The Theory of Constraints methods have seen a fairly slow uptake in the public sector, despite the fact that the conditions are not so radically different from the private sector. Rather, the same – or at least very similar – problems are found in a more concentrated form. This is why a case study analysis1 from the public sector can indeed yield useful lessons for the private sector too.
The case in question begins in 2007, when Michael Funcke-B of InWent Capacity Building International from Germany approached two TOC experts, Dr. Alan Barnard and Professor Antoine van Gelder. He wanted to see if a TOC constraint analysis could be successfully applied in the public service sector. Four African cities were selected with the aim of improving solid waste management, which was choking under the rapidly growing demand and had very limited means.
Initial situation: parallels and differences
The major agencies of solid waste management are a mix of private businesses (under contract with the City Council), community-based enterprises (organizing waste collection in the poorest neighborhoods with no formal arrangements), the City Council itself, and various citizen representatives. Getting the interests of these rather disparate parties to align presents quite a challenge. Fundamentally, however, the situation is not so different to that of separate business areas within a private organization, all operating according to local optima and thus regularly in conflict.
But of course there are differences, too. The public sector often suffers from a lack of clear objectives, along with a high degree of mistrust and inertia. After all, one wrong decision can have catastrophic consequences when the health and safety of millions of citizens are at play. On top of that, there is usually a high amount of uncertainty in the public sector. In our case study there were no exact population numbers and only rough estimates for growth rate too.
Additionally, the public sector tends to have “bureaucrats” who like to block change: they can say no, but they can’t say yes. And, of course, in a private organization there will always be executives at the top which can put an end to squabbling by putting their foot down. In the public sector it is nearly impossible to enforce consensus from on high.
And yet successful implementation is possible!
In light of the above factors, what the TOC experts and InWent were able to achieve in the four cities is all the more impressive. They brought all stakeholders together for workshops – similar to those used in the private sector, but with some modifications to match their specific requirements – to hash out a win-win solution for everyone. Those with some experience of TOC applications will not be surprised to hear that it was indeed possible to find an underlying conflict common to everyone. Those with experience in the public sector will be equally unsurprised to hear that chronic lack of funds (as well as citizens’ reluctance to pay for services) played a fundamental role.
TOC tools and thought processes were used to develop a roadmap as well as strategies and tactics, based on the three by-now-familiar questions “what to change”, “what to change to” and “how to cause the change”. An initial question, “why change”, was added in order to introduce the Theory of Constraints and obtain consensus from all involved on the necessity of the next steps.
So what can we take away?
The first, most obvious conclusion has already been mentioned: the TOC analysis is perfectly useful and applicable in the public sector. Admittedly, there may be a few additional layers of complexity and uncertainty. But, by using a slightly simplified and adapted model, it was entirely possible to develop usable strategies and tactics despite these obstacles.
This proved to be transferrable, too: using the pilot project in the first city as a template, it was possible to repeat the experience in the next three cities. Indeed, the same erroneous assumptions and rules could be observed in all four cities. The root conflicts and constraints were also very similar throughout. This shows that the TOC thought processes are indeed applicable in a wide array of situations – providing another convincing argument against the oft-seen objection that the conditions in one’s own organization are so special and different.
Once again, the importance of robust follow-up and follow-through procedures was demonstrated. Priorities must be consistently enforced, progress must be monitored, and potential obstacles removed even in the long term. It is important that initial positive results are not thrown overboard at the first signs of crisis.
This is particularly pertinent in the public sector, where improvement initiatives often don’t survive a political change. But even in the private sector there is a risk of slowly reverting back to old procedures or of introducing new, conflicting change initiatives – for example, after a change in management – and undoing any progress made.
A dedicated committee can provide a useful defense against this danger, with members drawn from the participants of the initial workshop. This committee can ensure that the initial objectives are not lost. It also illustrates the need during this follow up phase for local TOC champions who can draw on external experts if needed. In our example, it was possible in some cases to “train” these champions in the course of the workshop, and provide them with templates and basic tools for their work.
The main insight to take away from the experience, however, is this: the first step of any TOC initiative is a changed mindset for everyone concerned. Old and invalid paradigms must be abandoned and everyone must realize that fundamental changes are not only necessary, but above all, possible. No matter the circumstances, human thought patterns and processes tend to be much the same everywhere, and can be approached in much the same way.
1 Dr. Alan Barnard and Raimond E. Immelman: “Holistic TOC Implementation Case Studies, Lessons Learned from the Public and Private Sector” in Cox III, James F., and Schleier Jr., John G., ed. Theory of Constraints Handbook. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2010. p. 455-498