A Guide to Implementing the Theory of Constraints (TOC)





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Obtaining Agreement Should Be Easy – Right?

People want to do their very best, we know that.  We also know that we need to reframe our situation away from a reductionist/local optima approach to a systemic/global optimum one.  In order to do this we need to seek people’s agreement.  If, in the process of doing this, we make people’s working lives easier and more enjoyable then such agreement should be forthcoming – right?  Unfortunately, not as right as we might have expected.

Why is this?

Our people will initially be resistant to new ideas.  After all, they are the ones with the technical expertise, the enthusiasm, the dedication, and the most to lose in not being able to bring about an improvement.  They will have already tried numerous solutions, got further and further into trouble, and quite reasonably rationalized that the problem is truly beyond their control.

The more expert, enthusiastic, and dedicated our people, the worse the problem.  Consider a public health hospital system – populated by some of the brightest minds around.  And what do we see?  Long waiting lists, overcrowding, and immense levels of frustration.  And what are the reasons?  Not enough funding, our buildings are too old, the population is aging, we can’t afford to buy the newest equipment, we have a unique demographic in our area, expectations are rising.

Do you see something in common there?  Almost all of these reasons externalized the problem out of the system.  The problem is caused by something or someone else.

Let’s draw this using our simple departmentalized model.

We know that there is internal conflict between departments, we agreed to that earlier on.  But when we are faced with an improvement opportunity the causes of the problems will be verbalized as external to the system.  Basically us on the inside, versus those on the outside.

It is not just in health of course, health just happens to be good example because we don’t doubt the skill and dedication of those directly involved.  I have worked in Japan over a number of years.  One of my surprises there is that group harmony very much depends on how you define the group.  If you define the group as one foreman’s area then you will find so-called paper walls between adjoining foremen that would rival and maybe exceed anything we see in the West – its very thick paper indeed, believe me.  When the improvement process is at a factory scale in this environment, then just as in the West; the sales department, marketing, vendors, outsourcers, the market, and a whole host of external reasons are brought to bear.  So not only does expertise and dedication make the matter worse, but strong group identity also has a similar effect.  We need to reframe the situation from; problems external to the system, to problems internal to the system.  In other words we need to obtain agreement on the nature of the problem (1).  We need to overcome resistance to change (2).

Obtain Agreement On The Problem At Hand

Let’s draw what we are trying to achieve with our simple departmentalized model.  We are trying to reframe the situation from this,

Back to this again.

Why?  Well, we really can’t do very much if the problem is truly outside of our span of control or sphere of influence.  Sure, we rationalized that the problem is truly outside of the system, but if that is the case what is the chance of improvement – about zero.  I really think that we should give up now.

You didn’t give up.  Then, let’s carry on.  Maybe the results obtained by Theory of Constraints over the last 20-30 years gives us a hint that much indeed can be obtained from gaining agreement about the nature of the problem and rationalizing that the problems are indeed internal to the system, or at least the problems that we can address are internal to the system.

For the logistical solutions of drum-buffer-rope, the distribution solution, and Critical Chain project management, there are computer simulators that are “perfect systems.”  All the external influences are removed and yet we find that it is still difficult to meet our objectives.  This type of simulation allows people to develop the idea that just maybe the real problems are internal to the system, not external as they had previously assumed.

For the non-logistical solutions of sales, marketing, and strategy, we must use the current reality tree to build the intuition that the core problem is indeed internal to the system and within our span of control.  The current reality tree is more fully described in the Thinking Process section; however, it is sufficient to say here that the current reality tree helps to build organizational knowledge about the problem.  It does this by showing the possibly hitherto unrecognized relationships between disparate symptoms experienced by different people in different parts or the organization at different times – and it relates it back to deeper underlying causes.  It allows us to seek agreement on the underlying problem.

Of course for some people the problem is already well known.  The problem is, as they see it, the absence of their favorite solution.  However, if you look past the verbalization of “we don’t have….” or “we don’t have enough of …” to the symptoms that the favored solution is meant to address, then you will be able to incorporate their concerns.

Obtaining agreement on the nature of the problem may be viewed as a two part construction, the first part is obtaining agreement about the magnitude of the problem, relating all the undesirable cause and effects back towards a core problem or core conflict.  For this we use the current reality tree.  The second part is obtaining agreement on the nature of the core problem or core conflict.  For this we use the cloud.

