Multi-tasking and Management Attention as the Ultimate Constraint

Depressed business woman

Recognizing the negative impact of multi-tasking on the management of multi-projects is an important insight. But, we better go deeper into the issue of when multi-tasking starts to be damaging.

Multi-tasking means jumping between tasks before they are completed. There are several possible causes for multi-tasking:

  1. A task with higher priority appears – forcing to switch to that task until it is completed.
  2. Being stuck with a task without much progress, leading to putting it aside and do something else.
  3. Being expected to do several tasks at the same time with a clear need to show progress on every one of them.

The potential damage of multi-tasking comes from the third type. The problem is that when an individual faces several tasks one option is to start with one and on completion go to the other.  Let’s call that the “queue-process”.  The other way is doing a little of this and a little of that, which is the essence of multi-tasking.  Individuals vary with how they cope with several tasks at the same time.  Managers have to be good in multi-tasking as a necessary skill.  The true damage from multi-tasking is caused to the organization. The individual is less negatively impacted by long delays of projects and initiatives.  The delays are caused by the long time it takes to complete a task and only then the next tasks, performed by other resources, are able to start.

In Manufacturing multi-tasking is virtually unknown! The “queue process” is the common approach, because in manufacturing saving setups and ensuring good utilization of expensive equipment are important values.  Multi-tasking generates many more setups, because every time one goes back to a task he needs to come-to-speed with the task.

Multi-tasking is found in multi-project environments.  The value of a typical project is usually considered to be very high, so the project is expected to finish as early as possible. Thus, the project should progress continuously along its critical chain.  Stopping the project because a human resource, not a particularly expensive resource, is busy in another task, is intolerable.  Maintaining clear priorities for key human resources makes it even more problematic.  It is tricky to tell a project manager that his project has lower priority than others and still maintain acceptable harmony within the organization.

The damage of multi-tasking to projects is causing two different undesired effects:

  1. Wasted capacity due to many “setups”.
  2. Very long delays in many projects due to resources moving between different tasks for different projects putting many projects on hold. The assumption is that only when a task is complete can the next task starts, usually with another resource(s). By forcing delays in the start of the next tasks the completion time of the whole project is likely to be significantly delayed.

The second undesired-effect, the domino-effect of stretching the time of one task is by far the more damaging effect for the lead-time of projects.

Are multi-tasking so damaging also to regular initiatives?

There is a subtle difference between a project and an initiative. Projects are planned to be executed as soon as possible.  Initiatives also contain a group of tasks to achieve an objective, but they are not planned to be executed continuously.  The due-dates of regular initiatives are not pre-determined and they are not expected to finish as soon as possible.  Initiatives do not have the urgency of projects!

However, when too many initiatives are open it could be that some managers run out of their capacity!!!

When this happen the damage of the wasted capacity is huge.  Remember the two causes for capacity to be wasted:

  • Capacity wasted on low value initiatives.
  • Frequent switching back and force between required initiatives (multi-tasking) causing waste of time on becoming updated on the current state of the initiative.


In such a case management attention, the capacity of managers to do their job properly, turns to be a wild bottleneck, and the organization becomes stagnated, in spite of the efforts to design a better future.  When the management constraint hurts also the current flow of value then the company might even fall apart.

Identifying the state when management attention is a bottleneck is far from being trivial.

The capacity of human resources is very tricky to measure. People like to be busy, or at the very least, be viewed as busy.  It is the impact of the efficiency syndrome, but it is also caused by a personal need of many people to be active all the time.

It is easy for a manager to keep himself active as he can always find something to do, for instance, check the performance of subordinate, call a meeting that is not truly required or come up with an idea to improve something that does not need improvement.

How can we know whether the manager is overloaded or just being active the way he likes it?

When a human being is truly overloaded the people around him get certain signals.  Sometimes the quality of work goes dramatically down. Other overloaded managers become impatient with their subordinates, even aggressive, without achieving any added value. Other managers try to focus on few initiatives based on personal priority that could be different than the focus of their colleagues.

Instituting the right focus all over the organization should become the decisive competitive edge of the TOC approach!

The organizational focus has two different time frames to consider:

  1. In the short-term the focus is defined by the constraint, the exploitation plan and the subordination processes.
  2. In the medium and longer term the focus has to be carefully defined by the Strategy (the plan to achieve more in the future). All the important initiatives have to be included in the Strategy.

On top of that the organization has to actively look for signals that point to potential threats, one of which could be running out of managerial capacity, the ultimate constraint for the medium and long term. What TOC teaches us to do is to exploit the management attention capacity properly without turning it into a bottleneck.  This is why the detailed planning of Strategy, clearly outlining the truly required initiatives (tactics) to achieve specific objectives (strategies), which lead to accomplish more of the goal, is so important. The format of the S&T is a good match for this formidable mission.



