In a comment to my post describing Goldratt’s book, “Isn’t It Obvious?” through a Cynefin lens (Yes it is obvious…but only in hindsight), Robert Roy asked about the use of the Theory of Constraints Thinking Process tools in a Cynefin context and whether they are used/useful in creating breakthrough solutions.
This is an interesting question and while I might say that “It depends” and “Yes and no” are accurate answers they aren’t satisfactory answers. At the heart of the question is the role of logic, especially deductive logic, in the Cynefin Model. That’s what I want to talk about in this post.
First, some background. The Theory of Constraints is a mix of elements. It includes a number of proven logistical solutions (Drum-Buffer-Rope for production planning, Critical Chain Project Management for project management and product development, Throughput Accounting for management decision making, and the Distribution Solution for supply chain distribution issues). Most people who come across TOC come across one of these “generic” solutions.
But there’s more to TOC. There is a also the Thinking Process or Logical Thinking Process, which is a set of sufficiency and necessity based logic tools that are designed to help you analyze essentially any issue and determine what to change (what’s the problem?), what to change to (what is the solution?), and how to cause the change (What is the implementation/action plan?)
But now we get to Robert’s question. To be complete, here’s the full text of his comment (with hyperlinks to explanatory material added):
Steve. Are the TOC Thinking Processes still promoted by its creator? If so are you suggesting that in your view and understanding of complex systems and Cynefin that the 5 TOC Thinking Processes (Current Reality Tree, Evaporation Clouds, Future Reality Trees, PreRequisite Trees and Transition Trees) presented as tools to create and implement new solutions to core problems are retrospective coherence and have little use in finding the solution? I am of the opinion that they are interesting after the fact communication tools but of little help to create new solutions. In other words they leave out the tacit knowledge , the “intuition” needed for breakthrough ideas. What is your take?
Put another way, if we know that in the Complex Domain solutions are only obvious in hindsight and can not be determined in advance, then what is the role of deductive logic? Is it only in documenting the solutions after the fact?
I believe that aspects of the Thnking Process tools and related TOC aspects (such as the Five Focusing Steps) are useful in all domains, but not all are useful for all situations in all domains.
For instance, being able to conduct a detailed, deterministic, deductive logic diagram of “if-then” logic for a Simple Domain issue could well be true and accurate, but really unnecessary. People don’t need the logical derivation to show them reality, they can sense it directly.
OK, what about issues that appear within the Complicated Domain? Here the Thinking Process excels. It is, after all, a form of analysis and this type of analysis done by subject matter experts can be very useful and informative.
I’m not going to talk about Chaos other than to say that we can get some guidance from the Five Focusing Steps, especially to focus on the system constraint (or at least choose something and act as if it is the constraint and then sense what happens; if it’s not the constraint you’ll know it quickly and can adapt).
The real question, as Robert asked, has to do with the Complex Domain. I do believe that there are cases where solutions from within the Complex Domain were documented using the Thinking Process. In those cases it is Retrospective Coherence. But that’s not altogether bad since it really does make an interesting way to document what happened. Unfortunately, such a write up, handed to a new person will appear to be a “solution by analysis” done in advance.
But, some of the tools of the Thinking Process can be used in Complex Domain problems. One of the tools is called the Cloud or Evaporating Cloud. It is a way to show conflicting actions or beliefs and the assumptions behind them. It is acknowledged up front when creating a Cloud that not everything in the cloud is likely to be true, it’s enough that someone may act as if it’s true. Resolving the Cloud is based on coming up with a condition, called an Injection, that will invalidate parts of the conflict and allow a solution, preferably a win-win solution. (Most definitely not win-lose or compromise.) So, what is an Injection? We could say that it is a form of coherent idea. We can use that idea to form the basis of a Safe-Fail experiment. And we can use the Future Reality Tree to think about some of the potential positive and negative ramifications of the Safe-Fail experiment. A Negative Branch Reservation, for instance, is a way to consider in advance what to do to keep some negative patterns from emerging while the FRT itself helps you consider how to reinforce positive patterns that may emerge. Note that if you go to the Action Form for Complex Domain, a TOC Future Reality Tree would include the Actions, Indications of Success, and Amplification Strategy. The Negative Branch Reservations would include the Indications of Failure, the Recovery Actions, and who has the responsibility for taking the recovery actions. Same basic information written in a different form.
The Thinking Processes never claim to be complete and would never (or, should never) claim to be fully capable of charting out the future, but they can very well act as a sort of top level road map showing what you think is happening or will happen. You still have to manage reality and success will come from managing it appropriately.
In the book, “Isn’t It Obvious?” as I described previously, there is no expert guide. The characters in the book don’t know they’re doing TOC or any other type of process. They are operating in classic sensemaking style of responding to chaos, trying out a series of safe-fail experiments and then amplifying positive emergent patterns. They most certainly did not plan the whole thing out in advance, but they did, nevertheless, come up with a breakthrough solution.
I think that’s a key message. A similar message appears in Eli Goldratt’s previous book, “The Choice.” This is a non-fiction book in which Goldratt uses dialogues with his daughter, an organizational psychologist, to describe how he solves problems. He makes it very clear that he develops an idea (which may well be experience primed, intuitive, or abductive logic) and then conducts an experiment to test an hypothesis of what is happening. If the results are either significantly better or worse than expected then he must have missed something and he prepares additional hypotheses and experiments. Gradually the experiments will either be abandoned or will evolve into a generally repeatable method which can be documented.
Bottom line (finally): The Thinking Process tools can be used in many different Cynefin Domains to help guide us to workable solutions, but can also be misused, especially if we try to use them to create overly detailed logic of what might happen. It may well be that breakthrough solutions have come from the use of the Thinking Process since they could spur people to think in different ways, and they can certainly be used to help you adapt one of the generic solutions to your specific case. And they can be used to document solutions after the fact Those cases will appear to outsiders as if the process was used to create the breakthrough in total, even if it was used only to guide the solution.
It’s said that the consultant’s answer to any question is, “It depends” and I can see why. It’s certainly the answer in this case!
Many of the hyperlinks in this post are to sections of a book disguised as a web site created by Kelvyn Youngman. It is one of the most complete references on the TOC Body of Knowledge. You can find it here: A Guide To Implementing the Theory of Constraints (TOC) An excellent reference.