Obtain Agreement On The Solution To Consider

Once we have obtained agreement on the nature of the problem at hand, then obtaining agreement on the solution to consider should be simple – right?  Oh dear, same problem again, it’s not as straight forward as we might have hoped.

Why is this?

Maybe it is because the solutions are indeed simple in concept.  We are so used to complex and expensive solutions that it is hard to believe that any other sort could exist.  Moreover, if such solutions existed surely we would have been aware of them.  Certainly if you look at environments where these solutions have been successfully implemented it is too easy to surmise that they must have been quite poorly managed in the first instance in order to obtain such improvements.  People will verbalize that their situation is different.  We know that in fact we each must be different.  Herein lies the crux of the matter.  Later we will break it into two parts, but for the moment we will consider it as one.

The first part is to gain acceptance that one of two key changes can brings about substantial improvement in the whole system.  We have already referred to the concept of leverage points – sometimes leverage points are no more than ideas, ideas that overcome policy constraints.  These key ideas set the direction of the solution.  These key ideas are called injections.  Something new that we inject into the current undesirable reality that will convert things into a positive future reality.  However this alone is not enough.  Some people will not immediately see the connection between the direction of the solution and their part of the system.

In order to show the interconnection we need to build a future reality tree.  A map of cause and effect out from our key changes towards all of the undesirable symptoms that we previously incorporated in our current reality tree.  Yes we are looking for real leverage points, a few key changes which will render numerous symptoms null in the process.  Building the future reality tree allows people to gain agreement on the nature of the solution; both the direction of the solution, and the interconnectedness of these key changes and their part in the system.

So, the first part, finding the direction of the solution is continuing on from the cloud that we will have constructed to obtain agreement on the nature of the core problem or conflict.  Agreeing on the direction of the solution is “breaking the cloud,” with a new injection.  The second part, showing that this high leverage idea can nullify most undesirable effects is the construction of the future reality tree.

Sometimes we may not nullify all of the undesirable effects with our limited number of key changes.  We might have to do some smaller local detailed changes to nullify all of the symptoms – of you like secondary injections.  However, another aspect of our key changes is that they might in fact give rise to new and unanticipated negative outcomes.  In addition to obtaining agreement on the solution, we must obtain agreement on overcoming any additional negative outcomes.  Let’s examine that next.

Obtain Agreement On Overcoming Additional Negative Outcomes

Although we have obtained agreement on the nature of the solution, it is likely that as we build our future reality tree some unanticipated but potential negative outcomes will arise.  Are we likely to abandon the solution to our problem for the sake of some new negative outcomes?  Not very likely!  Are we likely to accept these new negative outcomes as undesirable but tolerable?  Not very likely either!  So we have to gain agreement on how to overcome the additional negative outcomes.  This may mean modifying one of our key changes just slightly (tweaking the solution).  It might mean that additional small changes – more secondary injections – are needed to make sure that the negative outcomes do not occur.

If you imagine our future reality tree to be a bush, then these additional negative outcomes are new branches that we don’t desire.  We have to prune them out, trim them, as early as possible.  Sometimes, when the problem is sufficient to warrant it, we draw this branch as a separate kind of future reality tree called a negative branch reservation.  Doing so obtains agreement on overcoming these potential negative outcomes.

Obtain Agreement On Overcoming Obstacles

Once we have obtained agreement about the problem, and agreement about the solution, and agreement about overcoming any potential negative outcomes; then we should be ready to implement the change.  Do you agree?  Well, that would be nice; however, it is not unusual to find at this stage that there are some real obstacles that are blocking our way.  It comes down to something like “we would really like to but we can’t because ….”  O.K. find out what is the reason behind the “because.”  Like our potential negative outcomes, we must overcome these obstacles as soon as possible or else we will be unable to proceed.

The tool of choice for gaining agreement on overcoming obstacles is the pre-requisite tree.  So called because for each new idea or injection that we developed in the steps above, there may be pre-requisites to their implementation.  The pre-requisites – called intermediate objective – are required to overcome the obstacles.  Of course not all injections will have obstacles to their implementation, and those ones we can just get on and do them at the right time.

