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Coronavirus Highlights The Vital Role Of Constraints In Performance

I’ve long been an advocate for focusing on identifying and then managing the constraints in a business as a follower of the great management thinking, Eli Goldratt.

I can’t think of anything that has brought home the importance of constraints as much as the current coronavirus crisis that is spreading around the world.

The Vital Importance Of “Flattening the Curve”

First and foremost, it is recognised that no health service in the world can cope with the pandemic in full flight so extraordinary measures have been introduced to “flatten the curve”.

This is because hospital beds and ventilators have become critical constraints. Behind those numbers are the constraints that will flow through from a shortage of doctors, nurses and other health staff as they fall ill or have to self-isolate because of illness in their homes.

So huge parts of the economy have been shutdown by government decree and we’re all being urged to stay within our home family units and not visit friends and relatives.

The UK government has a catchy phrase – stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives – which is repeated over and over again by spokesmen until we all get the message.

The Constraint of Personal Protective Equipment

The entire situation is scary but one of the most alarming is the shortage of PPE for front-line workers like doctors, nurses, care home employees and everyone else who is an essential worker. The more these people fall sick, the less well our systems will cope.

In the enquiries that follow the crisis, huge questions will be asked about why our supplies of PPE were so poorly stocked and why it takes so long to get what stocks we have out to the front-line staff.

The Constraints Around Testing For The Virus

Another controversial area is the failure of the UK to step up testing to levels seen in other countries.

Again it comes down to fundamental constraints:

  • in swabs and the reactivating agent;
  • in people who can take the swabs successfully; and
  • in people and machines who conduct the tests.

The Constraints Of Leadership

I have sympathy for the governments and political leaders around the world. Rarely will anyone have been so tested as they are now.

However unusual the situation, that doesn’t excuse the leaders from making bad decisions or not making the necessary decisions quickly enough. The lessons are those from the countries ahead of us in the process.

In the UK, Boris Johnson is poorly equipped for this situation and I fear he has been too slow in closing the country’s non-essential activities. But at least, he isn’t Donald Trump…

The Constraints In The Supermarkets

I’m quite used to a supermarket delivering groceries to me but these have been reserved for the most vulnerable. More frustrating is the uncertainty around booking slots for collections.

Again it comes down to the constraints in the system. The supermarkets don’t have enough vans and drivers to cater for the demand and nor have they managed to step their ability to service collections by enough.


Constraints over people and equipment.

Vicious Circles

Shortages driven by constraints drive vicious circles of excessive demand.

Whether it’s personal protective equipment or food in the supermarkets, if you’re struggling to get what you need, it’s human nature to make more effort to secure future requirements by buying ahead of need.

We’ve seen this in particular with toilet paper and stores having to impose limits on how much people can buy in one transaction. That doesn’t stop them from making multiple transactions but at least it impedes the excessive demand.

The more empty shelves people see and the more there are stories in the media about panic buying, the more it drives increased panic buying.


The Coronovirus crisis has highlighted the importance of constraints but constraints are always restricting performance.

We don’t live in a world of infinite resources… everything is finite.

Recognising constraints helps you to manage performance by optimising the use of the constrained resource.

This is easiest seen in some kind of manufacturing operation. If Machine A determines the output of the entire system because it is constrained, output is maximised by maximising throughput through A. This means eliminating wasteful downtime caused by irritations like waiting for materials or waiting for someone to operate the machine.

Where are the constraints in your business?


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