Using theory of constraints in E-Learning for overcoming internal, external, cultural, and international constraints

Using theory of constraints in E-Learning for overcoming internal, external, cultural, and international constraints

Myron Hatcher


E-learning is an international phenomenon. Effective delivery of E-Learning must overcome external, internal, and cultural constraints; the question is what constraints are critical? Theory of Constraints (TOC) is a systematic approach to identify critical constraints with a series of tools. These tools have improved the performance for numerous organizations in manufacturing industry and service industry. By clarifying intuition with these tools, such as: the cloud, the branch and the target tree, TOC has successfully been applied in education and e-learning. Cultural differences and international boundaries are easily included in the e-learning paradigm.

Keywords: Theory of Constraints, E-Learning, Education, Training, Cultural Differences, Conflict Resolution, Systems Approach


Asynchronous E-Learning has caused an unprecedented paradigm shift in education. Students from all over the world can take the same section of the same course. Cultural differences can be included as value and the international nature of the business world can become integral to education. Students must learn how to think independently in such a highly autonomous learning environment where there is little face to face contact between students as well as faculty and student. TOC thinking and communication tools enable students to ‘visualize’ and share their own thought processes. Instructors will benefit by using these tools for course design and communications with students as well as course planning. This paper introduces the application of Theory of Constraints, TOC, tools in E-learning. Two specific examples are discussed for clarification; these are a junior or senior level Management Information Systems course and a structured programming course using Visual Basic with a programming lab component. These courses are taught in most universities throughout the world and are similar in format.

When designing e-learning courses, the traditional focus starts with technologies and deliveries. This way of designing E-Learning courses is a problem (1) and greater attention must be paid to the advantages offered by e-learning. The modus operandi of e-learning is far more complex than traditional classroom lectures or labs and allows for a new learning agenda. (2) It provides flexibility and allows asynchronous learning without regards to physical location of the learner. It melts down geographical boundaries and in some cases overcome the time barrier. This shift in economy of scale allows a multicultural, single culture, or international dimension to a class or curriculum, where students are drawn from many countries or for a specific culture located in many countries. E-Learning is of great value and enormous benefits for traditional education, none traditional education, and training. Simple, by overcoming the time and space barriers common to education it allows for a paradigm shift that has not been seen since the development of the printing press.

On the other hand, there are associated disadvantages and problems which need to be addressed. Even though individual students may find tremendous freedom with E-Learning, it can feel impersonal due to restricted interaction. The paradigm shift demands us to approach E-Learning with a different set of knowledge, attitude, belief, tools and behavioral expectations. It may also require a different set of educational outcome expectations.

TOC was developed to improve manufacturing productivity and management effectiveness in a ‘loosely coupled’ network environment. The concepts and tools developed can be applied to a ‘loosely coupled’ E-Learning environment. Three TOC thinking tools: the cloud, the branch and the target tree, have been applied to traditional educational issues. This paper examines the applications of these tools for the e-learning environment.


E-learning is more than the application of internet and technologies; it allows modes of interaction and cooperation that have been developed with Group Decision Support Systems theory. Desanctis and Gallupe developed more complex and sophisticated Group Support Systems technologies. (3) Unless a holistic point of view is taken, e-learning is just another tool and not a paradigm shift. Besides technologies, other issues must be address such as behavior, habit, attitude and ethic. Unfortunately technology itself offers little helps in these areas. First instructors and students have to adapt to a new way of communicating and interacting where their culture and academic background are important and considered. It requires disciplines and time-management. Secondly, instructors and students are literally ‘free’ from traditional auditing practice and this lacking must be solved. The false sense of freedom may lead to degraded education and non-essential learning. The question of cheating is much more difficult to assess where a majority of the assignments are accomplished remotely.

To achieve competitive advantage a system must create a new demand with a new product. E-learning has this potential. The training and educational needs of corporation are expanding. This is occurring simultaneously with a redefinition of lifetime learning. Additionally, the definition of what is education and how one receives it is changing.

