How “The Goal” Changed My Perspective on Process

Having come from a non-business background, I didn’t have much exposure to operations or process before joining my current job. We recently read “The Goal” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt for a book club at work and it changed my perspective on looking at processes, especially bottlenecks.

I first noticed the change that reading this book had on me on Election Day. I stood in line for 1.5 hours and when I finally got to the entrance of the voting room (a cafeteria since we were in an elementary school), I realized what the problem was. The poll volunteers only allowed three people to enter the voting room at a time. This was problem number one since more than three people were entering the voting station per minute, so of course the line to vote was going to increase or in Goldratt’s terms, the inventory would build up behind the bottleneck. Once we were allowed to enter the cafeteria, we stood in line behind the sign-in table. There were three lines for this with about three people lined up in each one. I managed to choose the line with only one person ahead of me. After signing-in, I was brought to the actual voting booth. There must’ve been about 10 booths and only 3-4 were being utilized. This immediately made me realize the bottleneck was the sign-in table. The guy at the door was not in fact the bottleneck, he was just maintaining the flow of people to the sign-in table. Although this is a retrospective look at the voting process, the polling place could have increased throughput by adding a few more people to the sign-in table, allowing full utilization of the voting booths. Of course the sign-in process could have had it’s own improvements and probably would’ve needed some once the flow increased, but that is why “The Goal” has the full title of “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement.” As I read in the book, even if you make an improvement to one part of a process, other parts of the process will need to be improved as well. As my manager put it, you may even see a “balloon” effect throughout the process where, as in a balloon, if one part is squeezed, another part in the process/balloon will expand. When I brought my voting experience up in our next book club meeting, others shared my same thoughts. They had also recognized the bottlenecks in the process, though some of these bottlenecks varied from voting station to voting station.  One approach someone suggested was having poll volunteers walking through the line, signing voters in as they stood in line. Voting was definitely an eye-opening experience as to the applicability of Goldratt’s “Theory of Constraints.” Maybe some of the poll operators will read “The Goal” before the next Presidential election (when the most people actually vote) and streamline the process.

After reading “The Goal,” I have even started looking at the work I do differently. I tend to see my work now in terms of processes and bottlenecks. As I explained in a previous post, my team has started operating by using agile. The number of “stories” we have each sprint is essentially our Work-In-Progress (WIP) which can easily be translated into how much work is currently on a manufacturing plant floor, waiting to be finished and shipped. In “The Goal,” one of the ways Alex, the main character, improves the throughput of his plant is by reducing the WIP so that inventories aren’t building up for parts that aren’t going to be used immediately on widgets going out the door. This ultimately had the effect of increasing throughput and improving the cycle times for widgets. I see the same impact on throughput in the way we are using agile on our team.  Although our team is still adjusting to the way agile works, the whole point of using agile is to decrease the WIP while increasing throughput due to a focus on completing project components on a regular cadence. Our inventory, the amount of WIP that has yet to be touched, has decreased. Even though we have a backlog of stories to complete, they are not our focus during any particular sprint, so we therefore wouldn’t consider them analogous to our inventory. Just like in Alex’s plant, bottlenecks also start springing up in our WIP. When a customer or someone else we need to meet with in order to complete a story is on vacation or is sick, the inventory in our WIP builds up and we may not be able to deliver a final product by the end of the sprint, analogous to Alex not being able to ship a finished product from his plant on the planned deadline.

More and more I see the relevance of this book in my life. Although it was published over 25 years ago, I can see why for many business schools it is still required reading. The business landscape may have changed in terms of manufacturing plants, but the concepts in this book are still relevant to business.

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Using Agile on Homework

I recently learned about using agile management in a typical work environment where team work is done in sprints even when it’s not software. If you don’t know what agile is, you can read up on it here.

I was thinking the other day that applying agile development to homework would provide for an interesting situation. I think one of the things agile development tries to eliminate is long-term procrastination. Instead of waiting for a long time for a project to be completed, where usually most of the work will occur closer to the deadline, agile sprints shorten the deadlines so useful “widgets” will be completed sooner. I think sprints make the workload look something like below:

Now the same sort of procrastination occurs in school, especially college. The professor assigns you a term paper that is due the last day of classes and you pull an all-nighter the night before despite the fact you had all semester to work on it. Now what if you applied agile to the term paper. I will show two different examples depending on the way you’d apply agile.

Example 1

In sprint 1 you’d be required to submit an outline of the paper which would just show the paragraphs you’d have. In sprint 2, you’d have to add bullets to those paragraphs in the outline. Sprint 3 would be making those bullets into sentences. Sprint 4 could be making the paragraphs into complete paragraphs. Finally, the last sprint would be the completed term paper.

Example 2

In sprint 1, you’d complete the intro paragraph. Sprint 2 complete 1st paragraph. Sprint 3 complete 2nd paragraph. Sprint 4 complete 3rd paragraph. Sprint 5 complete closing paragraph.

 

Some professors essentially already create two sprints: the outline and final paper, or three sprints: the outline, draft, and final paper. However, if this methodology was applied to all homework, imagine how different college would be. Let’s look at math homework due in 7 days with sprint durations of 1 day with 3 parts.

Sprint 1: Determine formulas to use  for all homework
Sprint 2: Complete part 1
Sprint 3: Complete part 2
Sprint 4: Complete part 3
Sprint 5: Review homework to check for errors (quality assurance)
Sprint 6: Visit office hours to check over completed homework
Sprint 7: Make changes and turn in completed homework

This is just a concept, but applying agile methodologies to complete homework might produce better “throughput” in terms of homework completion with fewer late nights at the conclusion of the semester.

Interesting article for reducing interruptions in agile sprints: http://www.agileadvice.com/2012/01/08/scrumxplean/seven-options-for-handling-interruptions-in-scrum-and-other-agile-methods/