When is the right time?  Firstly we should state and sequence the obstacles to each individual injection and then seek agreement on the methods to overcome them.  This provides us with a time phased plan for the implementation for each injection.  Then we can arrange and sequence all of our injections, whether they have pre-requisites to them or not, as a project plan for the implementation of the new ideas to our problem.

Here is a plan of such an idea.

We have here, 3 injections and 3 intermediate objectives to implement in order for our positive future reality tree to unfold.  Injections 2 and 3 have no pre-requisites and can be done and soon as necessary.  Injection 1 has three pre-requisites.  The pre-requisites are called intermediate objectives and overcome previously raised obstacles which we no longer see in the diagram.

Intermediate objectives A and B can be done in parallel, but intermediate objective B must be completed before A can begin.  Thus our plan must be; intermediate objective B, intermediate objectives A & C – leading to injection 1.  Followed by injections 2 & 3.

How to get from our current undesirable effects to a final plan as shown above is the subject of a step by step introduction to the Thinking Process which culminates in with this diagram at the end of the pre-requisite tree section.


Is this overkill?  Well it depends on the situation.  If you have a room of 30 less than enthusiastic people and a perceived intractable problem, then – properly facilitated – it is ample and sufficient to gain agreement and move forward.  If you have 5 people and straight forward problem and a high degree of motivation then just “breaking the cloud” – breaking the dilemma or perceived conflict that binds people to inaction – may be sufficient to gain agreement and move forward.

It is also important to point out that even if agreement is forthcoming, you will often still have to step through this process to ensure that you have an implementable solution and that you have left nothing out.


Even when all of the necessary technical reservations and obstacles have been overcome, an implementation won't start without sufficient leadership.  Leadership comes from knowledge and understanding of the changes required, and of the measurement and the communication of the improvement.  You already have the product expertise; you just need to improve the process expertise.

When the implementation is under the direction of a single leader, the president or the owner maybe of a smaller corporate or larger private company, then we must also address leadership issues.  If the implementation is taking place in a larger corporate environment we need to address collaboration issues.  This is so important that we will devote a whole section to leadership and learning issues after the section on accounting for change.

There are “… many cases in which people do not move.  Usually, it is because they do not know how to proceed, and do not feel comfortable about asking for more detailed directions.”  “People may not raise their real concerns … and some personal obstacles may catch up with us… (3).”

What seems to be clear is that the better the job done on obtaining alignment early on, especially with corporate strategy, the less that needs to be done on leadership at this later stage.  In corporate environments where there is a professional management and no owner directly involved then Goldratt’s holistic approach using his self-learning program CD-ROMs is designed to obtain the alignment of the leadership from the outset.  Use it!

In environments such as a private company where an owner is involved or where individual managers have problems, then Oded Cohen has produced a methodology to explore some of the issues within “unverbalized fear (4).”  Many times the “weakness” that blocks an individual from going forward turns out to be their greatest strength.  Understand how to use this method!

Five Layers Of Resistance/Agreement

The preceding discussion has really been a summary of the so-called 5 layers of resistance first verbalized by Goldratt in My Saga (2).  Although they seem to be well known and understood amongst practitioners, there is little published about the concept.  We can generalize the 5 layers as follows;

(1)  We don't agree about the problem.

(2)  We don't agree about the solution.

(3)  We can see additional negative outcomes.

(4)  We can see real obstacles.

(5)  We doubt the collaboration of others.

Many people can relate to this simple hierarchy almost immediately, especially if you consider some of the ways that we verbalize these steps (1, 2);

(1)  “You don’t understand, it’s actually …..” or “it’s out of our hands”

(2)  “You don’t understand, we are different …..”

(3)  yes, BUT …..”  Small yes, big but.  “Yes, but there are side effects.”

(4)  “YES, but …..”  Big yes, small but.  “Yes, but it will never happen here.”

(5)  “So and so will never agree” or saying “Yes” and then doing nothing.

Previously we discussed the notion that people want to do the very best.  How come then that they are resistant?  Why does change give rise to emotional resistance?  Because people respond to their map of reality rather than reality itself.  So let’s reframe the discussion for a moment.

If people want to do their best and to respond to their map of reality – then aren’t we trying to help them to stand outside of their map reality for a moment and to observe it in a detached and objective manner from a different perspective (maybe reality itself)?  So let’s reframe the 5 layers of resistance using instead the language of agreement – as indeed we did above.  We are really searching for sequential layers of agreement (1).  Here is such a verbalization for 6 layers.