Email is the classic method used in e-learning. Normally the e-learning web platform supports email for the whole class, individual groups and the discussion board. In the earlier studies, email was as effective as more technologically enhanced e-learning tools. The second approach went beyond message exchange and included tools for communication, task structuring, and information manipulation such as filtering and sorting. (4)

The integration of these learning modes is desired and the correct combination will be determined by the subject matter, the students’ ability, and the professor’s ability. The E-learning approach includes the design of a generic course with specific adaptations to the culture of the students. (5)

Student, faculty, institution, and financier satisfaction occurs at two levels in e-learning. First is the E-learning course successful in changing beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior or some combination? As new approaches and technologies move into education, goals and measures of success will change. The second level is user satisfaction in the technology, which is similar to user satisfaction in commerce sites. (6)


Theory of constraints (TOC) is based on management science theories and concepts. It applies the method of physics to solve general problems in a broad range of management issues in life. There are numerous books published on principles and applications of TOC. (7,8,9,10) Following is a brief exposition of the TOC: TOC takes a progressive approach to improve a system. It begins by examining undesired conditions in current reality, call it State A. Then, it proceeds to delineate the desired conditions in the future, or State B. The next step is to focus on the process to transform from State A to State B. This process uses logic trees as tools to visualize and verbalize intermediate states of the transformation. Interested readers may refer to other literatures for details.

Goldratt (11) has reduced the TOC into three specific thinking tools: the cloud, the branch and the target tree and applied them in the field of education worldwide. Followings are some quotes from TOC website (

The TOC methods to bring desired improvements are developed through answering three questions.

* What to change?

* To what to change?

* How to cause the change?

What to change: What is the problem? In spite of voluminous changes-and the good intentions of those implementing these changes–many educators worldwide still have long standing problems that block the improvements they envision, such as:

* Students do not know how to solve their own problems

* Students are unable to control impulsive behavior

* Students memorize, rather than understand, what they are taught

* Students can not apply what they learn to authentic situations

* Many students do not see the value of education to make their lives better

* Students leave school before graduating

* Educational leaders are expected to meet the individual learning and behavior needs of all students without sufficient resources (time and money)

In summary, many students do not take responsibility for their own learning and behaviors and, in order to ensure results, educators must intervene. At the same time, educators know that they can not empower students to learn and think on their own if they intervene by assuming this responsibility for them.

In the paradigm of e-learning, students are much more independent and assume more responsibility than those of in the brick and mortar classrooms. Changes in behaviors, habits and thinking are pre-requisites before engaging e-learning. Goldratt (12) further explains the need of ‘thinking tools’ to effect changes during a paradigm shift:

To what to change: What is an effective solution? … What changes are needed are simple, concrete, and practical tools … a powerful set of generic thinking and communication tools that would enable students of all ages, cultures and abilities to:

* Be able to analyze problems from all points of view

* Be able to think through consequences of their own actions so that they can make better choices on their own initiative

* Be able to understand what they learn through the logical connections embedded in the information so that they could derive, rather than, memorize answers …

* Be able to set goals and think through a feasible plan to achieve them.

If students were able to take responsibility for their own learning

and behaviors, that outcome would leave more resources available to

meet the incredible demands on educators’ time? This will happen

only if the means to the end can be accomplished within existing

resource limitations … teachers must have effective tools which

not only can be taught through existing curriculum content but also

in a way that enhances the achievement of mandated standards and


Effective learning requires disciplined thinking. Educators realize that critical thinking is so important that students are required to take courses specifically in critical thinking. However, most required courses fail to teach students to become independent thinkers. Why? The thinking process is such an abstract activity that most teachers do not know how to instruct students to think, let alone ‘critical thinking’ and effective learning. Goldratt developed three specific thinking and communication tools for such needs: namely: the Cloud, the Ambitious Target Tree, and the Branch. Tables 1, 2, and 3 represent tools.



Fredenall classifies constraints into three types (13). They are:

* Physical or logistical constraints–these are resources within system which have capacity that is equal to or less than the demand placed upon it.

* Policy constraints–these are decrees or rules from management staff that sets limits on the system performance and they do not lead directly to achieving the goals and objectives of the system.

* Paradigm constraints–these are entrenched habits or assumptions of people in the system that things must be done this way because they have always been done this way. Paradigm constraints often lead to policy constraints which may lead to physical constraints.

In implementing E-Learning, Table 4 summaries possible constraints for the three types discussed above.

The TOC Cloud has been expanded into a matrix in Table 5. In this table, all perspectives are included with a common goal to deliver a successful E-Learning experience. Needs are prerequisites to meet the goal; wants are negotiable items; assumptions are items hidden or taken for granted; obstacles are hindrance to reach the goal.

The Cloud tool can be applied to on E-Learning assessment conflict resolution between student and teacher. Table 6 represents this analysis.

