What Is a Limiting Factor? Definition + Examples

What is a limiting factor? What are some real-world examples of limiting factors?

Everybody has limiting factors in their life, but they aren’t always obvious. For example, let’s say you want to quit smoking, but no matter how hard you try, your efforts fail. You blame yourself for this failure, but the real limiting factor is that you live with two smokers in the same apartment.

Keep reading for the definition of a limiting factor.

What Is a Limiting Factor?

Most systems have a limiting factor that affects the performance of the entire system. A limiting factor is an element of a system that many other aspects of the system depend on. If the limiting factor fails or is slow, then the whole system will also fail or operate slowly. When you’re trying to improve or grow a system, you should identify a system’s limiting factor, then improve it, thereby improving the system as a whole. When we fail to understand the limiting factors of the systems in our lives, our efforts to improve them are doomed to fail.

Let’s explore Bevelin’s definition of limiting factors by thinking of a common system: your home and family. Imagine you recently had a child and you hope to continue growing your family. The city you live in is a limiting factor in your home system because if you have to keep paying such high rent, you may never be able to afford a larger home to accommodate a larger family. To change this limiting factor, move to a new city with lower rent so you can afford a larger living space.

What Errors Do We Make When We Fail to Consider Limiting Factors?

While Bevelin claims that we can avoid making errors by identifying and improving a system’s limiting factors, he doesn’t explore in depth what types of errors we make when we fail to consider limiting factors. In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows identifies two major errors we make when we fail to identify and improve limiting factors. 

First, according to Meadows, we sometimes misidentify the limiting factor, which prevents us from supporting the system’s growth or improvement. For instance, at first, you may misidentify the small size of your apartment as the factor limiting your family’s growth. However, moving to a larger apartment will only increase your rent, which may make it impossible to afford a second child. The real limiting factor is the city’s sky-high rent.

Second, Meadows claims that limiting factors change over time, especially as a system grows. Your system may fail to reach your goals for it if you think the limiting factor remains the same. For instance, imagine you move your family to a new city with lower rent so you can afford a larger home. Now, there may be new factors that limit the potential growth of your family, such as the cost of education in your new neighborhood.
What Is a Limiting Factor? Definition + Examples

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.