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Bruce Hamilton

Quality Insider

Precisely Wrong

Remembering Eli Goldratt

Published: Tuesday, July 7, 2015 - 12:03

June 11, 2015, marked the fourth anniversary of the passing of someone who, although not typically credited as a “lean” thinker, nevertheless had a profound effect on many lean implementers. Eliyahu Goldratt, or Eli, was an Israeli physicist whose Ph.D. thesis on queuing theory led him and many followers on an improvement odyssey based on his first book, The Goal (North River Press, 1984), a work that paralleled and eventually supplemented the lean revolution.

I don’t believe there’s a definitive biography of Eli Goldratt, but there are many individual memories and stories. In 2011, I wrote one on my blog, just two months before Goldratt’s death, titled “Epiphanitis.” This is another remembrance commemorating a great thinker and influencer.

Goldratt’s passionate and sometimes brash approach to teaching was a hallmark, yet he approached his audience with the logic of a physicist. Holding a lit cigar while he challenged listeners to reject status quo thinking, he sometimes accented his points with profanity. Because English wasn’t his first language, I think he may not have been aware of which expletives were appropriate for which crowds—or maybe he was. He was all about confrontation and doing battle with the conventional concepts that he considered to be the root cause of low productivity.

I attended a seminar once where Goldratt’s theory of constraints (TOC) model was described by a participant as “too complex due to the myriad and flux of constraints in a typical factory.” Goldratt shot back with visible anger, “If you think this is too difficult, then think harder.”

“Cost accounting is public enemy No. 1 to productivity,” he declared nearly 10 years before I’d ever heard of lean accounting. By 1986, with one year of production management under my belt, I began to understand his reasoning. On a daily basis, my factory’s direct labor was being scrutinized, while waste, which ran rampant, was a periodic footnote on a variance report. This confusion led me to attend a five-day Goldratt workshop to seek an alternative approach to production. When he entered the classroom as a guest speaker at the workshop, I peppered him immediately with questions about standard costing and variances. He responded, “Traditional cost accounting is precisely wrong,” a comment that instantly and forever changed my thinking. We were measuring labor to four decimal places, yet ignoring all but the biggest production problems. This particular practice, unfortunately, continues to this day as a major impediment to productivity improvement.

In 1985, Goldratt didn’t explicitly align himself with the Toyota Production System (TPS). The TOC was seen by many as competitive to TPS, but his emphasis on the defective underpinnings of traditional manufacturing were mostly in concert with TPS. Goldratt focused at a deep level on the root causes of poor performance: behavioral, logistical, and managerial (i.e., policy-based) constraints. His TOC effect-cause-effect technique (ECET—a topic for a later post) provided a powerful means for setting improvement priorities that I have used now for 30 years. During his life, which ended at the too-young age of 64, Goldratt went on to publish nearly 20 insightful books, each developing TOC and broadening its application beyond the factory floor.

In 2007, Eli Goldratt summed up a kind of unified field theory, including TOC and TPS, as well as the Ford System. Titled “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” the clip paid homage to the science of improvement, from one of its greatest if perhaps improbable proponents: a Ph.D. physicist who, to my knowledge, never worked a day in a factory. It’s 7 minutes long and a little hard to understand, but worth watching.

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About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.