A series of 5-minute posts on applying principles of flow to knowledge work

Previously, I described how to go about optimizing the constraint in an organization. The next step, #3 in the Five Focusing Steps, is to subordinate the work of all other employees to that constraint:

  1. Identify the constraint
  2. Optimize the constraint
  3. Subordinate the non-constraints
  4. Elevate the constraint
  5. Return to step 1

This is perhaps the least appreciated and least intuitive of the Five Focusing Steps. To understand why subordination is so critical, consider that virtually none of the measures we’ve discussed so far targeting the constraint are possible in isolation. They all require cooperation from the non-constraints.

For example, in order to make sure the bottleneck is always fully occupied, it needs a queue of work packaged and ready to go at all times. That way, if the upstream resources are interrupted or slowed down for any reason, the bottleneck can continue to chip away at the queue uninterrupted — mission accomplished!

But that’s not enough. Once the upstream resources come back online, they need to rebuild the queue that has been depleted. And they need to do it fast, before an interruption strikes again. They can only do this if they have excess (or sprint) capacity. This is why for even one part of a system to be fully utilized (the bottleneck), every other part must have excess capacity.

The conclusion may seem counterintuitive: sometimes you have to invest in creating excess capacity for a non-constraint, before adding capacity to the constraint! In the Microsoft case study we looked at previously, they had to make sure the Testing team had excess capacity before attempting to expand Development, which was the bottleneck.

At the individual level, before trying to “expand” your bottleneck by increasing the amount of time you spend on “deep work,” you should prepare by first making sure you have slack elsewhere — in your sleep, your exercise, your diet, your relationships. Are you living a lifestyle with enough slack to absorb more focus time?

But the real aspect of subordination that makes it so interesting is that it is where politics and psychology come to the forefront. It’s all fine and good to talk about continuous improvement in lofty terms, until you have to point at someone and tell them they need to subordinate their decisions to someone else’s productivity. They are likely to hear this as “Your work is not as important.”

We make subordination decisions every day in every organization, of course, but in culturally approved and politically safe ways. We find it easy to “prioritize” and escalate things, declaring their importance to the organization’s goals. What is easy to forget is that this implicitly de-prioritizes many other things. These are second-order decisions, not explicitly made or recognized, whose effects are subtle and can take a long time to become apparent.

Another example of subordination is expediting. It is a decision to subordinate all the carefully planned work of the organization or team — current projects, release dates, prioritized requirements, batch setups, and agreed schedules — to a crisis. The sensation is that we are accelerating the emergency request through the usual steps. In reality, we are slowing down the entire system to free up the capacity needed to do so.

Besides being the least appreciated, the least intuitive, and the most political, subordination is also the most difficult step. It is directly opposed to what Goldratt described as the #1 rule of the workplace: stay busy.

Why? Because what subordination looks like is all but one of the resources having idle time. The psychological effects of this can be overpowering to everyone involved. It is almost impossible not to see idle time as “free” time.

First, because we have no real way of measuring productivity in knowledge work, we use “filled capacity” as a substitute measure. Managers strive to make sure everyone always has something to do. Employees themselves make sure they stay busy, making it hard for managers to even judge where the real constraint lies.

Second, practically everything we’ve been taught as individual contributors encourages us to optimize for our own work. We organize our schedules for how we like to work, package up deliverables just the way we like, draw the lines of our responsibility as clearly and tightly as possible, and police those boundaries ferociously. This is another thing that we don’t like to hear — we can’t all succeed just the way we like and have the organization succeed just the way it needs to.

Finally, we should realize these tendencies are not just bizarre human quirks. They are built into the system of measurement used to define what performance even means. Which means our responses to them are normal, natural, in fact, inevitable.

This is why Goldratt called cost accounting enemy #1 of productivity. Cost accounting is designed to measure productivity, defined as output per unit of input, at individual resources.

Since operating expenses (in knowledge organizations, people’s salaries) are essentially fixed, cost accounting indicates that production can be increased for non-constraints without incurring any additional cost. This appears to increase that person’s productivity when measured in isolation. But as we now know, increasing the output of a non-constraint not only fails to make a difference, but can actually lower the productivity of the entire system by overwhelming the bottleneck with a surplus of work.

This has an even more pernicious effect in knowledge work. The units of work moving through a system of knowledge work are ideas and requirements, which are highly perishable. As David Andersen explains in Agile Management for Software Engineering, every such requirement has an implicit body of knowledge surrounding its meaning and interpretation. As soon as it’s not being actively processed, that knowledge begins to atrophy. Eventually, when the person leaves, it is lost completely.

When a non-constraint overproduces and piles up a bunch of knowledge work inventory in front of a constraint, it is like a grocery store supplier piling up a mountain of ice cream tubs outside the freezer because they didn’t bother to find out how much capacity it had. When this ice cream melts (the ideas and requirements become outdated), the entire cost of producing them (researching, analyzing, updating, reviewing, summarizing, etc.) has to be written off as operating expense, instead of counted as investment.

Thus the incredibly ironic result of ignoring principles of flow, and making everyone work at full capacity all the time to “increase productivity,” is that operating expenses are higher and throughput lower than if no special effort was made!


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