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Archive for September, 2008

I recently finished the book “The Goal” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. “The Goal” is a business novel about manufacturing. In many ways, it is edutainment. Would I have picked up a schoolbook on how to improve the performance of a manufacturing plant? Most surely not… However, it was recommended to me by different sources for different reasons and proved to be a very enjoyable read.

The book follows Alex Rogo who is given 3 months to turn his plant around. Not only must the plant stop losing money, it must show a profit! He meets up with an ancient university professor, a physicist, who asks him a few questions about his plant. At first, Alex believes the professor knows nothing about manufacturing, but, over time, he realizes the pertinence of the questions he was asked. This is the beginning of a Socratic relationship between the professor and Alex in which, unsurprisingly, he turns the plant and the rest of his life around.

What made this book appealing to me was that:

  • I learned a little bit about how plants work
  • I discovered along with Alex, very progressively, where and why things had gone wrong.
  • the lessons from manufacturing can be applied to your life!

Let me draw parallels between manufacturing and one time-consuming aspect of my life: reading books.

Let’s start with the following statements:

  • I read books to learn things.
  • more books will ever be produced than I can read.

With these two statements, I can already determine that:

  • the throughput is how many things I learn (I would like to maximize this)
  • the number of books I read will influence the number of things I learn — a naive and not completely true assumption
  • I am a bottleneck

A very important part of “The Goal” deals with how to discover and exploit bottlenecks.

Any bottleneck in a chain will determine the maximum throughput. If the objective is the increase throughput, the following questions are relevant:

Did every part really have to go through the bottleneck?

  • Couldn’t other machines accomplish the same work?
  • Was it a necessary part of manufacturing process?
  • Were some parts defective? (what’s the point of processing parts which will be rejected later)

Is the bottleneck being used 100% of the time?

  • Is the bottleneck ever idle? (during lunch, or breaks)
  • Could idle time be reduced with preparation?

From these, I adjusted the analogy and came to the following conclusions:

Couldn’t other people read these books for me?

Not directly. When somebody else reads a book, I don’t get the knowledge. However, I can use their recommendations to determine whether the book is worth my time or not. As such, other people serve as my QA in front of the bottleneck (me).

Did I have to read all these books?

I have read many books from which I found no value. Consequently, my QA process to determine what I had to read is flawed.

Also, I could get more throughput if I’m more willing to abandon books after I start reading them … something I have trouble with.

Couldn’t there be other ways to absorb the content of books?

The physical act of reading a book is limited. Reading a book demands a set of conditions: quiet time, extended periods of time, a comfortable environment. I discovered audio books around two years ago, as an alternative. An unabridged audio book offers, theoretically, the same value as a paper book. However, I can listen to an audio book while walking or doing chores; something I’ve been doing. From the manufacturing perspective, I just increased the number of processing hours available through me.

I also opened an account with audible.com and I get 1 credit every month redeemable against any book of my choice. I went through my book list and cross-referenced against the audible library. Of course, audio books are a solution for non-technical books, I can’t easily imagine being read SICP :)

In essence, I just created a parallel pipeline for non-technical books to be read to me when I’m doing something else. — so, I “read” more and also get more done.

Isn’t there more time to read?

The way to read more is to: read more. I make a point of sitting down and read even if I don’t feel like it. Most of the time, I get into it if I force myself for ~10 minutes.

Why is there so much content available only in books?

That’s a good one.

I think there will be a shift in the future. More screencasts, more educational games (something the author of “The Goal” did to explain the concepts of the books through a simulation game), and more video lectures.

I understand the historical reasons why books exist. I also understand the economy of books. Once again, I think time will tell.

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