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How the ‘Theory of Constraints’ Applies to Government

The management paradigm could help rebuild our sense of community.

(FlickrCC/VEX Robotics)
One of the most influential books on management is a work of fiction. Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s 1984 business novel, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, introduced a new way of looking at productivity that Goldratt called “the theory of constraints.” Managers are advised to avoid focusing on the performance of individual people or the utilization rates of pieces of machinery. Instead, Goldratt wrote, they should pay attention to the flow of materials through the system and work to identify the bottlenecks -- the constraints -- that limit the productivity essential to a company’s overall goal: making more money.

Kristen Cox, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, is the most prominent and articulate person I know of trying to apply the theory of constraints to government. In analyzing a particular program or process, she says, it is important to take a big-picture look and focus on the problem to solve. She sees constraints as opportunities to think deeply about problems and be open to new ideas.

But I struggled to see how the concepts in Goldratt’s book applied to government, since there seemed to be no obvious equivalent to the overall business goal of maximizing profits. While managers might improve the productivity of individual departments, such as police or public works, the absence of an overall goal makes their competing demands for resources difficult to resolve.

That led me to another influential management book, 1992’s Reinventing Government, in which Ted Gaebler and David Osborne described government as “the mechanism we use to make communal decisions: where to build a highway, what to do about homeless people, what kind of education to provide for our children.” I think that if government has a single goal, it is to be able to make and carry out these communal decisions. And when I follow Cox’s invocation to think big, it seems that one of the biggest constraints is the erosion of the sense of community we’ve experienced over the last generation.

Sociologists and psychologists divide the work done in groups into task functions and maintenance functions. Task functions are about the objectives the group was formed to accomplish. Maintenance functions are about keeping the group together as a cohesive unit that can get things done. If you think of communities as large groups, it would seem to be time for leaders to focus more on maintenance functions.

Some are trying to do that. In his 2016 State of the City speech, Anaheim, Calif., Mayor Tom Tait said his city’s goal was “to change the culture of our widely diverse city through simple, powerful and unsolicited acts of kindness.” Tate wants to create “social capital,” which Governing columnist Aaron Renn writes about elsewhere in this issue. Tait describes social capital as “building social muscle so that when inevitable challenges arise, we as a city have the strength and resiliency to respond effectively.” It’s hard to think of a better overall goal -- and response to constraints -- for any government.

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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