Thoughts on Constraints and Instructional Design

I can't believe I'm doing this: writing another puzzling mix blog post. It's the SECOND one in as many days! Does two posts a streak make?

Anyway, when I was a training program manager at an Intel fab in the Arizona desert a while back I learned about this thing called Constraint Management. It's a vital consideration in the manufacturing world. Basically it's all about identifying the choke point in your process: acknowledging that the best your process can perform is dictated by its slowest performer. It surprises me, in a mild sort of way, that 13 years after leaving Intel I remember as much about constraint management as I do. For that I owe one Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt and a book he wrote, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement.

The Intel course I took where I got a chance to read The Goal was called Theory of Constraints. It was a dry subject to me and one which, if not for Goldratt's The Goal, I would probably have long ago forgotten. What made the subject so vivid and memorable is the story within the book. In it there's this factory manager faced with a dilemna: his plant will soon close if he can't get widgets out the door efficiently (and cheaply). The manager tries all of the usual things to no avail. It isn't until he's out with his son on a Boy Scout camping trip that he figures things out. The catalyst, what got him to understand constraints and to identify his factory's, dawned on him whilst watching the boys troop along on their way to a campsite. The ah-ha: the slowest sets the pace.

Sadly, the Theory of Constraints isn't something they teach you at instructional design school. If you get exposed to it at all it was probably during a project management lesson in an educational technology course. But constraints are so important to an instructional designer.

A couple of hours ago I read an article on ASTD's website written by Aaron Silvers. It was about designing with service in mind. Providing service to a population is very important. But by the end of the article I came away not quite sure what it was really about. Maybe it's because in the article he touches on something I have no direct experience with: Tin-Can. I think it's something akin to a learning management system (LMS), though I can't say for certain.

One thing I am sure about, however, is that the article doesn't touch on any constraints. It doesn't say anything about the economic or political realities of learning organizations and how these impact design.

For example, mid-way into the article Silvers talks about “higher customer engagement” using twitter. Engagement is something to be sought after. Okay, cool. Maybe I'm beginning to get it after all. But what about those organizations that do not allow their employees to tweet, either whilst they're working or about what they do? The article begins with a blurb from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talking about a new Kindle. Silvers then describes the topic of “making things that matter” and how doing so is more important than ever. But he doesn't talk about how there is an organizational context that constrains the acquisition and application of these things.

Another point I don't get in the article concerns what Silvers and Craig Wiggins label “our kind of people.” I think they're talking about the sorts of people that make up the population of instructional designers.

Anyway, I'm going off on an unintentional tangent. The point of my writing just now is to get us, our kind of people–instructional designers, thinking about constraints. The things that limit us in what we do, in the service and experience we provide to our learners, not all of whom possess the gifts of sight and hearing to name a couple more constraints.

Wiggins and Silvers mention something called “patterns”. I hope that whatever they are they're designed not just with service in mind, encompassing all that might be possible, but with a eye towards the constraints that instructional designers and their learner populations face every day.

I'll leave you with: To the instructional designer that came up with using Goldratt's The Goal in Intel's Theory of Constraints class: thank you very much!

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