Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Goal: A Great Book

Have you ever read a business book that was so interesting that it made you turn pages to see what is going to happen next ? I have read a number of strategy books, books on what excellent companies do, books on what enterprising leaders do, but I have never read a business book such as this one.
The Goal takes a somewhat familiar concept of a loss making unit being told that his unit can no longer be afforded by the parent company due to its losses and will have to be shut down, with the loss of its entire work-force and him personally as well, unless, the plant can be turned around and show profits. In addition, the time and pressures involved in the job is causing incredible pressures in the marital life of the Plant Manager Alex Rogo (the book is written from his perspective), with the marriage showing strong signs of breaking down.
Now Alex knows that he has to increase profits, for which he has to show better sales and reduce inventories, but neither nor his managers are able to figure out how to. In addition, with the way that the plant is working, they are not able to execute orders on a proper ordered schedule, and when a major customers calls, they have to execute a rush order that in turn causes costs to go up. At this time, Alex remembers an old college mate of his who is a college professor in the area of operational effectiveness, but he is a very busy person and his mechanisms are also radical, going against most cost accounting. In the midst of all this, his wife goes back to her parent's house.
And then comes the change around. Based on the long-distance and 1 visit by the professor, Jonah, which causes Alex to push for the concept of using the Theory of Constraints to figure out what the changes are needed in the plant. He needs to increase throughput, reduce inventory and reduce operational expense, seemingly very logical steps, but extremely difficult to bring out.
And the real hard conceptual part starts, where Alex and his team figure out what constraints and bottlenecks actually mean, and have to try and overturn traditional accounting. They need to overcome the bottleneck, since the bottleneck decides the speed of throughput through a system. If work items are lined up at a bottleneck and are piling up, then the throughput of the system is slowed down. In addition, a good learning from the book was that a bottleneck can be a dynamic system, in the sense that any machine can be a bottleneck depending on how work items are getting piled up. This could even involved getting an older machine if it helps break up the bottleneck.
Once they are able to resolve this system, they find that the system starts to move more smoothly, order scheduling and predictability becomes more accurate and much shorter. The harder part is in convincing the management and cost accounting department about this new system, but even they are convinced by the new figures and sales starting to emerge.
At the same time, Alex Rogo is saving his marriage by starting again, giving time to his wife and starting the romance again. The book finally ends by everything getting solved, and leaves a long thought in the head about how to use this great system to help resolve things.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Asimov: Pebble in the sky

I really liked this book, and was even more amazed to discover that this was Asimov's first published novel, in the year 1950. I became a late fan of Asimov, well into the 10th year of my life before I picked up the first novel, and now I have read so many of them that I can be counted as a bona fide Asimov junkie. Pebble in the Sky is a novel that I have read so many times that it is a wonder that the book I own is not in tatters. This book is part of the Empire series, so called because these are a series of books published with happenings just before the Empire was formed.
Earth is a pretty down-trodden place, with a nuclear war in the past having confined large sections of the earth to be nuclear contaminated wastelands. Earthlings who had emigrated earlier had become spacers, living in large new worlds, with lifelines expanded to 4 times the regular. They detest Earth as a place of squalor, and it would be very difficult for a person from Earth to visit any of the spacer worlds. Even when traveling on Earth, they consider themselves superior.
Earth is ruled by a council with a Minister and his Secretary (a very ambitious person indeed and portrayed as extremely evil). Earth is not free, with an outpost of the Spacers holding actual power, although they don't interfere too much.
Like any other place without enough resources, and under the control of a foreign power who Earthlings know detest them, the local politicians want to be free of the spacers, and actually, in a far fetched idea, destroy them. This seems far-fetched since there are many millions of spacers to every Earthling, and their technology and resources are vastly superior. And yet, the politicians have a secret weapon, actually 2. There is the knowledge that because of their hardier constitution and with the changes in genetics due to nuclear devastation, there can be made bugs that will affect the spacers, and not the Earthlings (1950 is very early to be talking about biological warfare). The second secret weapon is more about a bit of fanciful science fiction, a device called the Synapsifier that can enhance the mental capability, but the device is not production ready and could adversely affect anybody using it. The final explosive mix to all this is the knowledge that Earth is rumoured to be the starting home of all of humanity, something that Earthlings believe in, but not the Spacers.
Into this cauldron of emotions come 2 different individuals. Joseph Schwartz is a tailor from 1949 who one day becomes the victim of a strange molecular ray from a science experiment. The ray takes him and dumps him many many years in the future, in the time period of the novel. The other is an archaeologist from the Sirius sector (a hotbed of anti-Earth feelings) who believes in the Earth is the Origin theory and wants proof.
On Earth, the Society of the Ancients, the governing body is suspicious of his goals and refuses to give him permission to dig in the holy areas. He also wants to see the Synapisifier, and the Society is very suspicious, but lets him meet the inventor. The inventor has been collaborating with the Society since he wants an exemption to the 60, a policy that decrees that all individuals over the age of 60 will be euthanized in order to conserve resources. He needs an individual to test his device, and he picks Schwartz, who is after all unknown. This device gives Schwartz many superior mental capabilities, including the ability to start to read other person's thoughts and make them do simple things.
The rest of the story is about how these gentlemen thwart the Society of the Ancients, destroy the plan of the Ancients and save humanity. In the meantime, Schwartz gets time to romance the daughter of the inventor, and eventually for the debt that humanity owes them, gets started a shipment of clean earth in order to make the Earth a bountiful place again.
The prose is very good, the narration of the mental battle near the end is extremely gripping.