Published by

Eli Schragenheim

My love for challenges makes my life interesting. I'm concerned when I see organizations ignore uncertainty and I cannot understand people blindly following their leader.

16 thoughts on “Multi-tasking and Management Attention as the Ultimate Constraint”

  1. Another great commentary. A couple of observations: I have seen multi-tasking more often in manufacturing than I would have expected. Usually this is a result of a very poor priority system and prior to using TOC. In terms of multi-project management, another situation is when tasks are not properly defined and/or task definition is based on time (build a network of 2-week tasks) rather than a proper dependency structure – clear handoffs are not defined and people are assigned more than one task at a time. Thanks, Eli!


  2. Hi Eli. You always write thought provoking stuff. So, thank you!

    There’s another cause of multitasking that I see in software development environments: a team is working on something, they need someone else from another team to work on it, the person is busy or unavailable or needs time to think, so the task becomes “blocked” and gets put aside to be picked up sometime later. It’s a variation on your 2nd point, but I find it is very common, especially with the way many software teams work incrementally.

    I saw a team last year where many of the items they were finishing had been blocked for over a year! They started a lot of stuff; didn’t finish much. It wasn’t hard to get that sorted out though.

    Hope that helps …



  3. S&T is a wonderful tool to align the organization and to some level individuals towards the desired direction. Together with some “personal productivity” common sense rules the individual is armed to cope with his/her tasks at hand.


  4. I have also seen multi-tasking in Manufacturing, but not so much in Production as much in Management and any Plant engineers as we attempt to improve the plant throughput by trying to implement the fix that was proposed by the loudest voice.

    The impact is the “list of a thousand” that are out there for attempts at improvement. This multi-tasking and lack of focus prevents the cause and effect solution that comes with improving the bottleneck.

    Overall, most medium to large companies also suffer from “Management Churn.” You have two years to get a change done and in place. Once you convince a leader to take a focused TOC approach, the pressure is on to get it from introduction to standard process in two years. Short term success may lead to eventual failure because of the loss of your internal champion. Your long term strategy may have to include this possibility, and be able to react to this quickly when or if this occurs. My experience has seen many TOC efforts fail because of this, and the loss of a champion is written off as bad luck, not as a failure to be prepared for this event.

    Thanks again, Eli.


  5. Eli –
    Multitasking is definitely a scourge. My question: how can something be a capacity constraint if no amount of additional capacity would solve the problem?


  6. Rob, I fail to understand the question. First, multi-tasking is a problem for projects, not necessarily for initiatives, even before the management resource becomes a capacity constraint.
    Secondly, additional management capacity allows doing more initiatives without being stuck with little or no progress. It is possible that adding 100% more capacity would, when properly exploited, allow only 25% more initiatives, but it is still a behavior of a constraint. Like any constraint, adding more managerial capacity at a certain level might create a new constraint at the higher level. At the highest level the solution is offloading to the second level – again it might create a constraint there.


    1. For your first point, I agree. Multitasking, with its cousin “frequent interruptions,” is a much more general problem than just with initiatives.

      Regarding your second, if throughput is defined as grinding out more initiatives, and management is truly the constraining resource for initiatives, then yes, that would make management a capacity constraint. I don’t know of any such environments. In fact, most places I suspect that adding 100% more management capacity would reduce the rate of initiative completion. But if this your scenario, then you are correct, and I withdraw my question.

      I should probably have weighed in with a more general lack of understanding on my part of the idea of a management attention constraint. I tend to equate a constraint with something you need more of. In the case of management attention, in my experience it’s not typically a question of needing more but of needing better. I don’t want to make assumptions about your thinking, but it feels like in an effort to avoid talking about policy constraints (multitasking), you’re looking at the effects of the policy/culture (multitasking), one of which among many is on management capacity. Does exploiting management attention as a constraint, by reducing management multitasking and therefore increasing management capacity, typically increase T?

      It’s always felt to me like the “management attention constraint” concept is an attempt to get managers to take their role in priorities and multitasking seriously. And that’s great. But management attention still seems kind of wacky as a constraint.



  7. Rob, I’m making a clear distinction between capacity and capability. You are right that when there is a lack of capability, for instance managers who are incapable of going beyond very narrow boundaries where they operate now, then adding capacity won’t help and actually make the situation worse.

    Many organizations do not even try to achieve better future by considering new initiatives. All the attention of management is on their current customers and current product-mix. The flow of current value is the only flow they manage. I do not expect to see management attention constraint in those organizations, with the exception of when they lack cash and are on the verge of bankruptcy.

    Organizations that do look into the future are internally constraint by something. It could be limitation of cash/liquidity, IT or managerial capacity, which Goldratt called “management attention”. I also don’t particularly like the name, but I think I understand the meaning.

