The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt is a business novel that recounts how a factory manager shakes off complacency and isolation to save his factory and its employees. Many MBAs, system scientists and agilists have read it.
I read The Goal 7 years ago. I was so excited I sent our CEO an email. “Have you read it? It has so many messages for us!” I said, breathlessly. “Yep. I’ve read it. Great book,” he said.
My coach friends and I have lately been trying to inspire executives and managers to sustain agile practices, to become competent agile coaches themselves. To help managers understand organizational agility, we have distributed copies of The Goal, foisting it on managers and begging them to read it. I felt I had to refresh my memory of it. On this, my second reading, I am inspired again, but for different reasons.
This time The Goal reinforced that dysfunctional management is timeless—it was happening when I read it years ago and it happens today. From the first few pages—where our harried protagonist suffers emergency interruptions that slow production and create waste—I keep finding parallels with my daily work in every group and every team.
In enterprises, poor organization prevents people from delivering value fast. We serve customers better when we work with them closely. But most enterprise teams don’t serve customers directly, instead serving other teams. Executives and managers, thinking product managers handle it, don’t solicit customers much either. Value becomes abstract and seemingly unimportant. Individuals feel powerless to improve the company, and so they do what others tell them to do. As a result, dysfunctions grow and learning stops.
What does The Goal teach? It teaches the Theory of Constraints:
- Constraints are everywhere, but we think we can’t change many of them, if we even notice them.
- To improve the output of a large organization, you have to get out of your local rut, look at the big picture and apply systems thinking.
- By slowing down non-critical parts of an organization, you can often speed up the organization. Sometimes unused stuff (code, for example) slows others down. Sometimes freed-up resources help the critical parts of the organization go faster.
- Socratic questioning helps people discover their own solutions. However, we must craft questions to illuminate bigger issues.
- We can apply the Theory of Constraints to a company, a boy scout troop or a family, and create long-term happiness.
The Goal addresses issues relating to quality, organizational structures, and individual responsibility. It comes down to this: Are you thinking about the larger organization, are you communicating with leaders to improve the situation, and do you care about the whole company?
Here are the steps we can use to make a system better:
- Identify the overall goal of the organization, ideally with one or two leading success metrics.
- Find the constraint that limits the success of the organization. In software situations, this can be an infrastructure component, a specialist, a corporate approval process, a regression testing process, a build system, etc. Every organization is different.
- Focus the organization on the constraint to increase its output and relax its limits on organizational success.
- Subordinate all production to the limits imposed by the constraint. Produce just enough “inventory” to maximize the constraint’s output, but produce no more.
- With idled workers or resources, refactor the organization to eliminate the limits imposed by the constraint (until another constraint limits production).
- Identify the new constraint and fix it with the steps above. In real businesses, this continuous improvement never ends. If you think that you’ve done all you can, add customers, markets, sales and product management into your concept of “the organization.” (Lean Startup approaches do exactly this.) You’ll discover constraints that limit your ability to communicate, sell, fix and innovate.
Come with me, and read (or re-read) The Goal. You’ll remember why you gave it to friends. You’ll marvel at the destructiveness of average management. You might notice, as I have, that the managers who have used systems thinking are more likely to have great jobs now.
Reading The Goal will re-energize you to make things better. It’s up to us.
- Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Jeff Cox and David Whitford, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, revised 3rd edition, North River Press (2012).
- Eric Ries, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Crown Business (2011).