Apparently, there are many conflicts and constraints in e-learning delivery. TOC advocate that constraints be prioritized in terms of their significances and removed one by one. A major conflict in e-learning is the assessment issue. Following is an example as how to communicate this conflict with ‘the cloud’. First, teacher and students must verbalize a common goal and their own needs and wants. It is important that they learn how to use concise language to express their needs and wants. Again, needs are elements required to achieve the goal. Wants are ‘negotiable’ items for the goal. The diagrams ‘force’ students and teachers to separate ‘wants’ from ‘needs’. It also allows them to ‘verbalize’ assumptions which are usually ‘hidden’ in the background and overlooked or ignored. Once ‘wants’ and needs’ are identified. Students and teacher may then proceed to seek ways to ‘evaporate’ the cloud. Creative solution called ‘injection’ may come about during this exercise. TOC advocates to ‘in-validate’ assumptions to resolve a conflict rather than formulate a ‘compromised’ solution.

For example, the success of e-learning delivery requires a credible assessment instrument. Students and teacher have their own needs, wants and assumptions. By removing the assumption that the teacher is going to grade on a curve and communicate with students about reasonable expectations, students will be more interested to participate in e-learning discussions and share ideas with others. This is a critical shift in the educational paradigm where e-leaning allows student cooperation at a much greater level in the learning process. The discussion board is one example where student learn and share with each other about many specific topic on a 24 hour per day basis.


The MIS, Management Information System course, is among the first major classes a business student takes. It normally is taken as a first semester junior. The instructor may plan the class by using the cause-effect process, the TOC branch–also known as transition tree, to plan the class. The instructor can also tie the grading scheme, A, B, C, D and F, in the branch to reflect stages of learning, expectations, obstacles and actions they may take to achieve intermediate objectives (IO s). Professors may expand this branch in a separate diagram if students are having difficulties with a particular intermediate objective such as the Information Systems Audit Project. Table 7 represents a branch or transition tree developed by the Professor for accomplishing an Information Systems Audit Project for the MIS course.

For the e-learning, students are challenged to work on a group project where they do an information audit of a local company. From the professor’s perspective, it is critical that student groups turn in their own works. This concern was addressed earlier with the ‘cloud’ Table 6. From the students’ perspective, they must learn how to plan their own project. This starts with the interviewing managers, identifying the missions, products and services of the chosen company. Next is the development of critical success factors, which indicates what information is most important. These are further strengthening with Input Process Output diagrams and systems diagrams. Lastly the critical data is defined and strengthened.

The ambitious target tree (ATT) is a nice tool for the students to clarify thoughts and ‘visualize’ what obstacles must be overcome to deliver a project which meets all required criteria. Table 8 provides an example of how students may apply this tool to tackle their own project.


Many people learn programming skill on there own. Therefore, structured programming is a class ideally suited for delivery by E-learning. Instructors may plan the class by using the cause-effect process, the branch–also known as transition tree. Instructors can also tie the grading scheme, A, B, C, D and F, in the branch to reflect stages of learning, expectations, obstacles and actions the students may take to achieve intermediate objectives (IO s) as shown in the following diagram. The teacher may expand this branch in a separate diagram if students are having difficulties with a particular intermediate objective. From the students’ perspective, they must learn how to plan their own project.

The ambitious target tree (ATT) is a nice tool for them to clarify thoughts and ‘visualize’ what obstacles are in order to deliver a project which meets all required criteria. Table 9 represents how students may apply this tool to tackle their own project.


This new paradigm in education, E-learning, involves a complex web of people from many cultures and throughout the world, equipment, methods, materials and measures. Changing technologies, emerging disciplines, information explosion, complex policies and legal issues, etc. all complicate its delivery. Behavioral changes, habit and attitude adjustments on the part of both the Professors and students are pre-requisites for successful E-Learning. The world view that needs to be integrated in any course or curriculum is a challenge and will evolve overtime. TOC offers critical thinking and visual communication tools in identification of the critical constraints. Instructors as well as students benefit from TOC in the design and planning of E-learning courses, including conflict resolution.

Instructors can use TOC to design the E-learning course to achieve multicultural goals or single culture goals made possible by the E-Learning environment. This clarity with the TOC design process will enhance the likelihood of the learning goals being accomplished.

Students will benefit from TOC in several ways including enhanced independent thinking. They will understand how a goal is achieved in this new paradigm of education. Secondly, students can define their own goals and map out a way to visualize and share their own thought process for identification and removal of critical constraints.

The MIS course used TOC to design and communicate the Information System Audit without face to face contact with students. Table 7 represents how the Professor used the TOC tool, the Branch, in designing the Information Systems Audit Project. It clearly depicts the actions taken, knowledge needed, and the obstacles overcome to accomplish the project. Table 8 represents how students used the TOC tool, the Ambitious Target Tree, in clarifying the obstacles and objectives that they had to accomplish to complete the Information Systems Audit Project.

Students in the Structured Programming course used the TOC tool, the Ambitious Target Tree, Table 9, to plan the semester project. The obstacles and objectives were clarified for accomplishing the project.

