The Uptake of Theory of Constraints versus Agile

A practice is meaningless without use.

In a recent LinkedIn discussion, I was asked to support my comments and expound on why Theory of Constraints (TOC) didn’t catch on like Agile did.

TOC[i] found use in the project management world, but isn’t fully accepted. Many call its use Critical Chain project management.  Agile[ii] is different. It started as a way to develop software. And it has since spread to other project types.

You may not agree with my view. Yet I’d argue the money companies spend on TOC or critical chain project management is tiny compared to money spent on Agile. TOC is not alone in poor adoption. There are others, but my focus is on TOC.

Check the 15-year trend comparing Google searches: Agile (the specific term) and Theory of Constraints (the whole topic.) Please recognize the two concepts are competing for mind-share. Back 15 years ago, Agile and TOC were neck and neck. Move forward to 2019 and TOC is moribund while Agile continues to grow. I’d also argue that in about 2009 and 2010, when the TOC’s peaks smoothed out, TOC began an unrecoverable death spiral.

Search on Agile and Theory of Constraints as surrogate for diffusion into practice.

TOC’s poor diffusion comes down to one thing. Organizations don’t need it. Nowadays some of us characterize this differently. We say it doesn’t fill the “job to be done.” The notion with this thinking is we hire products, services, or an approach to do a job. It’s not what a project manager wants. Nor what PMO’s demand or consultants push. It’s the job that matters.

Who Moved the Cheese?

And what matters most is the big job organizations seek to complete. Use an executive or CEO as the persona to gain the perspective. These are the people who govern decisions and manage the purse strings. Their job-to-be-done concern differs from the project manager’s focus.

The reason Agile grew is that it’s a major job for organizations to succeed with new software and software/hardware systems. The job is a critical strategy move. And that move isn’t to manage old project types more efficiently.

Look back 15 years, and you’ll see software and systems hadn’t yet become core to business strategy. Scale-driven manufacturing platforms played a bigger role than software. Today, that’s flipped. And to keep up, CEOs needed to make serious strategic moves. Success with software was a major leap. Ask Blockbuster. Conducting projects more efficiently wouldn’t have helped this once successful company.

Unfortunately, TOC does not make software and hardware/software systems successful. But without Agile’s rapid customer and developer feedback, companies are more likely to fail the software strategy job. And when you fail key strategic moves, things can get ugly. Agile does the job. TOC and many other practices do not.


My practice focuses on product line strategies. I often use the short phrase “Right-Products-Right” to communicate challenges. TOC focuses on doing projects better, the second right. It doesn’t focus on discovering the right projects or reshaping them to be right. And to paraphrase Deming, there’s nothing more wasteful than working efficiently on the wrong project.

My bet is most TOC evangelists agree with Deming’s wisdom. But they also feel powerless to create better projects. Plus, most likely, they don’t understand what “better” means within a strategy.

Consider companies like Google, Apple, and Netflix. They conduct projects and have smart project managers. And I’d be surprised if these firms didn’t look at or try TOC on projects. But their golden egg is having projects aligned with great, fast-growing markets. It’s their business strategy and their superb product line strategies that drive their projects. Unfortunately, TOC does nothing to induce strategy moves or pivots to produce great projects. Nor does it help to reshape poor projects with a smarter customer focus, a key to Agile practices.

TOC’s efficiency-seeking approach works to double down on the old. This is at odds with the big job progressive firms seek to carry out. Their strategy moves are to drive a new generation of offerings with agile methods. Or, they’ll pivot into new areas. But they’re less likely to try to ‘out efficiency’ their competition. That’s like running the inane Red Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Down the Rabbit Hole

Is TOC’s diffusion going to get worse? Yes, no doubt it will. But major changes can turn it around.

Many in the TOC field hope they only need to simplify the topic and make it easier to teach and use. Of course, that will help. But simplification won’t do anything about the big job-to-be-done. The great change is to pivot TOC to the first ‘right.’ It’s to shift to finding and shaping the best projects, not making projects better. This means focusing on strategy formation and execution, not project management.

TOC can make the pivot. But it’ll take genius thinking, rebranding, and coupling TOC to other approaches. Plus, it will demand a different cast of characters to pull it off. I am sorry to say I don’t see the current TOC evangelists making the move. Few have the skills, knowledge, or influence to play the strategy game, especially in large companies. And it’s large companies that stand the most to gain.

If you’re a TOC consultant who wishes to stick to the current course, here’s advice from a strategist. Recognize TOC is at the end of its life cycle. The common strategy move in this stage is to simplify, cut costs, and market harder. It’ll help slow the decline and buy you time. And if you don’t think that will work, you can always lower your living standards or find something else to do.

Good luck!

[i] There is much written on TOC. A good place to start the reading is on Wikipedia.

[ii] There’s also much written on Agile. You’ll also find Wikipedia is good place to begin learning the topic.


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5 replies
  1. David says:

    Could the lack of focus also be a contributor to the failure of TOC to become mainstream. When launching any new product we are taught to focus on the beachhead and establish it. I contend that Eli applied an unfocused approach when monetizing his process, books, seminars, Jonah Training, Software solutions, …etc, and tried to interconnect them all. The result was confusion.

    His books, particularly the Goal, were a success but if you’re smart then shouldn’t you be able to work it out for yourself. If you need a specialist to implement then it becomes a constraint and inhibits TOC growth.

    • Paul O'Connor says:

      Thank you for the note, Hernan. The blog is about the diffusion of TOC into practice compared to the diffusion of Agile into practice.

      The statement is about how TOC “doubles down on the old.” The context is about the old STRATEGY target or intent for which the product is being developed. I appreciate you thinking I don’t understand TOC as you do. But I know that I understand TOC pretty well, whereas your comment suggests you have little understanding about the strategy, particularly product line strategies. In fact, I’d argue that your comment is reflective of the TOC community and why, as this blog points out, the TOC approach falls short of its potential. Clearly, TOC’s diffusion into practice falls short of Agile.

      If you followed my teaching and writings, you’d see I am a strong proponent of TOC, except when it enables the wrong products and projects to move forward. When that happens, its doubling down on the old.

      • Hernán Sedano says:

        Sorry man, I really don’t understand what is your objective with this article, but if “TOC’s poor diffusion comes down to one thing. Organizations don’t need it”, then is better in that way.

        On the other hand let companies embracing TOC get a decisive competitive edge for a longer window of time.

        • Paul O'Connor says:

          I wrote this to drill a little deeper than “organizations don’t need it.” Why do they need Agile more than TOC? Can anyone show evidence that companies “embracing TOC get a decisive competitive edge for a longer window of time?” Why?


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