Agile India 2013 – Theory of Constraints Thinking Processes by James Ross

James Ross is a Senior Engineering Manager at Aconex. He is a popular speaker at various Agile conferences, including Agile India 2012 and Agile Australia 2012.

James has been leading agile development teams for a decade and has long since stopped believing that agile is the point. He has played consultant, architect and development manager roles at various organisations. His interests of late have been the Theory of Constraints, Systems Thinking and sustaining conversations with business people that the business people find interesting.

He will be holding a workshop on ‘Theory of Constraints Thinking Processes’ at Agile India 2013. We interviewed him recently and asked him several questions about his special interest in the theory of constraints and its practical applications.

What triggered your interest in the Theory of Constraints Thinking Processes?

As an avid reader and an agile practitioner since 2001, it’s only natural that I stumbled upon the theory of constraints. I seem to recall a colleague at ThoughtWorks mentioned it in passing in around 2004 and I started like most people by reading “The Goal” by Dr. Eli Goldratt, the inventor of TOC. Although it won’t win any literary awards as a novel, I found his style of questioning deeply held assumptions as a fundamental way to get to breakthrough improvements in any system very interesting indeed. I went on to read the next book, “It’s Not Luck”, which introduces the formal TOC Thinking Processes, which, to be honest, seem to be largely unknown even by people who are familiar with TOC generally. This is a pity, because in many ways they are much more immediately and practically useful to individuals at any level or role in an organisation. A few years later I stumbled upon the only tool I am aware of that is specifically designed to help you create TOC Thinking Process Diagrams. It’s called Flying Logic, and its user guide was the best education in the Thinking Processes that I had come across and from there I started using them for real to help with planning, collaboration, change management, problem diagnosis and conflict resolution. I am quite convinced I will use them for the rest of my life no matter what I end up doing. They transcend agile, software development and business; they are truly universally applicable.

Can you give us an example of the practical application of these thinking processes?

Absolutely. A specific tool in the TOC Thinking Processes is the Current Reality Tree. It’s the tool you use in circumstances where others might turn to The 5 Why’s from Lean. Although the 5 Why’s is simple and easy to use, it tends to oversimplify things a bit too much by encouraging single-cause thinking and ignoring the fact that chronic problems are held in place by reinforcing loops. A Current Reality Tree is a tool you turn to when diagnosing any problem. You start with the negative effects that you observe and work back through their causes, which often need to combine to result in the problem and often feed back on each other. At each stage, assumptions about causality are questioned (there is a formal way of doing this in TOC) so that speculation is removed and the true root causes of problems can be found. Once you learn how to use one, the 5 Why’s will seem very weak in comparison. The main reason is that if you see only a single cause for your problem, you have only one way to solve it. But if you realise three independent things had to happen to result in your problem, stopping any single one of them will solve your problem. This gives you three ways to solve it and you can just pick the easiest. So it seems more complicated but actually makes things easier. This is a recurring theme in all of TOC.

What is the take away for the attendees of the workshop?

People who attend this workshop will get a chance to apply these very practical tools to some problems of their own and to some ambitious goals of their own. They will learn how to diagnose the present and to create a better future for themselves and for their organisations by being collaborative and respectful with their colleagues and holistic in their thinking. They will learn that conflicts can be resolved in a win/win way with a concrete approach that they can apply in their work and life immediately after the workshop. Like many good things in life, these tools are simple to learn but take a life time to master!

Past talks:

Why Nothing You Ever Do Might Make the Slightest Difference

Sounds like another interesting workshop at Agile India 2013, book soon to avoid disappointment: 


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About Naresh Jain

Naresh Jain is an internationally recognized Technology & Product Development Expert. Over the last decade, he has helped streamline the product development practices at many Fortune 500 companies like Google, Amazon, HP, Siemens Medical, GE Energy, Schlumberger, EMC, CA Technologies, to name a few clients. These days, he is more focused on engineering excellence and product innovation. In a nutshell, hire him as a consultant/mentor, if your entire organization wants to move beyond the Agile and Lean mindset. Naresh is leading two tech-startups, which build tablet-based adaptive educational apps for kids, conference management software and social-media search tool. His startups are trying to figure out the secret sauce for blending gamification and social learning using the latest gadgets. Naresh founded the Agile Software community of India, a registered non-profit society to evangelize Agile, Lean and other Light-weight Software Development methods in India. Naresh is responsible for conceptualizing, creating and organizing 50+ Software conferences worldwide.