Table 6, the cloud, depicts how the student assessment conflict is resolved for either course. The main result is that students need to be encouraged to work together on group projects and this requires that students not be graded on a curve and procedures for guaranteeing fair assessment need to be in place.


Myron Hatcher, California State University -Fresno, California, USA

Matthew Yen, California State University -Fresno, California, USA

(1) Convey, S. R., “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon and Schuster,” New York, 1989.

(2) Muilenburg, L. and Z. Berge, Barriers to Distance Education: A Factor Analytic Study, The American Journal of Distance Education, 15(2), 2001.

(3) DeSanctis, G., R. B. Gallupe. 1897. “A foundation for the study of group decision support systems,” Management Science. 33(5), 1997, 589-609.

(4) Alavi, M., G. M. Marakas, and Y. Yoo. “A Comparative Study of Distributed Learning Environment on Learning Outcomes,” Information Systems Research 13(4), 2002.

(5) Nykanen, O., M. Ala-rantala. “A design for a hypermedia-based learning environment,” Education and Information Technologies, 3, 1998, 277-290.

(6) Muvlle, S., R. Moenaert, and M. Despontin, “The conceptualization and empirical validation of web site user satisfaction,” Information and Management, 41(5), 2004

(7) Goldratt, E. M., Theory of Constraints, North River Press., 1990.

(8) McMullen, T. B., Jr., Introduction to the Theory of Constraints Management System, St. Lucie Press, APICS Series on Constraints Management, 1998.

(9) Goldratt, E. M. and J. Cox, The Goal 2nd ed., North-River Press, Croton-on-Hudson, NY. 1992.

(10) Goldratt, E. M. “Chapter 4: The Importance of a System’s Constraints,” The Theory. of Constraints Journal, 1(4), Feb-Mar. 1989.

(11) Goldratt, E. M., (

(12) Goldratt, E. M., “Chapter 6: The Paradigm Shift?,” The Theory of Constraints Journal, 1(6), April-May, 1990.

(13) Fredendall, L. D., and E. Hill. Basics of Supply Chain Management. The St. Lucie Press/APICS Series on Constraints Management. 2001.

Dr. Myron Hatcher earned his Sc.D. and MPH from The Johns Hopkins University in 1978 and 1975 respectively. Currently he is Professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences at California State University, Fresno. He has extensive research experience and publications in health care delivery systems and Group Decisions Support Systems.

Dr. Matthew Yen earned his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1979. Currently he is Professor of Industrial Technology at California State University, Fresno. He has research experience and publications in agricultural information systems and Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) applications, computer integrated manufacturing systems and technology education.


Physical Constraints Policy Constraints Paradigm Constraints

* Hardware & Software * Fees and * Self-disciplines

availability registration * Time management

* Lab Accessibility * Administration costs * Suitable content and

* Instructors * Budget and resource curriculum design

development allocations * Communication

* Students cognitive * Students assessment barriers

ability * Class evaluation and * Students commitment

* Students motivation audit * Instructor

* Institutional commitment

* Quality time policies

Source: Hatcher and Yen




Common goal: To deliver a successful e-learning experience

Perspectives Needs Wants

Students: * Credit * Pass classes

* Knowledge gain * Good grades

* Skill improvement * Interesting and

* Paradigm fun learning

awareness * Encourage-

ment and


Instructors: * Compensated * Fair

* Professional assessment

currency in * Fair class

knowledge and skill evaluation

* Preparation time * Students

* Deliverable motivated and

instructional well

materials disciplined

* Delivery * Encourageme

environment nt and

* Proper instructional Recognition


Administrator: * Sufficient enrollment * Profitable

* Smooth * Increased

registration and enrollment

reports * Improved

* No schedule reputation

conflicts * Public


Technology * Funding to support * Update

services: * Supportive vendors equipment

* Intelligent instructor * Software

* Savvy students current

Content * Speed * Economic

Providers * Robustness * Easy to modify

* Deliverable and maintain

Common goal: To deliver a successful e-learning experience

Perspectives Assumptions Obstacles

Students: * Instructor is * Costs of learning

enthusiastic and * Time for studies

knowledgeable * Opportunities to

* Conducive learning ask questions

environment * Cognitive ability

to understand

* Technology


* Timely


Instructors: * Students meet pre- * Costs for

requisites instructional

* Conducive teaching materials

environment * Time for

* Students motivated preparation

* Students knows * Time to interact

how to study for * Lack of

tests experiences

* Students knows * Do not know

how to ask for how to design

questions learning

* Students know how modules or

to manage time objects

Administrator:* Students are ready * Expenses for e-

to learn learning

* Instructors are delivery

prepared to teach * Time to respond


* Time to manage

and report

* Time to promote

and market

Technology * Clear rules and * Intruders

services: policies * Breakdowns

* Legal * Time to respond

Content * Cost

Providers * Time

Source: Hatcher and Yen




Information Audit completed


Actions: Learn to Know how to determine Obstacles: What is

define competitive competitive advantage and competitive

advantage and related strategies advantage and how

determine what does a strategy

strategy makes the affect it?

