Close to an own goal

The Goal
February 25, 2005

The Goal is a remarkable and an irritating book. First published in 1984, the cover of its new edition proclaims that it has already sold more than 3 million copies. Manifestly, many of the book's readers think it worth recommending. This is confirmed by the new appendix, which consists of interviews with ten American senior managers. They were selected by The Goal's principal author, Eliyahu Goldratt, but the interviews were conducted by David Whitford, editor-at-large of Fortune Small Business . Whitford approached interviewees with healthy scepticism. Were the principles advocated by The Goal effective, he asked. Yes, the interviewees replied unanimously: The Goal had helped them in their jobs, and they had recommended the book to others.

One reason they recommend The Goal is because it is very readable. The Goal is a novel. It is not a great novel, but it has an adequate plot and (with one exception) believable characters. With the same exception, it intertwines its narrative with its textbook didacticism without being too clunky or embarrassing.

This is no mean achievement. Writing a management textbook as a novel is risky, but Goldratt more or less pulls it off. The Goal's subplot relates convincingly how stresses at work can ruin a manager's home life. But its main plot focuses on the causes of those stresses. It describes how a manufacturing plant constantly fails to meet its production targets and is threatened with closure until its boss, Alex Rogo, takes advice from an old university chum called Jonah.

Unlike all the book's other characters, Jonah has no surname. The burden of Jonah's advice is that the plant's production flow is hampered by bottlenecks that Rogo and his colleagues have failed to spot because they have neither asked the right questions nor carried out the right analyses. Jonah guides Alex towards the right questions and analyses. The bottleneck is overcome.

But bottlenecks move about. Uncorking one will create another. So the Goldratt management regimen involves the constant tracing and removal of bottlenecks - a "process of ongoing improvement" as the book's subtitle has it. Goldratt calls his approach the "theory of constraints". He believes the removal of constraints, of bottlenecks, is an almost universal key to efficient manufacturing - and the appendix interviewees all agree.

Some of the questions Jonah asks seem astonishingly naive yet take an interminable time to answer. What is the objective of the plant, Jonah asks Alex at their first meeting. Alex is nonplussed. It takes five discursive pages before the answer emerges: the objective of the plant is to make money. Who'd have thought it?! Many divisional managers concentrate myopically on the narrow targets for which they are personally responsible, but I have yet to meet one who does not realise the main purpose of their plant is to make money.

The Goal deals with the matter ponderously so that Jonah can ask smart-arse questions intended to make him sound penetrating and profound. They do not.

Jonah is the book's own bottleneck. He is an irritating, unbelievable know-all, a deus ex machina who wafts in and out of the story offering Alex the benefits of his wisdom. Perhaps he is Goldratt's alter ego. Perhaps he is intended to symbolise a theoretical constraint. Whatever his raison d'etre , Jonah almost - but not quite - ruins what is otherwise an original textbook on plant management.

Winston Fletcher is visiting professor in marketing, Westminster University, and chairman, Royal Institution.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. Third edition

Author - Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox
Publisher - Gower
Pages - 400
Price - £50.00 and £16.95
ISBN - 0 566 08664 6 and 08665 4

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