Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/11/18

The future belongs to those that make tortoises faster

In his surprise hit novel The Goal, Israeli physicist, Dr. Eliyahu (Eli) Goldratt outlined a new paradigm in process improvement. The break-through concept in his family of management tools (called Theory of Constraints) is to identify and reduce constraints in order to improve overall production even if this means slowing down other parts of the operation. This stands in sharp contrast to the traditional approach of doing every activity as quickly as possible. His theory has been applied to a number of industries since its introduction in 1984. Of particular interest to me is Goldratt’s contribution to the discipline of project management in the form of a technique called critical chain project management, the gist of which is that overall project effectiveness is paramount and that all other activities, planning included, must be subordinated to that goal.

The principle that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is well understood by most managers most of the time. I see lots of examples of this. There seems to be a concerted effort on the part of companies everywhere to outsource the parts of their business that aren’t core to eliminate bottlenecks in their production. (Case in point, a former employer and client, BlueRock Technologies does very well helping small and medium business with their IT needs.) The Great Recession has allowed firms to get rid of the chaff and keep only the wheat among their employees.

However, where I see this principle most consistently ignored is in the incorporation of technology. Somehow technology is seen as the whole chain, rather than just a link or two. In a way, it makes sense why technology is seen as a savior. Technology always wears sharp suits to meetings and has the finest business cards with subtle off-white coloring, tasteful thickness and a water-mark. The quick pace of innovation over the past two decades brought us faster processors, cheaper storage and ever-increasing bandwidth. This allowed programmers to build incredible software and culminates in the expectation by many decision makers that any business can be improved overnight (during the maintenance window, naturally) by downloading to the latest version of acronym soup (now works with IE6!).

By any measure technology is the Hare; speedy, nimble and arrogant; leaving integration and process improvement as the Tortoise–the kill-joy, the boring discipline that feels so 1973 by comparison. In Aesop’s fable, there would be only one winner. In the modern business environment, the tortoise and hare are on the same team and must both cross the line in order to win. I think the business world is waking up and realizes that technology must know our company, serve our company and offer us more than blinking lights, beeps and rack mounts in order to earn its keep.

Eli (as his friend and I call him) would remind us that the constraint must be eliminated or mitigated in order for the system to improve. I posit that the deep integration of business processes on the part of the technology team is the largest constraint facing most companies. Project managers are those patient and thoughtful souls that prod the tortoises and slow down the hares in order to deliver solutions instead of merely delivering a new software suite and maintenance agreement. This is done through properly identifying stakeholders, truly understanding business cases, tracing requirements all the way through to the finish line and by controlling the project scope so that the race can be completed on time and within budget.

The days of selling sizzle are winding down. Project managers, business analysts and even technicians better know more than how to plug it in, power it up and get to the prompt if they want to stick around for the next project. Everyone in the world my son will grow up in will have to understand how projects actually deliver value. When everyone has an ERP with SCM and CRM, it is those that use these soon to be ubiquitous tools work well that will thrive. Harnessing and integrating technology is the next big thing, not technology itself. The future belongs to those that make Tortoises faster, not those that make Hares prettier.

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