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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
The book business schools use to teach operational theory is a work of fiction

Robert Neubecker

When I began to gather information for this Slate series on operations management, I asked a few business-school professors to recommend books I might read on the topic. I expected I’d be pointed toward textbooks and manuals—perhaps written by the professors themselves, or by celebrity CEOs. Instead, I was urged to read a novel by a dead Israeli physicist.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The Goal narrates the story of Alex Rogo, a fictional plant manager in a fictional small town. Alex's factory is floundering—shipping orders late, losing money—and his marriage is deteriorating under the stress. His division manager has given him three months to turn the plant around before it's closed and all his employees are laid off. Meanwhile, his wife has moved in with her parents, leaving two kids behind. The future looks bleak. Until Alex, killing time before a flight in an airport lounge, runs into Jonah—his former college physics professor, who is now a globe-hopping corporate consultant.

Jonah employs the Socratic method to walk Alex through a series of ideas about how to fix his factory. Jonah has all the answers, and everything he suggests succeeds beyond Alex's wildest dreams. With his hard-science background, his yarmulke, and his cigar habit, Jonah is a barely-disguised stand-in for the book’s author: Eli Goldratt, the Israeli management guru who wrote The Goal back in 1984. If you watch a few YouTube clips of Goldratt (who died in 2011), it's easy to envision him similarly hypnotizing a mentee with the slow, assured rhythms of his speech.  

In the novel, Goldratt lays out what he terms a "theory of constraints." The idea is that the success of an entire factory (or, in fact, of any process at all) is determined by the choke point that constrains the overall output. In other words, the whole factory can only move as fast as its slowest element. This bottleneck could occur at the beginning of the process, the middle, or the end. It could be an outdated machine, an incompetent worker, or a stupid company-wide regulation. But whatever the bottleneck is, every action should be taken with it in mind, and every resource should be directed at eliminating it. Once the worst bottleneck is identified and vaporized, you go hunting for the next worst, and then the next.

This may sound intuitive—a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. But Goldratt paints a dismayingly believable portrait of a company resisting common sense. For instance, when Alex pulls workers off other machines to make sure the bottleneck machine is never idle, the floor manager frets that the nonbottleneck machines are no longer operating at peak efficiency (even though they’d been spitting out a stream of parts that would stack up uselessly, awaiting the output of the bottleneck machine before the final product could be fully assembled). When Alex asks workers to rearrange their breaks around the schedule of the bottleneck machine, the union rep squawks that this isn't in the labor agreement. And the old accounting methods initially fail to capture the value of Alex's breakthroughs, leading higher-ups to draw the wrong conclusions.

Advertisement

Amazingly, for a book about operations management in a fake manufacturing plant, The Goal is a page turner. We get caught up in Alex's struggle, and can't resist reasoning along with him as he puzzles out Jonah's gnomic advice. The eureka moment comes not in a conference room, but on a hiking trail, as Alex leads his son's scout troop on an overnight trip. Alex notices that the single-file line of scouts never manages to maintain consistent spacing. Instead it always spreads out, with the speedy kid at the front zooming out of sight. I found myself shouting in my living room, "The fat kid is the bottleneck! The fat kid is the bottleneck!" And indeed, once Alex realizes this, he sees that the group as a whole can only move as fast as poor little Herbie, the chubby scout who's clogging things up in the middle of the line.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

U.S. Begins Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

How in the World Did Turkey Just Get 46 Hostages Back From ISIS?

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.