Constraints vs. Boundaries

Brigadier General E.A. Cruickshank Reviewing Scouts, Calgary 1915
Ah, to return to those carefree happy days of Scouting…

One of the problems with being a dilettante personal-development blogger is that you come across things that seem amazing and new and intuitive – but they end up being things that have been around for decades. For example, I recently read of the story of Herbie the Boy Scout from The Goal by Eli Goldratt. The book is a novel about productivity written decades ago. The particular vignette about Herbie is an illustration – a parable within a parable, really – illustrating the Theory of ConstraintsOur hero, Alex, is in charge of getting a group of Boy Scouts on a hike up and down a mountain in time for supper. As Slate writer Seth Stevenson summarizes:

 Alex notices that the single-file line of scouts never manages to maintain consistent spacing. Instead it always spreads out, with the speedy kid at the front zooming out of sight. I found myself shouting in my living room, “The fat kid is the bottleneck! The fat kid is the bottleneck!” And indeed, once Alex realizes this, he sees that the group as a whole can only move as fast as poor little Herbie, the chubby scout who’s clogging things up in the middle of the line…So Alex puts porky Herbie at the front of the line and distributes everything in Herbie’s backpack to the other kids, lightening his load. The faster kids behind have no problem keeping up with leader Herbie, which means they won’t pant and run out of steam while hustling to maintain the pace.

Now, fat-shaming aside (note to Seth: as an experienced Boy Scout and guide, it’s not always the overweight that are the slowest) the point of the parable is two-fold:

  1. Rather than try to make people do things they can’t (walk as fast as the fastest scouts) focus on the things they can (walk as fast as the slowest scout).
  2. If it’s true that you’re only as fast as your slowest member, then what you need to do is make your slowest member as fast as possible (in this case, by lightening his load).

I could think of a lot of other ways to get Herbie to go faster, some nice and some, I confess, leftovers from humps we did back in the Corps. The story was mentioned by David McKeown in Essentialism as an example of the way a single component (Herbie) became a constraint on the whole system – and by removing or improving the constraint, the entire system becomes better. McKeown suggests that it is a useful Essentialist tool to examine and look for constraints – in short, to remove problems rather than add solutions.

I’m still working on the idea of what, in my life, functions as a constraint. It’s hard to wrap my head around. Especially when it gets confused with another thing that’s designed to limit: boundaries. How can we tell the difference? Both are limits to action and/or attention.

Same Idea, Different Effect

I’m going to lay out what I think is the difference between a constraint and a boundary, but it starts with the idea that the former is a negative and the latter is a positive. That’s right, I’m putting value judgements on them! Take that! More than that, I’m going to use the metaphor of a big field: you are at one end, and that thing you want (to have, to be, to accomplish) is at the other end of the field. Both constraints and boundaries take the form of fences in this metaphor, which I admit is not very imaginative.*

Constraints are things that:

  • make the path to your goal longer and sap your energy.
  • lead you towards things that distract you from your goal.
  • make the path so confusing or blocked that it seems your goal is impossible.

Boundaries, on the other hand:

  • provide a more direct path to your goal, or even a shortcut.
  • help you focus on the goal, as well as the path to get there, keeping distractions at bay.
  • keep the path to the goal clear and understandable, so that it’s not only possible but inevitable.

That’s what I’ve got so far. Still having trouble figuring out what the actual constraints are; I keep on just coming back to bad habits, and it seems to me it’s the causes of the habits, not the actions themselves, that are the problem. Similar to the idea that it’s not Herbie that’s the problem, or even the speed Herbie can walk – the problem is the heavy pack that he’s carrying.


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