How to Make Prioritization Simple & Intuitive Using The Theory of Constraints

Prioritization is hard!

Bryce York
6 min readNov 19, 2022


And nothing is worse than doing a ton of work but not moving the needle. I want to tell you how factories and the theory of constraints can show you precisely where to focus. I’ll even tell you about a game that’ll make you better at prioritization and all this. Pulling from Scaling Lean.

This was originally a video; check it out here →

Let’s dive into it!

I’m Bryce York, an Australian product leader based right here in New York City. After a decade in early and growth-stage startups, Including founding and exiting three of my own, I want to share more of my lessons learned in videos, just like this one. I’m covering my number one takeaway from Scaling Lean by Ash Maurya.

This book is so valuable that I can make this video cover only a quarter of the content. this book was written by Ash Maurya, which I actually learned wasn’t pronounced Mariah years after reading it. When we connected with him to include some of his content in my enterprise startup RadFrame.

The idea of the theory of constraints was originally introduced in the book by Eli Goldratt in 1984 called The Goal.

There’s a whole system, and you can really dive into it. But we don’t need all of that to apply the mental model to software product management. The idea of the theory of constraints comes from physical factories.

We want to think about our product like a factory that’s producing an outcome. Instead of an output. We can apply this to both features and products. If you’re thinking about it in terms of jobs to be done. Thinking about a factory.

Let’s think about a factory making microphone arms. So that will be a linear factory, which goes through multiple steps. Six. In fact, the first one is making the arms by cutting them to size. Then they will add the joints so the pieces will go together. Then they’re actually going to join two of the arms together to make the full length. Then they will add the Mount, which we use to bolt it onto the desk.

So the outcome for this factory is the number of arms made per hour. That’s the metric we use to measure the success of our factory. To think about the theory of constraints, let’s think about a hypothetical. What happens if the mounted team. That fourth step in the process. What if their tools break, and they can’t assemble any more of those mounts? They can’t put them together. What’s going to happen?

It should be pretty intuitive, right? The factory stops. The arms per hour, our metric, is going to plummet. It’s going to go way down. The arms missing mounts are going to stop piling up next to that station. You’re going to be able to see that collection of arms as everybody else keeps doing their job and keeps passing work in progress through the system.

Now, obviously, the only way to improve this metric is to get that team, the mounts team, back up and running efficiently. Speeding up the arm machines. Adding more people to quality control and adding more people to the packaging team isn’t going to do anything to get the factory back on track. If there’s nobody there that can assemble mounts.

When you think about an example like this, where one part of the system has just ground to a complete halt, it’s really obvious. But when the system is still working, things are going through the factory.

It can be very tempting to apply energy to improve parts of the system that aren’t actually slowing it down, and that isn’t impacting the key outcome that is most important. And what we’re trying to drive for.

In product. It’s exactly the same, but it’s easy to forget because our products don’t look like a factory. We can’t physically see the work in progress piling up. We can’t see it. Holding us back now, this applies to the actual work, creating tickets, and shipping software. But more importantly, it applies to the user experience.

The achieving jobs to be done and what that means for your business. If more users sign up and register, go through the activation process. Enabling that first feature and generating that value drives your outcome: happy customers. What’s the part that’s slowing that down?

Don’t focus your energy on something that’s not actually constraining the system.

If we want to increase our outcome metric, the only way to do that Is by working on the constraint. So we have to focus our energy there. That’s how we should be prioritizing.

So the key thing to keep in mind is the idea of the mythical man month. You can’t take 20 people and do the same work in 1/20th of the time. That never applies, and it starts to kick in pretty quickly.

You don’t want to be applying all of your resources to the single thing you’re doing to improve the single constraint.

You can have one constraint depending on how far you zoom in versus how far you zoom out. And you can be doing multiple things, testing multiple hypotheses about how you will improve that constraint or release that constraint. And, in turn, drive your overarching KPI or OKR / key result. What makes this such a powerful mental model is that it’s really tangible.

It’s grounded in the real world. You can visualize it. You can see it in your head.

In fact, it actually reminds me of. Of a time back when I was quite a bit younger. When I was sitting on the deck at my grandparents’ place, they had a farm I used to go to during school holidays. And my grandfather was explaining Newton’s physics laws, and I wasn’t getting it. And so he grabbed a nearby pair of boots that were sitting on the ground and explained that a body at rest remains at rest. And he said if I put this shoe here on the ground,

And I do nothing that’s going to happen. What’s going to stay It’s not gonna go anywhere. Okay. And then what happens if I drop this shoe? And there was nothing underneath it. What would happen?

A body in motion remains, and then what happens if I throw another shoe at the shoe that’s sitting on the ground? It was at rest, but what happens when I hit it with the other shoe? Then it’s gonna move. And he said that this is how you can think about the framework of a body at rest remains at rest. The shoe just sits there. If you don’t do anything, it will keep sitting there.

A body in motion remains in motion. If the shoe was moving and it doesn’t hit anything, and nothing hits it, it would keep moving. And both of these apply unless acted upon by an outside force.

I still vividly remember this. Today. Decades later. And that’s the power of a tangible. Physical, mental model.

Earlier on, I mentioned that there’s a great game that can put all of this into practice. It doesn’t technically make you better at prioritization, but it does make you better at thinking under constraints. it’s a game called Factorio.

You’re building a factory to make a spaceship after you got stranded on a planet.

Fair warning, though. It’s addictive. A buddy of mine that I used to work with actually has over 9,000 hours played.

Tobi Lutke. The founder of Shopify gives every employee a free copy because he sees the lessons learned from that translating directly into improving the company.

You can actually see that. idea. We’re talking about here things. Building up and that piling up of resources in front of that constraint is that visual way to identify what’s going on. You can see that when you’ve got a factory that’s too slow, you start to see this buildup of stuff on the conveyor belt. And that’s the same thing. Theory of constraints. That’s your constraint in the system. So if you want to build things faster, that’s how to do it.

Next time you’re thinking about what to work on. Look for the constraint in the system.

This was originally a video; check it out here →



Bryce York

Startup Product Leader • Product (management) geek sharing hard-learned lessons from 10+ yrs in early-stage & growth-stage startups