The Goal (Tom on Books)

The Goal is a novel about a manufacturing plant on the verge of being shut down. Written in the 1980s by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, The Goal served as a guide on how to make American manufacturing plants able to compete with the Japanese.

I didn't read The Goal because I'm interested in 1980s manufacturing plants. I read it because it's the book the The Phoenix Project is based on, and in a Reddit thread I was strongly encouraged to read The Goal. One commenter in particular recommended that I read The Goal and then re-read the Phoenix Project, which is exactly what I intend on doing.

The Goal is written as a novel, but like the Phoenix Project its reason for being is to teach you how to improve your company. The focus of the novel is on determining the goal of an organization and then figuring out how to best achieve that goal.

What's the goal?

Determining the goal of an organization sounds simple, but it's easy to get it wrong. If you currently work for, or run, a company, take a moment and try to figure out, in one sentence, what the goal of your company is. Please, actually do it. What's the goal of your organization. Why does it exist?

The goal of your company might not be the one you put on your website. If the goal you came up with is something like "To provide customers with the best experience", I put it to you that you don't understand the goal of your company. In the novel, Alex Rogo, the Plant Manager at UniCo Manufacturing is asked what the goal of his plant is. He comes up with something like "to provide our customers with the best parts in a timely fashion". He's wrong.

The goal of Alex's plant is not to serve the customer. The goal is to make money for UniCo. That's it. And we can see this with a simple thought experiment. What if Alex's plant served customers very well and didn't make money? Would it stay open? No. What if Alex's company didn't serve customers very well but did make a lot of money? Would it stay open? Of course! The goal of UniCo is to make money, not manufacture parts. The goal of your company is probably the same: make money. If your company doesn't make money, it closes down. How you achieve that goal (helping customers) is a means of achieving the goal, but you can't confuse the means of achieving the goal for the goal itself.

Why does that matter? Isn't that common sense? In The Goal, Alex's mentor, Jonah, makes an important distinction between common sense and common practice. Common practice is what you do because everyone else is doing it, even if it ultimately makes no sense. (See cargo culting) Common sense is what we call best practices only after they've been made obvious to us. Common sense is what we would have been doing if we could have seen clearly from the beginning. If your company hasn't focussed on the real goal, it's easy to get caught up in common practices that are not common sense.

How can you achieve the goal?

Once you've cut away the fluff and determined the actual goal of your organization, you're in a better spot to achieve your goal. You can get rid of features, services and people that aren't helping achieve the goal. You can then determine what is slowing down your progress. In The Goal, these constraints are referred to as bottle necks. In Alex's plant, the main bottle neck was the NCX-10 machine. It helped produced the most important parts, but it had a limited capacity. Jonah helps Alex realize that if the NCX-10 isn't being properly utilized, the whole plant is affected.

To achieve the goal, you can't focus on improving local efficiencies: you need to improve the efficiency of the organization as a whole. At a software company, that could mean making sure your deployment process is extremely efficient because if it's not, then everything else grinds to a halt. At a college, it might mean making sure your course schedules allow students to graduate on time because if students can't graduate on time, no other improvements in efficiency actually matter.

Thumbs up to The Goal

The Goal was fun. It's definitely a book of its time. People smoke cigars in meetings, drink beer in their cars, get annoyed with how fat kids are, etc. But the fact that the book takes place 40 years ago helps make it obvious that the same problems still exist today. These aren't new problems, but they are problems that have solutions.

I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for insight on how to improve their company (or even their personal life). Once you start thinking of your company like a manufacturing plant, everything falls into place.

OK! Time to re-read the Phoenix Project.