by Kristen Cox, GOMB Executive Director
In his book, The Haystack Syndrome, Dr. Eli Goldratt wrote: “Identifying a constraint means that we already have some appreciation of the magnitude of its impact on the overall performance. Otherwise we might also have some trivialities in the list of constraints, or as I call them, some choopchicks.”
The term “choopchick” has become somewhat of a ubiquitous term among Theory of Constraint practitioners. Essentially, a choopchick is an informal Hebrew term for a “thing-a-ma-jig” and often applied to the device on a tea pot that whistles. In process improvement communities, choopchicks are those things that waste time and effort. Thus, the tea pot whistle makes a lot of noise but does not contribute to the aroma or flavor of the tea. Generally, the term choopchick denotes focusing time and energy on trivial or insignificant activities that distract us from focusing on the “constraint” or the activity that will yield the biggest gains in improvement.
For example, an investor could have two accounts—one totaling $1,000 and another $100,000. With limited time, the investor can closely monitor and tend to only one of the accounts. While yielding a return on both investments is desirable, the biggest returns will obviously come from nurturing the account with $100,000. Just as investors devote more time and attention to those investments that will create the biggest return, organizations should focus time, attention, and dollars to those activities that will do the same.
In government, choopchicks are everywhere. While it is easy to come up with a list of ideas for improvement, the trick is to identify which ones to spend time and energy on. Sometimes choopchicks camouflage themselves in ideas that aren’t necessarily bad but come with a high opportunity cost. A “good” idea can end up being the enemy of the best use of time and money.
Operational assumptions directly contribute to how time and resources are spent. What follows are five assumptions that may contribute to management chasing choopchicks rather than those activities that provide the highest leverage for organizational success.
Assumption 1: Automation is the silver bullet
Spending money and time automating inefficient services locks those inefficiencies into expensive software and hardware. A more critical focus should be to first improve the process and then automate only what truly would benefit the system.
Assumption 2: All improvements are equal
Waste and opportunities for improvement exist everywhere in an organization. Knowing what to focus on and what not to focus on are among the most critical insights management should bring to the table. When pursuing a new idea or strategy, management should ask about the opportunity cost. What are will the organization be unable to do by putting time and resources into the activity? Will the investment bring the biggest gains for the customer and taxpayer?
Assumption 3: All expenditures are equal
Focusing on small categories of expenditures (as compared to understanding the total cost of providing a quality service) can mislead management and divert limited time and energy. The cost of doing business and providing service is relative and only makes sense when viewed in relation to how much the organization can actually do and the quality of the service provided. Organizations may spend a great deal of time to save pennies only to realize it took dollars to do so.
Assumption 4: All data is equal
Capturing, tracking, and reporting data that has little or no value consumes resources and creates work. An organization may create a great deal of data and still have poor information from which to strategically manage. Data should clarify decision-making—not confuse it. Organizations should ensure that data management aligns with the critical questions needed to move the needle and operate more effectively.
Assumption 5: There’s no such thing as too many measures
Measurements impact organizational behavior. Too many measures can send conflicting messages to staff and can promote local optimization—the practice of improving something at the local level at the expense of the system’s overall performance. Measures tell management when and where to intervene. Too many measures can provide too many misleading signals and can waste management time and attention. Likewise, if measurements are irrelevant or of less importance, critical time and attention can still be wasted.
Avoiding choopchicks and staying focused on those activities that yield the highest leverage is a fundamental aspect of Utah’s SUCCESS Framework performance improvement process. To learn more, visit https://gomb.utah.gov/operational-excellence/success-framework-introduction/.