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Thursday, September 25, 2014

DevOps and the Theory of Constraints

The Theory of Constraints was first introduced in the business novel The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt.   The main character of The Goal is Alex, a plant manager who is challenged to increase the output of his factory in a short period of time or face shutdown.  Alex embarks on a journey to understand systems thinking and relies on a mentoring relationship with an elusive Jonah to help him understand how to improve his production processes.

One of Alex’s key realizations occurs during a hike with his son’s scout troop.   Herbie, a less than athletic scout, is having a difficult time keeping up with the other boys.  Alex observes that it is actually not Herbie who has to keep pace with the troop, but rather the troop that has to keep pace with Herbie.   Poor Herbie is a constraint that affects the rest of the system. 

This example illustrates the basis of the Theory of Constraints – a well-respected model for systems management.  Every process is an end-to-end system that has one or more constraints affecting its outcome.  The process will therefore only meet the capacity of its weakest link.  If the constraint is improved or removed, the flow of the entire end to end system will also be improved.   The key is being able to analyze, identify and improve the constraints. 

Gene Kim’s best-selling novel, The Phoenix Project, builds on the same premise in an IT context.  Constraints are interwoven throughout the story and form the basis for improving flow in the First Way.  As more bottlenecks are overcome, the entire end to end flow between Dev and Ops is improved.

Bottlenecks may not always be apparent since work slows down but does not necessarily stop.   Good practices for process analysis and identification of constraints are starting to emerge.   The soon-to-be-published DevOps Cookbook by Gene Kim and colleagues will provide better guidance.

I believe that understanding and applying the Theory of Constraints will be a key practice to help transform a DevOps culture.  Analyzing the bottlenecks and constraints that exist in and through Dev, Ops and ITSM will help to eliminate waste, identify collaborative and opportunities and streamline the flow of work downstream and upstream.

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