, or necessary conditions to be achieved. Using TOC causality and necessary condition logic to link the data collected together into a coherently-argued thesis is another way that we have found that TOC helps – at the other end of the research process. On the way through the research, various TOC methods can be used, for example, to capture interrelationships, resolve dilemmas, and achieve ambitious targets.

Using TOC and qualitative research separately, each provides a thread of validation. Using them together, these threads can be interwoven to make a stronger fabric for the research. In this paper we will document some of the ways in which qualitative research adopted by academic researchers worldwide and TOC methods can work hand-in-hand. Much of what is practised by qualitative researchers and by TOC practitioners would often be termed common sense, but sometimes such common sense is not necessarily followed unless prompted. It is hoped that by combining the two, that common sense will become easier to carry out, and become more common in practice.

The benefits of combining the two include providing multiple threads of validation to strengthen both types of research. TOC can learn a lot from qualitative research about use of triangulation of data sources, interviewing, sampling, and making claims. Use of direct quotes from participants adds life to the description of claims – either of existence of causes, effects, or the logical connections between them – making clearer the source of those entities and links in the TOC diagrams.

TOC can, on the other hand, complement and lend to academic qualitative research the TOC logic protocols inherent in the categories of legitimate reservation. The structure provided by the TOC change questions also helps when creating an interview guide to elicit the necessary information to be able to complete a preliminary analysis which can later be verified and checked by the participants. The protocols surrounding the definition of UDE’s and construction of a CRT help with making valid claims and help ensure that the researcher’s interpretation of responses is correct. Having a clear structure also helps coding and analysing the information collected.

TOC diagrams help by identifying and presenting the logical connections. These allow a full narrative to be constructed that is clear and transparent and allows full and frank debate. In our experience, the TOC structure of argument tends to be more logical and sound more plausible than unaided qualitative research, which can appear to be less organised. Using the CLR provides a safe neutral framework for critical appraisal of the logic diagrams – intent on getting clarity/truth of a situation to support evidence-based decision making. The resolution of dilemmas via the EC and the planning of research projects using a PRT or Necessary condition network can help smooth the research process itself.

In conclusion, these threads of validation, drawn from both TOC and qualitative methods, provide greater clarity, process validity, transparency of process, and face validity of resulting analysis. Weaving between the two provides a stronger result than either on its own.

It is hoped that this paper will show the relevance of TOC to academic researchers familiar with other methods, and show TOC users what the other research methods can offer, as well as help to bridge the academic-practitioner divide.

Learning objectives:

  1. Appreciate what qualitative methods can offer TOC researchers/writers 
  2. Appreciate how TOC thinking process tools can complement qualitative methods 
  3. Appreciate the benefits of using both together to provide threads of validation. 


Dr. Vicky Mabin is a Professor of Management at Victoria Business School, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, specializing in TOC and the decision sciences. Prior to joining VUW, she worked for NZ’s scientific and industrial research organisation, working as a consultant to business, government and industry on a wide range of strategic and operational problems.

Vicky holds BSc(Hons) and PhD degrees and a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Learning and Teaching. She is certificated in the TOC Thinking Processes, Operations Management and Distribution Management, and an academic Jonah. She is a Fellow of the Operational Research Society (UK) and has held numerous positions with ORSNZ including President, and NZPICS.

She has published widely in books and international journals, co-authored The World of the Theory of Constraints, and the lead chapter on the TOC Thinking Processes in the TOC Handbook, published by McGraw-Hill in 2010, and has given numerous academic and practitioner presentations and workshops. She is leading the team developing the TOC Research Database, has served on the examinations board for TOCICO, and as an editor for the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, and International Transactions in Operational Research, and for the TOCICO white paper series.




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