I'm inspired here by Seth Godin's Getting unstuck: solving the perfect problem, where he suggests dealing with constraints by eliminating them:
The way to solve the perfect problem is to make it imperfect. Don't just bend one of the constraints, eliminate it. Shut down the factory. Walk away from the job. Change your product completely. Ignore the board.
If the only alternative is slow and painful failure, the way to get unstuck is to blow up a constraint, deal with the pain and then run forward. Fast.
What do you think of when you hear about constraints? Do you want to eliminate them, as Seth suggests? Do you want to change them? Do you want to know why they are there? Or do you know that they are a fact of life? It all depends on your perspective and what you think those constraints do.
I'm a chemical engineer by training. Constraints go into equations and set the boundaries of an optimization: temperature must be between 300 and 350 Kelvin. Pressure must be ___. Operating time must be ___. Material of construction. Ratio of materials. Speed of addition. In this scenario, constraints must not be violated for safety, regulatory, physics, and many other reasons. They are just there.
In the world of business, we run into a lot of other types of constraints (or roadblocks) to getting things done. There's the classic "that's not how we do things here" that can hide layers and layers of decisions and behaviors and cultures. There is the pointy-haired boss who creates artificial constraints. There are market conditions that feel out of our control. There are also things that seem similar to the previous paragraph: the factory can produce X widgets per week, or we can finish about 15 projects a quarter.
The question is still: what do you do with them when you find them?
But first, how do you decide that a constraint is even worth looking at? The obvious answer seems to be that if the constraint is preventing you from getting somewhere, you want to deal with it. In the optimization world, this is an "active constraint." From the Theory of Constraints, there is only one constraint "active" at any given time. (Even in optimization circles, a solution where several constraints are active at once is undesirable because small shifts in other variables can push you beyond the edge into undesirable territory.) For any system, the only interesting constraint is the one that is preventing that system from getting more of what it wants. In business, that's typically sales. In personal life, it could be all sorts of things. But the constraint is the thing keeping you from getting more of what you want.
You know what you want, right?
Now if you know what you want, and you know what is keeping you from getting there, the response is obvious, right? Follow Seth's advice: Just get rid of that constraint and get what you want.
The funny thing about constraints, though. There is always another one waiting for you: something else will keep you from getting more (maybe even your own limits in how you define your goal).
Another way to look at this from a process perspective is to try to get as much through the system in spite of the constraint. Build (or rebuild) the processes around it so that you don't smash up against the constraint so hard. Your machine can only make X widgets a week (and you can sell many more than that), then you had better not be making sub-par widgets. Don't give the machine crummy materials. Don't drop the widgets that its does make. Make sure everyone knows what the constraint is, so they can work it into their operations. And keep a vigilant eye out for the situation where the constraint moves. (You've bought another machine, and now the constraint is in Sales instead of Operations.)
[Photo: "Friend or Foe?" by Jenn and Tony Bot]