(1)  Agreement on the problem.

(2)  Agreement on the direction of the solution.

(3)  Agreement that the solution will yield the desired results.

(4)  Agreement that no disastrous side effects will occur.

(5)  Agreement on the implementation requirements and plan

(6)  Agreement by all key collaborators that they can move forward with confidence.

Subtle distinction – maybe.  But think about it; our people resist – we push.  So we must at times rephrase things; our people seek agreement – we must pull them towards that agreement.

Let’s look at this from another perspective; “Problems exist because people believe they exist.  If there were no people there would be no problems.  People are also the ones who decide that a problem has been solved.  Problem solving is the most typical human behavior.” (5)

How Many Layers?

Whoa!  How did we suddenly come up with 6 layers?  Well, you know people – always seeking to sort and classify.  And therefore the original 5 layers of resistance have been re-verbalized and subdivided into 6 or even 9 stages by a number of people.  Is it important to know these other verbalizations in any detail?  Well, people who are involved in facilitating an implementation should be aware of them.

These newer verbalizations have arisen because various people have seen a greater richness and subtlety than the original verbalization first suggests.  However, will keep an examination of these limited to another page.  If you have experience with using the 5 layers of resistance then have a look at more layers for; further discussion, a table of comparisons, and a mapping onto the tools of the Thinking Process.  For the rest of us, we will bring back from this page a more generalized composite verbalization which is modified to accommodate some of the improvements while still retaining the original 5 layers.  Let’s have a look at this.

Resistance Is Natural

This is my attempt to synthesize parts of a number of different layers from a number of different authors into one composite 5 layer verbalization.  It is driven by a subtle and important subdivision in layers 1 & 2, the significance of which I hope will become more apparent in our discussion of clouds later on, and extends into the discussion on the OODA loop, strategy, and paradigms.

Let’s have a look at the composite verbalization.

(1)  We don’t agree about the extent or nature of the problem.

(2)  We don’t agree about the direction or completeness of the solution.

(3)  We can see additional negative outcomes.

(4)  We can see real obstacles.

(5)  We doubt the collaboration of others.

Hidden in the words “extent” and “completeness” are aspects of the detail complexity of the problem and detail complexity of the solution.  Hidden in the words “nature” and “direction” are aspects of the dynamic complexity of the problem and the dynamic complexity of the solution.  We will examine these aspects more fully on other pages.

Now, however, we find that we have reverted to the language of resistance.  Which one are we going to use; resistance or agreement?  Well, I think resistance is natural, and for people wishing to implement Theory of Constraints applications it is most important to listen to the natural verbalizations of resistance while guiding people towards agreement.  Therefore it is the language of resistance that we will continue to use here.  However, if it is necessary to present this sequence to others, then we should consider using the language of agreement.

Is This Approach Different From Others?

Well I think so.  Consider, for instance, the usual situation where someone is at the 3rd level and can see a real plausible negative outcome.  Often times, that person would be viewed by colleagues as being negative, and yet that person is offering a unique insight into the situation-specific implementation that you are undertaking.  So rather than viewing the reservation as a negative comment to be overcome as quickly as possible, we should consider it a positive comment to be explored and fully exploited for its potential.

It is important to hear and to recognize the various verbalizations of the various layers (distinguishing them from “excuses”) and to accept rather than argue with them.  Different people with different intuitions will be at different levels to each other.  Moreover, different people with different perspectives will “buy-in” to the proposed solution at different levels and at different times.  It is important, however, that once someone has bought-in to the idea, the remaining steps are still worked through.  Peoples’ thought processes are also massively parallel so don’t be surprised to find people entertaining different parts of different layers at the same time.  The layers of resistance is a useful tool for problem solving, not a classification of how we think.

Three things occur when a reservation at any level is offered and accepted and acted upon.  The solution becomes more robust (it will work even better), the solution starts to become our people’s solution and not anyone else’s, and the rapport between staff and everyone else is strengthened.

You must actively solicit people’s reservations at each level so that they can be addressed.

