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The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, published in 1984, is a business novel. The Goal uses the story of Alex Rogo, plant manager, to illustrate the theory of constraints and how the wrong measurement focus can harm an organization. The focus of the re-read is less on the story, but rather on the ideas the book explores that have shaped lean thinking. Earlier entries in this re-read are:

Part 1                         Part 2                         Part 3                         Part 4

In the next 4 chapters Alex stumbles on the how the concepts of dependent events and variability affect the flow of work, nearly literally.

Chapter 13

Chapter 13 begins with Alex awaking to his son, Dave, in his Boy Scout uniform waiting to go on a weekend hike and camping trip. Alex ends up as the leader due to the absence of the normal scout master.   The column of scouts sets out with an adult, Ron, leading the way. Alex asks Ron to set a pace that is consistent and maintainable. The scouts create a queue based on the arcane rationale of young boys, and Alex anchors to the column to ensure the troop stays together. The column spreads out immediately even though everyone is moving at the same “average” speed. The interaction amongst the hikers is a series of dependent events. Scouts speed up and slow impacting those behind them. The act of speeding up and slowing down is the statistical variation described in Chapter 12. The speed of any individual hiker is influenced by the person directly ahead them in the line. Finally Alex realizes that the speed of the overall hike is less a reflection of first person in line than the last person in line. In the software-testing world, testing is not complete when the first test is done, but rather when the last test is completed.

Side Note: Anyone that wants to understand why every effort should be made to remove or reduce dependencies needs to read these this of chapters carefully. Dependencies make any process A LOT more complicated.

Chapter 14

Rogo considers how to reduce the statistical variation in the column. While stopping for lunch, Alex recruits a few of the scouts to play a game using match sticks, bowls and a die (they are boy scouts . . . ready for anything, including dice games). The game is played by moving match sticks between bowls. The number match sticks moved in each step is based on the roll of the die. As Alex gathers statistics by repeating the game, the combination of dependent events (movement of the match sticks from one bowl to another) and statistical variation (die roll) show him how build ups of inventory occurs between steps. The flow of work becomes irregular and unmanageable.

Side Note: This is a great game to play with software teams to drive home the point of the impact of variability.

Chapter 15

As the troop starts out from lunch, Alex considers the concept of reserves as a mechanism to fix the flow problem (spreading out) the troop is having. He watches the slowest kid in the troop fall behind and then sprint to catch up over and over, generating a large gaps in the line. The troop is utilizing all of its energy to stay together meaning that it has no spare capacity to recover when gaps appear. Consider software teams that generate plans with 100% utilization. As any developer or tester knows nothing goes exactly as planned, and as soon as a problem is encountered you are immediately behind if you are 100% utilized.

Another option he considers is to have everyone hike as fast as they can individually. In this scenario everyone would optimize their individual performance. The outcome would be chaos with scouts strung out all over the trail. With the troop spread out on the it would be impossible to know when the last person would get to the camp for the night.  Remember the hike is only complete when the last person gets to camp, therefore chaos does not promote predictability. In Alex’s plant, even though they are using robot and each step is running at high levels of efficiency orders are not completing on-time. Similar problems can be seen in many software projects with developers and testers individually running at 100% capacity and high levels of efficiency while functionality is delivered well after it was promised.

When Rogo realizes that the process is only as fast as the slowest person, he decides to re-adjust the line of scouts so that the slowest is in front. The gaps immediately disappear. With the process now under control he can shift to helping the slowest person speed up, therefore improving the whole process.

Chapter 16 moves the novel plot forward with Julie, Alex’s wife, dumping Alex’s daughter at Alex’s mother’s house and leaves Alex.

Chapters 13 – 15 drive home the point that dependent events and statistical variation impact the performance of the overall system. In order for the overall process to be more effective you have to understand the capability and capacity of each step and then take a systems view. These chapters establish the concepts of bottlenecks and constraints without directly naming them and that focusing on local optimums causes more trouble than benefit.

Summary of The Goal so far:

Chapters 1 through 3 actively present the reader with a burning platform. The plant and division are failing. Alex Rogo has actively pursued increased efficiency and automation to generate cost reductions, however performance is falling even further behind and fear has become central feature in the corporate culture.

Chapters 4 through 6 shift the focus from steps in the process to the process as a whole. Chapters 4 – 6 move us down the path of identifying the ultimate goal of the organization (in this book). The goal is making money and embracing the big picture of systems thinking. In this section, the authors point out that we are often caught up with pursuing interim goals, such as quality, efficiency or even employment, to the exclusion of the of the ultimate goal. We are reminded by the burning platform identified in the first few pages of the book, the impending closure of the plant and perhaps the division, which in the long run an organization must make progress towards their ultimate goal, or they won’t exist.

Chapters 7 through 9 show Alex’s commitment to change, seeks more precise advice from Johan, brings his closest reports into the discussion and begins a dialog with his wife (remember this is a novel). In this section of the book the concept “that you get what you measure” is addressed. In this section of the book, we see measures of efficiency being used at the level of part production, but not at the level of whole orders or even sales. We discover the corollary to the adage ‘you get what you measure’ is that if you measure the wrong thing …you get the wrong thing. We begin to see Alex’s urgency and commitment to make a change.

Chapters 10 through 12 mark a turning point in the book. Alex has embraced a more systems view of the plant and that the measures that have been used to date are more focused on optimizing parts of the process to the detriment to overall goal of the plant.  What has not fallen into place is how to take that new knowledge and change how the plant works. The introduction of the concepts of dependent events and statistical variation begin the shift the conceptual understanding of what measure towards how the management team can actually use that information.

Note: If you don’t have a copy of the book, buy one.  If you use the link below it will support the Software Process and Measurement blog and podcast. Dead Tree Version or Kindle Version

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