Friday, March 3, 2006

A Review of The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt



Business novels are a rare breed. You can't find too many of these types of books, which deal with business-related topics in a fictionalized story setting, on the shelves of even the largest bookstores these days. Usually, if you want to read about a business topic, you would have to head straight to the nonfiction section or even the college textbook section. But with The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, a business novel is exactly what you'll get.

The Goal was first published in 1986 and has been required reading in many college and graduate-level business courses since then. It basically deals with a problem called the Theory of Constraints, which is a management technique that focuses on identifying constraints, or "bottlenecks," that limit the company's production in some way. The specific actions recommended by Goldratt related to the Theory of Constraints technique can be applied to many different kinds of businesses. In the book, however, the setting is a manufacturing plant, where the theory really makes the most sense to me.

As I said, The Goal is a business novel. That means it has characters, dialogue, and a plot line. The main character is a man named Alex Rogo. He is the plant manager for a company that is the brink of a shutdown due to all the usual ills that beset manufacturers: high costs, low production, employee unrest, and bad economic times. Rogo has been given the seemingly impossible task of turning the plant around and making it into a lean, well-run, profitable entity within 90 days or the bigwigs will have no choice but to shut it down. This doesn't sit well with Rogo since that would leave the plant's many employees without work and would essentially destroy the small town that is home to the plant.

So Alex goes about trying to find some way to improve the plant's productivity. However, since he mostly spends his workday putting out the small fires and trivial problems that constantly arise, he rarely has time to get around to dealing with the bigger picture. Just when he realizes that he'll never turn the plant around at the rate he's going, he happens to run into an old acquaintance, Jonah, who acts as the wise master and presumably has all the answers. Despite Alex's pleading and despite the obvious time constraints that Alex is working under, Jonah doesn't simply come right out and tell Alex how to solve the problems at the plant. After all, if Jonah did that there would be no novel! Instead, Jonah gives Alex cryptic hints and clues, which Alex must figure out on his own.

In addition to all the things that are going on at work, Goldratt gives his main character a healthy dose of personal problems too. Alex's wife is thinking about leaving him because he spends too much time at work, Alex has kids he never sees, etc. At first it seems like this part of the book is just filler and fluff, but these family circumstances actually lead to one of the key scenes in the novel.

After Alex talked to Jonah for the first time, he starts looking at the plant in a different way. Slowly, he begins to see where some of the biggest problems in the plant are, and he begins to investigate the root cause of the problems instead of just dealing with the aftermath. He has many more conversations with Jonah, each time getting more and more advice on how to save the plant. Yet because Jonah is very stubborn about not giving Alex the answers outright, the reader gets to see the way in which Alex goes about tackling the various problems he's faced with.

This is how the reader learns about the different techniques involved in the Theory of Constraints. Whereas a textbook would present the theory and give some abstract examples, The Goal goes about it totally differently. We first see the problems, then we see the cause of the problems, then we see how to solve the problems. Although I have to admit that I've never put any of the principles of The Goal to work for me in the real world, I saw a lot of value in learning about the Theory of Constraints through Goldratt's business novel format.

A lot of people might find the plot and characters to be a bit hokey or cheesy, and I actually agree with this assessment to a certain extent. After all, Goldratt isn't actually a novelist, he's a business guru. But the bottom line is that many of the ideas and theories presented by Goldratt are far more understandable to the average reader when they are introduced in the context of everyday life. This is best achieved by making The Goal a story rather than an all-out textbook.

If you've ever tried to read a business textbook on your own, without the benefit of a lecture, professor, or class discussion to help you through the rough spots, then you know that many of the major lessons are bound to get lost on you if unless you understand exactly what the author means. With The Goal, readers aren't likely to have any comprehension problems because the ideas are presented in the most basic way possible. This is a real advantage to people who are interested in reading about business on their own time.

Overall, I have to say that I liked the book. It took me a while to warm up to the idea of a business novel, but once I got into Alex's problems, I was hooked. The Goal was very easy to read, presented clear and concise definitions of key terms, and seems to be based on sound principles. When you read this book, you won't get a page-turner with suspenseful plot devices and interesting, well-developed characters. That's not the point of the book. Instead, you'll get a nice introduction to the Theory of Constraints and perhaps learn some things that can help you deal with problems at your own job.

Because it's a novel, the problems in The Goal of course get solved by the last page after Alex uses the basic techniques suggested by Jonah and, by extension, Goldratt. Simplistic solutions obviously don't happen in real life, so don't be misled by this facet of the book.

Despite the fact that The Goal is not perfect, I do recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about the Theory of Constraints. You won't learn any advanced concepts, but you'll come away with enough information that you'll be able to start asking the right questions when problems arise at your place of employment.

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