Raw Thoughts on the Management Attention Constraint

Goldratt called management attention the ultimate constraint, meaning after elevating the other constraints, including the market demand by establishing a decisive-competitive-edge, then the pace of growth of the organization is still limited by the capacity of management attention.

How much attention can a person give in a period of time? The term itself is elusive and very difficult to assess even when focusing just on one person, even more so when we try to assess the attention capacity of a group of people.  Yet, there is no doubt that there is a limit where adding more issues to think and control causes chaos.  The evils of multi-tasking are well known.

Capacity of management attention means how many different issues can be handled in a period of time. I do not try, in this post, to assess the ability and skills to deal with a certain issue – just how many can be properly done in a period.

What contributes to the difficulty is the simple fact that we are used to fill our attention all the time. We cannot tolerate being “bored”.  We always think of something.  So, just by making our mind busy all time the question whether we are now close to the limit cannot be easily answered.  After all if something urgent pops up then our mind abandons whatever it has been occupied with and switches to the new issue, which requires immediate attention.  We can easily say that while there are issues that force themselves upon us, most of the time we choose the issues that are worth spending time on.

Focusing is an exploitation scheme to direct our mind to deal with the more valuable issues, putting aside the less critical issues.  However, we are only partially successful of being able to concentrate on what we have decided to focus on.  We are certainly limited by how long we can concentrate deeply on one issue before having a break.  This means people have to multi-think on several issues.  However, when we don’t try to focus our mind on just few issues we would achieve nothing of substance.

So, here is the key difficulty in utilizing our mind in the most effective way. We need to let our mind wander between several issues, but not let it wander between too many issues.  Let us assume that every person has somehow learned to maneuver his/her mind in an acceptable way.  This means we can feel when too many critical issues call for our attention and then we lose control and become erratic.  What we can do is try our best to decide what to push out of our mind, so we won’t reach the stage of overloading our attention.  This is a change of behavior that is very difficult to do, but even when we’re only partially successful our effectiveness goes up considerably.

How management attention becomes an issue in the life of an organization?

Even high-level executives give attention to their work only part of their overall span of attention. So, part of the competition on our attention has nothing to do with work.  People who love their work are highly motivated to do well, feel deeply responsible at work and give more attention to the work issues. But, still all other personal issues, like family, health and hobbies, have to have their part.

From the organization perspective the limited attention of all management has to be properly utilized, but not allowed to come near the line of confusion causing mistakes and delaying critical decisions.

In several previous posts and webinars I have expressed my view that in any organization there are two different critical flows:

  1. The current Flow-of-Value to clients. This involves short-term planning, execution and control, doing whatever it takes to serve current customers.
  2. Developing the future flow-of-value. This is the Flow-of-Initiatives aimed at bringing the organization to a superior state according the goal of the organization.

Is it likely to have active management attention constraint in the flow-of-value?

When this situation occurs the delivery performance gets out of control. Some orders are forgotten, others are stuck behind for very long time, and without the client screaming there is little chance of delivering an order at “about the agreed time”.  Such a situation might bring the organization into chaos, and no human system can live for long with chaotic performance.

The clear conclusion is that managerial attention constraint in the flow-of-value cannot be tolerated, and thus all organizations look for the right skilled managers to maintain the flow-of-value under a certain level of stability, which is in par with the competition. The typical operations manager is one that is active in spotting fires and is able to put them off.  Such a manager is less tuned to come up with a new vision.

But, when we examine the flow-of-initiatives the situation is quite different. There are usually many more ideas to improve the current performance than management attention required for developing, carefully checking and implementing.  The result of overloading the management attention is being stuck for much too long in the current state – same clients, same products and same procedures, while improvement plans take very long to implement and the stream of new products is also slow and erratic.

Having management attention as the constraint of the flow-of-initiatives makes sense, because of the unlimited number of ideas, but it requires strong discipline to keep management focused. It means having consensus on the strategy and based on it on what raw ideas should be checked, then having a process for deciding which ones to develop in detail and after that choosing the few to implement.  As measuring the attention capacity is currently impossible because we lack the knowledge then some broad rules should be employed to dictate the amount of open issues every management team has to deal with.

This kind of discipline requires monitoring the issues, call it ‘missions’, where every manager is in charge of completion, assigning a due-date to it and monitor the amount of open missions, checking also whether too many missions are late, signaling that one or more managers are overloaded, thus the rules have to updated.

It is not practical to count every tiny issue as a ‘mission’. Managers definitely need to put up fires, deal with other urgent issues and many other small issues that take relatively short time.  Being able to empower the subordinates could significantly offload the critical load on any manager.  But, changing habits is very tough to achieve, so most of the time we have to accept the manager character as given, and eventually come close enough to fair assessment of how many medium and large missions a typical manager can do on top of all the smaller issues that the manager has to control.

What happens when management need more capacity?

How difficult it is to elevate the attention constraint? The simple answer is adding more managers.  There are two problems with that.  One problem is called “diminishing marginal returns/productivity”.  Any additional manager adds to the total management attention less than the previous one, because of the additional load of communications on the existing management group.  The other problem is whether the whole management structure needs to be re-checked and maybe going through a change.

Empowering the subordinates is another way to elevate the load on the shoulders of managers, and it does not need re-structuring the management hierarchy. The problem here is that for a manager to change in order to trust subordinates is even tougher than improving the control on what issues should occupy the attention and what should be pushed away.

So, empowerment and wider managerial pyramid are valid ways to increase managerial capacity, but the ongoing duty of top management is to focus the attention of all managers on the most promising issues top management have chosen, while also keep part of the attention open for controlling the current situation and looking for signals for emerging threats.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Raw Thoughts on the Management Attention Constraint”

  1. Hi Eli, a very interesting subject. Now and then I’m pondering about it. One of the questions this subject brings to my mind, is: what happens with the “management attention constraint” in an organization structure without management, like Holacracy (https://www.holacracy.org/)?. I haven’t found an answer yet and it’s not my core business, so I don’t spend much time on thinking about it. However, I think it’s an interesting question.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello,
    Looking at the concept of holacracy – as in the video on their website, it appears that holacracy helps free “management attention” for some time and bring more capacity. However holacracy may need to have reality checks for inertia. Training people in the “holacratic” organization on using the lieutenant’s cloud also would give holacracy a big boost.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eli, you wrote, “Any additional manager adds to the total management attention less than the previous one, because of the additional load of communications on the existing management group.” While this may sometimes be true, I don’t think it is always true. For example, what if a truly brilliant manager was hired? What if a TOC expert was hired into a conventional company with a poorly utilized internal constraint? What if the hired manager allowed enough management capacity to focus on the important improvement initiatives instead of multitasking around them? See what I mean?

    A new manager does increase the communication load. If things were totally organized before the hire, I mean all the initiatives were ranked, only the best ones that current management had the capacity to attend to were being actively pursued, the rest were frozen AND the company wanted to activate others, which were expected to increase profits far more than the new manger raised OE, then your sentence makes sense. I fear that, while this may be true inside that excellent mind of yours, it is quite a rare circumstance in reality.

    Liked by 1 person

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