The Theory of Constraints in software development

Miguel Carruego
9 min readJun 30, 2023


The Theory of Constraints (TOC) is a management philosophy developed by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. It focuses on identifying and improving the most critical constraint that limits the overall performance of a system, with the goal of maximizing throughput and achieving organizational goals. While TOC originated in the manufacturing industry, its principles can be applied to various domains, including software development.

“No chain can ever be stronger than it’s weakest link.”

In the context of software development, the Theory of Constraints can be applied to identify and address bottlenecks that hinder the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the development process.

Identifying the constraint

TOC encourages teams to identify the most significant constraint that limits the flow of work in the development process. In software development, this constraint can vary, such as limited development resources, slow feedback loops, or dependencies on external systems. By identifying and focusing on the constraint, teams can prioritize their efforts and allocate resources accordingly.

Graphical description of identifying the constraint in a process.

Here are some aspects to consider when identifying the constraint:

  1. Workflow analysis: Analyze the entire software development workflow, from requirements gathering to deployment and maintenance. Look for stages or activities that consistently cause delays or create backlogs. These could include activities like code reviews, testing, or integration with external systems.
  2. Critical chain analysis: Identify the critical chain, which is the sequence of activities that determines the project’s overall duration. Examine the dependencies and interrelationships among tasks, and identify any specific activities or tasks that frequently cause delays in the project timeline.
  3. Measurement and data analysis: Gather data and metrics related to the development process. This could include lead time, cycle time, throughput, defect rates, or resource utilization. Analyze this data to identify patterns or recurring issues that indicate a constraint.
  4. Stakeholder feedback: Engage with stakeholders such as developers, product managers, product designers, and customers to gather their input on the challenges and bottlenecks they perceive in the development process. Their insights can provide valuable information on constraints that may not be immediately apparent.
  5. Resource analysis: Evaluate the availability and allocation of key resources required for software development, including development teams, hardware, software tools, and specialized skills. Identify any resource limitations or imbalances that might be constraining the flow of work.

Once you have identified the primary constraint, you can focus your efforts on addressing it and improving the overall performance of the development process. This might involve applying techniques such as resource optimization, process redesign, skill development, or adopting new tools or technologies.

It’s worth noting that constraints can change over time, so it’s important to regularly reassess the system and identify new bottlenecks that may arise as the software development process evolves. By continuously monitoring and addressing constraints, teams can optimize their workflows, enhance productivity, and achieve better outcomes.

Exploiting the constraint

Once the constraint is identified, TOC suggests exploiting it by maximizing its utilization. In software development, this means ensuring that the constrained resource, such as a specialized developer or a specific tool, is used to its full potential. By optimizing the utilization of the constraint, teams can increase the overall throughput of the development process.

Graphical description of exploiting the constraint in a process.

Here are some aspects to consider when exploiting the constraint:

  1. Resource allocation: Allocate the constrained resource, such as a specialized developer or a critical tool, to the tasks or activities that require its specific expertise or functionality the most. Ensure that the constrained resource is effectively utilized and not idle during non-value-added activities.
  2. Prioritization: Assign the highest-priority tasks or user stories to the constrained resource. By working on the most critical and impactful work items, the constraint can contribute to the highest value creation and system throughput.
  3. Parallelize non-constraint activities: Identify activities or tasks that do not directly rely on the constrained resource and can be executed in parallel. By concurrently working on non-constraint activities, the overall lead time of the development process can be reduced, thereby increasing the flow of work.
  4. Reduce interruptions and context switching: Minimize interruptions and context switching for the constrained resource. Interruptions and frequent context switching can lead to inefficiencies and delays. Provide a supportive work environment where the constrained resource can focus on their tasks without unnecessary disruptions.
  5. Collaboration and knowledge sharing: Encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among team members to maximize the impact of the constrained resource. This can involve pair programming, code reviews, mentoring, or cross-training. By leveraging the collective expertise of the team, the constrained resource can contribute more effectively.
  6. Automation and tooling: Explore automation opportunities and leverage appropriate tools to streamline the work of the constrained resource. Automating repetitive tasks, setting up efficient development environments, and utilizing productivity-enhancing tools can free up valuable time for the constraint to focus on higher-value activities.

By exploiting the constraint, the development team can optimize the utilization of the limited resource and increase the overall throughput of the system. However, it’s important to regularly monitor the constraint’s performance and ensure that exploiting it does not create new bottlenecks in other parts of the development process. Continual evaluation and adjustment are necessary to maintain a balanced and efficient workflow.

Subordinating non-constraints

TOC advises subordinating non-constraints to the constraint, meaning that other elements in the development process should align their performance to support the constraint’s requirements. For example, if the constraint is the development team’s productivity, non-constraints such as testing or documentation should adapt their processes to enable faster development cycles.

Graphical description of subordinating the non-constraint in a process.

