The Thriller That Will Teach You How To Manage a Factory

How businesses get things done.
June 8 2012 8:25 AM

“Then Why Did We Buy the NCX-10?”

An oddly gripping thriller about how to manage a factory.

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Sure, the quick scout at the front might get to the campsite in a jiffy, but the pack as a whole hasn't met its goal until all the scouts have safely arrived (just as a factory hasn't met its goal until the product is fully assembled—no matter how fast individual components might zoom through the assembly line). So Alex puts porky Herbie at the front of the line and distributes everything in Herbie's backpack to the other kids, lightening his load. The faster kids behind have no problem keeping up with leader Herbie, which means they won't pant and run out of steam while hustling to maintain the pace.

Goldratt suggests that a whole factory can only move as fast as its slowest element.
Goldratt suggests that a whole factory can only move as fast as its slowest element.

Photograph by STR/AFP/GettyImages.

There’s pleasure in rooting for Alex to save the plant and his marriage, in watching him succeed, and in solving these operations puzzles yourself. You feel smarter when you’ve finished the book. Which makes it worth wading through the middling (though unobtrusive) prose and dialogue like this:

Thinking, she sips her coffee for a moment. Her brow compresses in concentration. Then she says, “If we cut our batch sizes in half, then I guess that at any one time we’d have half the work-in-process on the floor.”

Or this:

I nod, understanding now. “So you could do more parts, even though it took you longer per part. Then why did we buy the NCX-10?”

“Each of the other machines had to have a machinist to run it,” says Bob. “The NCX-10 only needs two guys on it for setups. Like I said, it’s the lowest cost way for us to produce these parts.”

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My 20th-anniversary edition of The Goal claims that, by 2004, the book had sold 3 million copies, been translated into 21 languages, and been taught in more than 200 colleges and universities. It's easy to see why. Any newly promoted plant manager or aspiring MBA would benefit from the book's ability to clearly and (relatively) painlessly explain the roots of operational efficiency. The back of the anniversary edition features testimonials from managers at major organizations, including one at General Motors who describes a specific bottleneck: The person installing the fuzzy, felt ceilings of cars had to drag the felt some distance to the assembly line, slowing the entire operation down. The factory floor was reconfigured so the felt rolls were kept closer by. Sounds obvious. But this sort of simple inefficiency can go unnoticed at even the biggest companies, and can have surprisingly outsize effects on the bottom line.

If, like me, you majored in liberal arts and never expect to run a factory, The Goal still provides a fascinating look inside a world that may have previously been opaque. You watch through Alex's eyes as he struggles to deal with his workers, the union rep, the accountant, the materials procurer, and the fat cats at corporate headquarters. Once you're done reading, you'll feel as though you might just be able to step in and operate a plant yourself. And you'll never look at those big, square buildings you drive past on the highway access road in quite the same way. It's easy to forget there are real people inside them, trying to make their jobs and their companies—and, not incidentally, their lives—run more smoothly.