The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement

Book cover image

I came to this book through Pheonix Project, a novel-like book on how lean methods helped save an IT department and also the whole company. The Goal was referenced in that book, and in some other literature on lean software development, which led me to acquiring it. I was surprised to see how much Pheonix Project borrowed from The Goal; it has pretty much the same structure of a department facing certain death, and then getting saved by applying certain lean methods, supervised by an idiosyncratic guru. The domestic life of the antagonist suffers because he has to put most of his living hours to saving the plant/department in both. Also common is the fact that the lean guru does not just hand the answers, or give instructions on how to solve the problems. He points the manager in the right direction, asking some fundamental questions, and telling him to call back when he has the answers. We as the reader get to follow the manager in his search for the answers, and how he has to change his thinking in order to get to the source of the problems.

In The Goal, although the standard performance metrics are showing good numbers, the plant is losing money, and the inventory piles up in the hallways. The delivery time is skyrocketing, while the plant is displaying itself to be unable to meet the same quality standards and delivery times of other manufacturers in the same market. As a last resort, the manager calls his physics professor from college, who he discovered turned into a consultant for big manufacturers, and manages to get some of his time for his plant. What the guru teaches him revolves around the observation that if his plant is losing money and the metrics are positive, then he’s optimising for the wrong metrics. The metrics the accounting center of the company hands over consider the throughput of the individual units, leading the planners to optimise the output of each machine. As the guru points out, however, the aim of the plant is to earn money, and this is the main objective around which the plant should be organized. This means that the bottlenecks that decrease the production of marketable items have to be found out, and the whole plant organized around these to maximize their utilization, removing their bottleneck status. It is inevitable that another bottleneck shows up; this is why the process explained in this book is iterative, finding a new bottleneck at each step and removing it. The method used to find a bottleneck is decreasing the number of items in the pipeline. One of the characters compares this to decreasing the volume of water in a stream, where the biggest stone apears first as the water gets lower.

The book is very easy to read, demonstrates the points with lively analogies and energetic discussions, and has a conversational feeling to it. There is no getting around the fact that it is written for the layman, though; all of this makes sense to me, but I’m pretty certain that many practices explained in the book have already been superseded in the industry, production being an area under constant pressure to decrease prices and increase quality and output, with the use of all kinds of advanced scientific means. It is still a very interesting read, though, and highly recommended to anyone interested in lean methods.