Here are some aspects to consider when subordinating non-constraints:

  1. Process alignment: Ensure that the processes and workflows of non-constraints support and align with the needs of the primary constraint. For example, if the constraint is development speed, the testing process should be streamlined and efficient to avoid becoming a bottleneck.
  2. Synchronization: Coordinate the activities of non-constraints to synchronize with the pace of the constraint. This can involve establishing clear communication channels, setting up regular meetings or checkpoints, and ensuring that work from non-constraints is available when needed by the constraint.
  3. Buffer management: Introduce buffers or appropriate mechanisms to protect the constraint from disruptions caused by non-constraints. For instance, maintain a backlog of ready-to-test features or establish a buffer time for integration and deployment activities to prevent delays in the constrained resource’s work.
  4. Resource allocation: Allocate resources to non-constraints in a manner that does not jeopardize the performance of the constraint. Avoid overloading non-constraints with excessive work or allocating scarce resources that could be better utilized by the constraint.
  5. Continuous improvement of non-constraints: While the primary focus is on addressing the constraint, it’s important to continually improve non-constraints as well. By enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of non-constraints, the overall system performance can be further optimized, and potential future constraints can be mitigated.
  6. Monitoring and feedback loops: Establish monitoring mechanisms and feedback loops to track the performance of non-constraints and identify any emerging bottlenecks. Regularly assess the performance of non-constraints to ensure they remain supportive of the constraint and make adjustments as needed.

By subordinating non-constraints to the primary constraint, the development process becomes more streamlined and efficient. This approach ensures that the work performed by non-constraints aligns with the needs of the constraint, reducing friction and enabling a smoother flow of work. The overall goal is to create a cohesive and harmonized development process where all components work in concert to maximize throughput and achieve the desired outcomes.

Elevating the constraint

In some cases, the constraint cannot be easily resolved, or it might shift to another part of the development process. TOC suggests “elevating” the constraint by investing resources and efforts to improve or remove it. This might involve hiring additional developers, improving infrastructure, or enhancing collaboration between teams. By elevating the constraint, the overall system performance can be improved.

Here are some aspects to consider:

  1. Resource allocation: Allocate additional resources or specialized skills to the constraint to alleviate its limitations. This could involve hiring more developers, providing additional training or mentorship, or acquiring tools and technologies that can enhance the constraint’s productivity.
  2. Process optimization: Analyze and optimize the processes and workflows surrounding the constraint. Identify and eliminate any unnecessary steps, bottlenecks, or inefficiencies that impede the performance of the constraint. This may involve streamlining communication channels, simplifying decision-making processes, or redefining roles and responsibilities.
  3. Technology enhancements: Explore technological solutions that can augment or remove the constraint. This could involve adopting new development frameworks, leveraging automation tools, or investing in infrastructure improvements. Upgrading technology can often alleviate bottlenecks and enable greater productivity.
  4. External collaborations: Consider collaborating with external partners or service providers to alleviate the constraint. Outsourcing certain tasks or partnering with specialized organizations can provide access to additional resources, expertise, or capabilities that help overcome the limitations of the constraint.
  5. Constraint identification and shifting: As the development process evolves, it’s important to be vigilant about identifying new constraints that may arise or existing constraints that shift to different areas. Continuously analyze the system and adapt the elevation efforts accordingly to ensure that the development process remains optimized.

Elevating the constraint requires a strategic approach and a commitment to investing resources and efforts. It involves a holistic view of the development process, considering not only the immediate needs of the constraint but also the long-term implications and overall system dynamics.

Continuous improvement

TOC emphasizes the importance of continuous improvement. In software development, this translates to regularly analyzing the system, identifying new constraints, and taking steps to address them. By constantly refining the development process, teams can optimize the flow of work and achieve better overall outcomes.

Applying the Theory of Constraints in software development helps teams focus their efforts on the critical aspects that limit productivity and effectiveness. By identifying and resolving constraints, organizations can improve their development processes, reduce lead times, enhance quality, and ultimately deliver software more efficiently.

Here are some aspects to consider:

  1. System monitoring: Establish a system of monitoring and measurement to gather data and insights about the development process. This can include metrics such as lead time, cycle time, throughput, defect rates, customer satisfaction, and resource utilization. Regularly analyze this data to identify patterns, trends, and potential areas of improvement.
  2. Feedback loops: Encourage feedback from stakeholders, including developers, product managers, product designers, and end-users. Their insights can provide valuable perspectives on pain points, challenges, and opportunities for improvement. Actively seek feedback through retrospectives, surveys, or regular check-ins to identify areas that need attention.
  3. Root cause analysis: When constraints or issues arise, conduct root cause analysis to identify the underlying causes. Apply techniques such as the “5 Whys” or fishbone diagrams to dig deeper and uncover the fundamental reasons behind constraints. Understanding the root causes helps in developing effective solutions that address the core issues.
  4. Experimentation and innovation: Foster a culture of experimentation and innovation within the development team. Encourage individuals to try new approaches, tools, or techniques that could potentially alleviate constraints or improve processes. Embrace a mindset of continuous learning and encourage knowledge sharing within the team.
  5. Agile and iterative approach: Adopt an agile and iterative approach to software development, such as Scrum or Kanban. These methodologies inherently emphasize regular reflection, adaptation, and improvement. Conduct frequent retrospectives to assess the effectiveness of the development process and identify areas for refinement.
  6. Collaborative problem-solving: Encourage collaborative problem-solving within the development team. Empower team members to actively participate in the identification and resolution of constraints. Leverage their diverse skills and perspectives to collectively brainstorm solutions and implement improvements.
  7. Continuous learning and skill development: Invest in the ongoing learning and skill development of the development team. Provide opportunities for training, workshops, conferences, or knowledge-sharing sessions. By enhancing the skills and knowledge of the team members, you can tackle constraints more effectively and drive continuous improvement.

By embracing a mindset of continuous improvement, software development teams can incrementally refine their processes, address emerging constraints, and optimize their overall performance. The focus should be on fostering a culture of learning, collaboration, and innovation, where everyone is empowered to contribute to the ongoing improvement efforts.