Many years ago I read a book called The Goal, written by efficiency expert Eliyahu Goldratt. Instead of spouting off about constraint theory, Goldratt wrote a story to help illuminate his points. Okay, the storyline was pretty lame (yes, there’s an obligatory love story in the middle of all this constraint theory). When reading the book you see the factory through the eyes of the operations manager, Alex Rogo.

Namely, you see him freaking out about this machine going down, that worker coming in late, incoming material quality problems, inventory all over the place. Of course, corporate is breathing down his neck at the same time. Basically, he will be out a job if he can’t turn his plant all around. And then a mystery Israeli professor (Goldratt’s alter ego) shows up and points our hero in the right direction. Don’t laugh - this book has remarkable staying power. It’s in its 25th year in print, selling jillions of copies every year.

Halfway through the book, Alex takes a break from all the stress at work and takes his son’s Boy Scout troop on a hike in the mountains. While hiking along, he notices that some boys keep lagging further and further behind. He moves some kids around - putting the quicker boys in front, figuring they would set the right pace - but the laggards keep falling further behind. Then he has an epiphany. This line of boys was just as unmanageable as his factory floor. Even though they all start out together, some boys don’t “produce” steps at the same rate as others. Thus, in a matter of minutes they start falling behind. The more they fall behind, the less incentive they have to hurry up. Upon closer examination, Alex discovers Herbie is the slowest boy in the line.

Wherever Herbie is, everyone behind him lags further and further behind. In short, Herbie is the constraint. And a constraint determines your overall speed. No matter how fast any of the other boys went, they would ultimately have to wait for Herbie. The fastest the line could go was Herbie’s speed. Alex moved Herbie to the front of the line and voilà - nobody lagged behind. Herbie went a little bit faster simply because now he was leading. Then Alex realized Herbie was carrying way too much stuff, so he distributed the contents of Herbie’s overloaded pack to the taller, stronger boys. Herbie picked up the pace again. Now marching at Herbie’s new speed, the troop arrived at their destination in good time.

Every office, warehouse and factory has constraints. The moral of this story is there is no point for anyone to work faster than the constraint. It makes much more sense to focus efforts on making the constraint go faster.

Check out The Goal and be Alex Rogo for a day. Look at where work piles up in your warehouse/plant. Find your Herbie and think about ways to quicken his/her pace.