    I have seen organizations where managerial capacity to manage their initiatives for the future is a constraint: limiting the future T. For instance, suppose that a bank needs to modernize its offerings and Internet capabilities to face growing competition. While the IT is an obvious problematic resource, it is not the real capacity constraint, because it is easy to increase that capacity. What truly constraining such an organization is the managerial capacity to define in detail what is required, not just for the IT part, but also how the various new services are going to be used together to attract more and more users and how to let the users know and like the new services. In such a case the capacity of certain level of managers is blocked by too many initiatives, each one could generate some added T in the future. The basic capability might be there (several very good managers), but the load is too high. You might claim it is the failing, due to lack of capability, of the higher level management to draw the effective priorities, but it is still a case of management capacity constraint that is the critical limit. More capacity could draw somewhat more initiatives completed earlier.


  8. Eli –
    Thanks. It still strikes me as a pretty convoluted. It seems likely to me that the cases where more management attention by itself would increase throughput are insignificant compared with the cases where reducing organization-wide multitasking would increase throughput. But talking about a “management attention” constraint, and then pointing out all the multitasking management does, could be a reasonable way of bringing management to the realization that they need to change.


  9. Dear Eli, thank you for this text, which needs to be red a few times in a focused way. BDW, how a manager can get the time for such a focus? This is probably the key manager’s talent.
    I am leading a scientific team of 20 people. There needs to be time to talk with people and dig into problems. This is very important. When I am tired, this is not very effective. I observed that when I come to talk directly from the gym, this is very efficient and craetive. Also this talk cannot be in hurry.
    How to manage to have the time?
    Of course limited number of Tasks. But not only.
    What takes time? Tasks that only I can do at proper quality, because of my experience and competence. Thus, I need either to correct my people’s work, or do it myself. Frequently the time needed is much more than I expected. This is an additional very imporant source of bad multitasking.
    Another one is , when a project or task is finished, but in an unexpected way there are new tasks related with the project, like an audit, or additional report. Again, I am involved.
    In vain I try to find out how TOC could help with the two above bad multitasking sorces.


    1. Witold, it seems to me your questions are more relevant to managing under uncertainty than to multi-tasking, even though multi-tasking is part of the overall problem.

      As a manager you have many missions with various importance and various levels of urgency. Goldratt gave us an advice: Never let something important to become urgent!
      You need give your most important missions a time-buffer and make the effort of not letting such a buffer to become red.

      As a manager you cannot allow yourself to be overloaded! If you need an assistant – take one. If you can offload some missions – do that. Take any overload as a warning that this situation should not be repeated. There is a lot of uncertainty in our reality, so don’t be surprise that some missions take longer time than what you expected. You need excess capacity, and the idea of time buffers to prevent any problem due to a mission that took much more time.

      You speak also about another uncertain variable: the fact that we all are sometimes at our best, but not all the time. This means we needs enough degrees of freedom to spent time on our most critical issues when we feel we are at our best, and leave easier issues to be dealt when we feel we might not be at our best.

      All the above is pretty much TOC based.


      1. Eli, thank you for simple and important advices! Never let important tasks to be urgent, and reserve a good buffer. Not be overloaded. Actually I must admit I did not respect for a long time such rules, and the resulting stress had led me to study TOC. Now once it is clear “What to change” and “To what to change” , next step is “How to cause the change to occur”.


  10. Eli, why do you attribute to me the thought that “Steve is not aware of the goal”? I did not say that. In answer to your question, “Is this absolutely necessary?”, I say “NO”! I regard what James advocates as dogma that has been taught, learned and adopted by many TOC “experts”. I put the notion of “management attention as the ultimate constraint” in the same dogma category.

    Eli, as you have written: “What TOC teaches us to do is to exploit the management attention capacity properly without turning it into a bottleneck. The format of the S&T is a good match for this formidable mission.” You and I agree!

    You also wrote (same paragraph): “This is why the detailed planning of Strategy, clearly outlining the truly required initiatives (tactics) to achieve specific objectives (strategies), which lead to accomplish more of the goal, is so important.” We agree, again, with one rather inconsequential exception: in my strategic advisory practice, I change the original S&T nomenclature: from “strategies” and “tactics” (your parenthetical words, above) to “Outcomes” and “Actions”, respectively. This substitution avoids client confusion, arising from variously held legacy meanings of the words: “strategies” and “tactics”, without altering S&T Tree architecture, logic, or power, in any way.


    1. Richard, I apologize for misinterpreting your meaning of your advice to Steve to ask himself “Why HighX exists?” I definitely agree with you changing the use of the word “strategy” in the S&T to “Outcomes” and tactic to “Actions”.


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