Tag Archives: operations theory

“The fat kid is the bottleneck!” – (Eli Goldratt’s The Goal, and a thought about expertise)

(Hint:  read all the way to the end to get the point of this blog post – about expertise and experience).

The book The Goal is a “business classic” we somehow have missed at the First Friday Book Synopsis.  I am rectifying this, and will present this book at the August First Friday Book Synopsis.  How could I have missed this?:

“The most read management book ever”The Economist
“The 9th best selling business book of all time” – Amazon.com
“The only business book that has been read cover to cover by more people than have purchased it!”

I have heard about the book through the years, but it was this article in Slate.com that made me decide, “I’ve got to read and present this book”:  The Goal:  Eli Goldratt’s Gripping Thriller about Operations Theory (“Then Why Did We Buy the NCX-10?”  An oddly gripping thriller about how to manage a factory).  The book is a fictional account of a man who has to find just what is holding things up, in his factory, and in his life.  The article describes this moment in the book when “the eureka moment” comes.  From the article:

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…

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.

As a group, you can only go as fast as your slowest hiker

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.

This illustration, so incredibly simple to grasp, helped me realize just why we need to spend a fair amount of time always observing and asking:  “where is my bottleneck?  And, how do I get it unstopped?”  And, apparently, the book reminds us that when we clear up the current worst bottleneck, there will be another one then to find.  We keep identifying bottlenecks, clear them up one at a time, and the end result is increasing efficiency.

So, I have been presenting the riddle of the “fat kid” who is holding up the pace of the hike to people in casual conversation.  The solution is one of those that many (most) people do not know until they hear it, and then they say, “well, duh, of course…”  But recently I told it to one friend who happens to be a serious trail hiker.  He takes trips, plans outings, tackling numbers of hiking trails.  He immediately knew the answer.  The first words out of his mouth were “You redistribute the slow kid’s pack.”  I was kind of amazed.  No one else I had run it by came up with the solution.  I certainly did not.

So…  I started thinking.  There really is a value – a great value – to expertise and experience.  This man knew hiking – he was an “expert.”  And because of his expertise, he knew the answer to that particular bottleneck immediately.

In our collaborative, “wisdom of crowds” world, maybe we need an occasional reminder that we need to make sure that some of those folks in our collaborative circle, some of those people in our “crowd,” need to know what they are talking about.  An expert really can see things that the rest of us miss because of our lack of expertise.

Now, this does not negate all of the ideas about how “outsiders” play a major role in creating breakthroughs.  But sometimes, the expert’s quick advice saves a ton of time, makes absolute sense, works!, and therefore is worth paying careful attention to.