The Presales Project #3: The 5 Focusing Steps

As the third in this series, I could also call this post “How to bore your friends and be alone at parties.” If you are unaware of the Theory of Constraints (TOC), provides a good overview to get you started. If you just followed that link, read that page, and are back for more, then you are not normal. You are probably an SE Manager, deeply committed to your SE team, trying to figure out how to increase sales without asking for more sacrifice from your team. Or, you might be an SE looking for a way to respond better (meaning quicker and with better accuracy) to your customer’s needs. I hope you find some useful ways to think about your work and interact with your manager.

As its core, TOC is focused on increasing the overall throughput of a production system by identifying the one constraint in the system and applying a systemic process to address it. Notice the focus is improving overall throughput of the system, not increasing the individual efficiency of its components. While this distinction existed in The Phoenix Project, it wasn’t until I read The Goal that this became clear. It’s an important distinction.

“Eliyahu M. Goldratt, who created the Theory of Constraints, showed us how any improvements made anywhere besides the bottleneck are an illusion. Astonishing, but true!”

The pursuit of efficiency often results in improvements that don’t contribute to the overall success of the business. I have seen this in many companies, both large and small. I have seen it impact the Presales community specifically, where “improved efficiency” in Customer Service or Professional Services means an increase in non-Category 1 work for Presales. This reduces the capacity of the Presales team to execute on sales campaigns, resulting in longer sales cycles or the loss of sales. This would be a frequent occurrence in organizations where everyone else is able to define what the Presales SE does, except the Presales Organization. If the technical sales process is critical to success, then any improvement in any area of the business should directly contribute to increasing the organization’s capacity to execute technical sales campaigns, or at least not impact it negatively.

There are three main elements to the Theory of Constraints:

  • The Five Focusing Steps
  • The Thinking Process
  • Throughput Accounting

All of these have implications for Presales, but in this post we will focus on the Five Focusing Steps. These steps are the process for identifying and addressing constraints in the system. The Five Steps are as follows:

  1. Identify the constraint
  2. Exploit the constraint
  3. Subordinate all other activity to the constraint
  4. Elevate the constraint
  5. If the constraint has now moved, start over with the new constraint

Step 1: Identify the Constraint

This is not as simple as it seems. Remember, we are not looking for inefficiencies in the system, we are looking for the thing that limits throughput. In the case of Presales, we are examining the four workstations of the Technical Sales Process and identifying which is causing a backlog of activity. “SEs are too busy” is not a constraint. Opportunities languishing in Validation because the team struggles to execute Proof of Concepts IS a constraint. Once the constraint is identified you move to the next step.

In the process of identifying constraints, look for workstations that are either waiting for resources to become available before they can start, or workstations that SEs are constantly working late or over the weekend to complete. It is crucial that you have a way to visualize all the Category 1 work assigned to your team according to the Presales workstations – the visualization will help you see where bottlenecks exist.

Step 2: Exploit the Constraint

“Step 2 is to exploit the constraint,” he continues. “In other words, make sure that the constraint is not allowed to waste any time. Ever. It should never be waiting on any other resource for anything, and it should always be working on the highest priority commitment the IT Operations organization has made to the rest of the enterprise. Always.”

Applied to the constraint we identified earlier – the Proof of Concept machine in the Validate workstation – this would mean that all POCs should start immediately and never have to wait for anything internal (customer delays not withstanding). The required resources should be released from other work immediately, if they are not currently idle, and nothing should be allowed to distract their attention or dilute their effort. Multi-tasking is not an option for these resources.

If the required resource for the POC does not have idle time but is 100% utilized, then the POC will have to wait for the resource to become available. The resource could be a piece of equipment, a cloud environment, or a uniquely skilled individual. Inventory (in the form of hardware, cloud based capacity, or man-hours) must be kept on hand so there is no delay. I have seen this specific delay – we can’t start a POC for 4 weeks because the resources are not available – result in lost business because the competitor could. This is why pursuing individual efficiencies can actually limit an organization.

The natural question here is “how much inventory should we keep on hand?” Short answer: as little as required to meet market demand but enough to handle fluctuations. And you figure that out through experimentation.

Step 3: Subordinate all other activity to the constraint

This step is where applying TOC to Presales moves from being questionable to being downright radical … heretical even. This step is all about limiting Work In Process (WIP), or controlling the release of WIP, to match the cadence of the constraint. If we were to do this, then a sales opportunity would not be released from Qualify to Design until we know there will be capacity to move it from Design to Validation with NO DELAY – the POC could start immediately (again, assuming POCs are the constraint).

With our example, opportunities that do not need POCs or utilize resources committed to POCs can be released immediately since they do not negatively impact the constraint.

Step 4: Elevate the constraint

Up to this point we have done nothing to increase the efficiency of the constraint other than make sure it has the resources required to execute. In this Step, we look at the constraint itself and seek to increase its capacity. As previously discussed, each workstation comprises Man, Machine, and Method – each of these components is examined for opportunities to improve and adjust or change.

Most organizations start with this as the first step in the effort to improve, but it is important that this step only begin after the Identify, Exploit, and Subordinate steps are complete. In most cases, the first three steps cost the organization nothing, as they involve a re-balancing of existing resources, where as additional expense may be required to increase capacity in Step 4.

Step 5: Find the Next Constraint

Sometimes in the process of managing a constraint we may create new bottlenecks in the system. The Five Focusing Steps are meant to be a loop of continual improvement. Some even recommend introducing failures or intentionally limiting available resources to help identify the next constraint.

A word about measures …

At this point, we have to talk about measuring Presales, but only briefly for now. Revenue is not the only measure of success for many Presales organizations. If we include Throughput as a measure, we get a better view of the overall effectiveness of the organization. A simple throughout measurement could include deals closed per quarter and average deal size. For many organizations, Q1 can look very different from Q2, so we would need to compare quarter to quarter for accuracy, as well as year over year.

How does this inform my work in Presales Operations?

Applying the Five Focusing Steps to Presales is challenging. The most immediate reaction I receive is “we cannot apply these principles to Presales – we are not making widgets. Every deal is a snowflake.” When this statement reflects a lack of curiosity about improving I have to find ways to incite curiosity by focusing on the non-snowflake activities or deliverables to show that there is value is this approach. When this statement reflects a lack of understanding of how these principles can be applied, I have to find ways to engage the individual’s curiosity by showing how we could make improvements.

The key activities for Presales Operations are:

  • Baseline the throughput of our Presales team and discuss as often as possible.
  • Drive Clarity around the Presales process: ensure the organization understands and is in agreement on the process.
  • Provide a system for managers that visualizes the flow of work through the Presales Workstations.
  • Use the visualization system to explore flow and identify bottlenecks.
  • Assist Presales Managers in the process of Exploiting, Subordinating, and Elevating the constraint.
  • Provide constant feedback on the changes to throughput that result from these efforts.


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