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The Beauty Of Constraints

Posted on August 5th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


It’s sometimes fun to imagine we live in a world free of constraints, where the only limits are our creativity and imagination. In that world we can dream up new materials, systems and entire infrastructures.

We could bring into being the characters from our favourite movies, solve the problems facing humanity and really make the world a better place.

But that world only exists in our minds.

The real world is somewhat different. For better or for worse, the world we live in is full of constraints. While that might seem to put a bit of a downer on things, my experience is that working within constraints is actually incredibly helpful in bringing about change or creating something new.

Immovable Laws

There is a time and a place for blue sky thinking (which I think is an underused tool), but there’s also a time for focusing on a goal and working towards achieving it. And that, for me, is where constraints come in.

There are some limits which we have no control over. Material properties, current technological capabilities and the number of hours in a day are pretty immovable. The world we live in is governed by the laws of physics which we cannot control. That immediately places some constraints on what we can and can’t do.

Most of the time, those types of constraints are accepted as given. We don’t challenge them. We don’t try and push things a little bit further. There isn’t much scope creep when it comes to constraints like that. Often, they’re so ingrained that we don’t even talk about them at all.

But there is a whole heap of constraints we can control. And it’s the way we do, or don’t, define and work within those constraints that can make or break development programs.

The Constraints We Choose

There are a lot of different constraints we can place on our projects. In the early stages, it’s important to spend some time defining what we’re trying to achieve.

Whether in the form of performance requirements of the product or solution we’re developing, project constraints (such as delivery dates, costs, time), functional requirements, the standards we’re looking to comply with, or more likely a mixture of all of these, constraining your development at the outset is an important step.

The constraints you decide on define the envelope you’re working within. Placing constraints focuses efforts on delivering something that meets the specification, which helps avoid the temptation of making continual and gradual improvements but never getting over the finishing line.

For me, it’s the approach of intentionally working within constraints instead of in an unbounded, perfect world, that separates engineers from scientists (if you disagree, please let me know in the comments below). The focus is on delivery instead of discovery.

And so, choosing to define and identify the constraints you’re working within can actually serve to focus efforts on reaching the finishing line. Constraints are no bad thing. They won’t stop us overcoming challenges or making the world a better place. It’s within our constraints that we’re able to actually get things done.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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