Our introduction to the Theory of Constraints (TOC)
I was introduced to TOC in the middle of 2013. Our team had a quarterly book club and someone recommended that Eli Goldratt’s The Goal would be a good book to for the team to read and review. I sat down and drank that book in just as quickly as I could. It opened a whole new world of thought, process, and strategy. I’d already been somewhat of a process geek, and I felt that the theory of constraints (TOC) was a complete toolset that we could use to better our organization.
Our first real TOC application
Not long after reading that book the first opportunity to use this new toolset presented itself. At the time I was working as a Content Program Manager for Adobe’s Enterprise Marketing Division. The biggest struggle we as a marketing team had identified was content: we just didn’t have enough of it, nor the ability to create it quickly. Even though we had ample funds to address the problem we found ourselves struggling to solve the issue time and time again. I decided to utilize some of this new found TOC knowledge to hunt down the constraint of our content generation process that would enable us to succeed at our goals.
This hunt led directly to our knowledge experts, the product marketing managers at Adobe. First of all, you need to realize that Adobe prides itself as a thought leader in our space. And though I’m biased here, I would argue that overall Adobe does a fine job training and evangelizing our message where it really counts. However, the problem lies in the fact that the more knowledgeable an expert is at Adobe, the more demands are placed on that expert to present at conferences, answer customer’s questions etc.
Another problem is that though these knowledge experts are the best of the best when it comes to presenting their message and conveying an idea, it doesn’t always equate to the ability to create compelling content. They are marketers, not writers. They can talk the talk, but creating blog posts, website content, and so on demands an enormous amount of energy and time. Time is a resource that they simply don’t have. There were a couple experts that had eked out a blog post from time to time, but at this point they were very much the exception and not the rule.
Elevating the constraint
Once we identified that the constraint was our experts’ time we focused on elevating that constraint. Our experts simply didn’t have the time to generate the quantity of content we needed, but we hypothesized that if partnered with an excellent writer we would be able to produce a greater amount of content. Thus our program, dubbed the advocates program, was born.
We found that a 30- to 60-minute interview with our content expert would lead to vast amounts of content material. We partnered each expert up with a personal writing team. We conducted interviews and transcribed the calls, then the writers would go to work creating content (articles, blogs, web pages) that could be used for our marketing purposes. It was a perfect mix of talent because our thought leaders didn’t have the time to spend actually creating drafts and our writers excelled at drafting content with these inputs.
The resulting data told a compelling story. At the end of 2014 we had increased our throughput (published content) by 700%.
The beginning of the end
At the beginning of 2015 we were projecting to again double our throughput. The path was already defined by the success of earlier years; we simply needed to rinse and repeat. The rise in throughput in 2014 was quite unexpected and much celebrated. However, the new successes began to frame newer issues and problems that slowly and subtlety started to percolate through the process. The primary concern was the question, “how much content do we really need?”. These discussions later materialized in concerns that quantity was being emphasized over quality - that effectiveness was taking a back seat to efficiency.
The problem that was being raised was that additional content had reaching a point of diminishing returns for the success of our marketing efforts. Even with these concerns ringing in our ears, we persisted, stubbornly and somewhat blindly, past the point of no return. Inertia was now leading the charge. Factions began to emerge within our once unified team arguing the issues and the future strategy.
These factions and weaknesses within the organization turned into key vulnerabilities that were seized upon by an outside agency, which leveraged the growing concern to gain control of the entire program. Though some processes and resemblances of the old program were kept, once in control, the new agency gently steered the program back from a cutting edge internal program, to a standard agency content creation model. Throughput dramatically declined after the change and in 2016 resembled much of what it was like at the beginning. Content creation has again emerged as a key constraint within our organization.
- The Theory of Constraints is a very powerful tool that has the ability to rapidly change the throughput of an organization.
- This rapid change can lead to great accolades, but it also changes the organization in new and different ways
- If the new changes are not evaluated, managed, and injected into the strategy there is a growing risk that inertia will set in and make course corrections harder and harder to implement.
What I would have changed
- We solved our content creation constraint, but failed to keep our overarching goal of improving marketing’s efforts in mind. Keeping those goals firmly in our organization would have enabled us to make stronger course corrections along the way.
- TOC thinking processes were still quite new to us. Having learned much more about evaporating clouds, FRT’s and negative branches, I would have applied these processes to break some of our conflicts and remove some damaging assumptions to unify our team.