How do you distinguish between a “yes but” and a genuine excuse?  Almost always someone, especially the person who raised the reservation, will want to provide the solution to overcome it.  In this situation often it is necessary to write the reservations down on a white board as they are verbalized and leave them for a while otherwise in the haste to solve them the group loses sight of the bigger picture.  However, when excuses are being provided there will be lack of interest in solving them, and you are very likely to find yourself “chasing your tail” as you try to focus and solve any particular excuse.  The danger of a solved excuse will be avoided by trying to change the focus to another excuse before the previous one is solved.


If you facilitate this process, be aware of your own potential for frustration, and also the potential for some people to race ahead of others as they discover the solution.  In connection with this aspect Goldratt makes a case for two levels of frustration (6).  The first level is;

“When we are under pressure for all sides, everybody is on our back, and we are constantly fighting fires... and we don't know what to do.”

This is consistent with our observations of local optimization – everyone experiences this.  In terms of the pre-suppositions it is consistent with the observation that all behavior has positive intent, and that people make the best decision they can at the time.

The second and much higher level of frustration is;

“When we are under pressure from all sides, everybody is on our back, we are constantly fighting fires... and we know exactly what to do.  But the [.....] don't want to listen!”

Ah, do you see how this is consistent with the pre-supposition that people respond to their map of reality and not reality itself.  Or more correctly, do you see what happens when someone’s intuition about local and global optimization is confirmed by an understanding of Theory of Constraints.  That persons map of reality changes (much closer to actual reality I would contend), while colleagues are left with their earlier and different map of reality.

In order to succeed we must lift our colleagues up from their current map of reality (local optimization) to a newer reality (global optimization).  Don’t let your own impatience over-ride their need to take things one step at a time.  Don’t let people who do see the solution criticize those that don’t yet see the solution.


We have a measurements system.  We have a focusing system for locating constraints.  We have a mechanism or approach to overcoming resistance.  It seems that there is nothing to stop us now, except, possibly, leadership.

Um, how about finance?

“There is one function that can, at almost any given point in time, block any other function…. Finance (7).”

Well, we were going to look at leadership next; however, I think that we had better take a look at accounting for change first.  Let’s do that.

Postscript: Ruminating On Resistance

I have mostly stuck with the description “layers of resistance.”  It’s no great discovery, however, that as soon as we mention “layers of resistance” we give ourselves permission for resistance even though that thought may have been furthermost from our minds.  That is exactly what the alternative expressions of “layers of buy-in” and “layers of agreement” seek to avoid.

Unfortunately to me “buy-in” sounds manipulative – in a negative sense; so I don’t particularly wish to use that terminology.  Instead I want to suggest that “layers of resistance” might constructively be called “degrees of acceptance” (even though it is consistently called layers of resistance throughout the remainder of this website).  Just one more way to make implementation easier.  Try it, see if it works.

Returning to resistance for a moment – or perhaps I should say insufficient acceptance, we have the following extracted from another field;

There are no resistant clients, only inflexible practitioners.

OK, so I changed the wording a little.  I want to suggest here that insufficient acceptance, especially the last layer, is caused not by the client but rather that it is caused by us!  As soon as we allow for that assumption the matter becomes wholly more manageable.  We must work way ahead of the last layer, layers 5 or 6, to ensure that they do not occur.  And this is not a problem unique to our area of expertise – it is common to all people who are dealing with people.


(1) Smith C., In: Smith, D., (2000) The measurement nightmare: how the theory of constraints can resolve conflicting strategies, policies, and measures.  St. Lucie Press, pg 157-159.

(2) Goldratt, E. M., (1996) My saga to improve production.  Avraham Y. Goldratt Institute, 7 pp.

(3) Lepore, D., and Cohen, O., (1999) Deming and Goldratt: the theory of constraints and the system of profound knowledge.  The North River Press, pg 87.

(4) Cohen, O., (1997) Overcoming the 5th Layer of Resistance. Video JSA-13, Goldratt Institute.

(5) Kawase, T., (2001) Human-centered problem-solving: the management of improvements.  Asian Productivity Organization, pg 193.

(6) Goldratt, E. M., (1996) Production the TOC way. Tutor Guide.  Avraham Y. Goldratt Institute, pg 15.

(7) Goldratt, E. M., (1990) What is this thing called Theory of Constraints and how should it be implemented?  North River Press, pg 100.

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