system work


Actions: Study the Know how to define critical Obstacles: What are

system in depth and data the critical data

determine the data and its attributes

that is essential for this system?

for the system to



Actions: Review the Know how to define Obstacles: What is

definition of information used by the information anyway,

Information and system let alone in this

apply Input, system?

Process, Output

analysis to system

and determine



Actions: Study IS Know how to define hardware Obstacles: There is

infrastructure and and software components of so much hardware,

how to define it. the system software, and

firmware, what is



Actions: Study the Know how to define critical Obstacles: What is a

theory of critical success factors of the critical success

success factors and system factors and what are

via interviews and they for this

synthesis apply to system?

this system.


Actions: Study the Know how to define product Obstacles: Today,

modern definition and decision process the term product has

of product and a new meaning, what

decision processes. are it, and what

decision processes



Actions: Study Know how to create a sample Obstacles: How to

methods of questionnaire for gather information?

interviewing and interviews and set up

questionnaire interviews



Actions: Study the Do not know how to do an Obstacles: What is

definition of an Information Audit an information

information audit audit?

and the process.

Source: Hatcher and Yen




To help students to plan an Information Audit project of a company

for an e-learning course


1. Do not know which company Look a various Examples in

to select? companies and textbooks and

select the most online search


2. Do not know how to design Find out what are Project

the project? the requirements specifications

for the project

3. Do not know what company Find out what are Make a list of

to pick, whom to the inputs and the questions

interview, and what outputs

questions to ask?

4. Do you know how to Find out what you Examples in the

conduct the interview? need to know. syllabus.

5. Do you know how to Find out from

identify the mission, managers what are

problems and decision there problems

made? and decisions.

6. Do you know to define the Determine what are Examples of data

information? inputs, outputs structures in

and task to be text book.

performed for each


7. Do you know how to define Find out the Textbook and

the physical information definition of references in

system? input, processing, journal articles

output, network and internet.

and database


8. Do you know how to Find out what are Textbook.

define the critical data the critical

concepts or data success factors

definition? and critical data


9. Do you know how to Determine out how Textbook and

identify competitive to define the examples from

advantage, the related strategies that professor.

strategies, and the can lead to

benefits of the new competitive

systems? advantage with the

system under


10. Do you know how to Find out how to Textbook and

critique and critique a system examples from

recommendation, and and make professor.

future potential for the recommendations

Information System with based upon this

specific emphasis on critique, which

Internet potential includes Internet


11. Do you know how to Organization of Prepare the

prepare a Group Presentation presentation

Presentation according to the


criteria, assign

components to


12. Do you know how to Produce written Follow report

prepare a Written Project report. guidelines.


Source: Hatcher and Yen




To help students to plan a semester project for a structured

programming course delivered via e-learning course


1. Do not know which Find an application Examples in textbooks

application and online search

2. Do not know how to Find out what are Project specifications

design the project the requirements for

the project

3. Do not know where to Find out what are Make a list of

start the inputs and the variables


4. Do not know how to Decide what controls Options: textboxes,

design the user should be used to input boxes, message

interface handle for user boxes, lists, etc.

input and how to

display the results

5. Do not know how to Simplify the

break down into selected task by

procedures and dividing into small

functions tasks

6. Do not know how to Determine what are

program each inputs, outputs and

procedure task to be performed

for each function

7. Do not know how to Write a procedure to

tie all functions test call functions

and procedure and procedures


8. The program will not Find out the Use debugger, break

run and don’t know ‘bug'(s) point, check syntax

what is the problem errors, divide the

program into small

modules and test

9. Do not know how to Find out what are Use database

interface with required connection application examples

databases strings as a reference, ask

instructor, class

mates, check books and

online references

10. Do not know how to Find out what tasks Study loop examples

use loops in the are repetitive


11. Do not know how to Find out what are What are pros and cons

use decision various conditions for If. then or

statements in the in the selected Select Case

project project

12. Do not know how to Decide who is the Study commercial

use multiple forms user and determine software and talk to

their needs potential users

Source: Hatcher and Yen

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