Did you know that the goal of business is to make money? If not, you’re welcome to read The Goal, a business textbook written as a novel by an Israeli physicist-turned-management guru, Eliyahu Goldratt. It has sold more than 3 million copies, is currently required reading in most of the nation’s business schools, and was recently selected by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential business management books ever written.
And did you know that any organization is only as strong as its weakest link? That is the organizing principle of the Theory of Constraints, Goldratt’s philosophical framework and the engine propelling The Goal forward. The novel’s hero is Alex Rogo, a beleaguered manager of a failing factory in a fictional small town. His marriage is teetering on the verge of collapse. His production plant is a mess. His boss is a squishy and overripe bastard, which you learn the moment the man is introduced: His name is Mr. Peach.
Luckily for Rogo, there’s Jonah, his former college professor, a cigar-smoking, yarmulke-wearing, Israeli-born professor of physics who is every bit his author’s doppelganger. Jonah was Rogo’s teacher in college, and a chance reunion at an airport lounge leads to what a thousand blurbs have described as a Socratic dialogue between the two. It takes little more than a passing acquaintance with the author of The Republic, however, to understand that Jonah may be many things, but Socrates he ain’t; his “Socratic method” is the one so common in business and law schools today: not a leisurely and in-depth conversation concerned with excavating the truth but a barrage of pointy questions designed to subdue the listener. Alex is soon subdued—as he and his colleagues note on several occasions, Jonah, after all, is an Israeli, which means that he knows a lot about how to run things—and is ready to imbibe Jonah’s wisdom.
The professor’s teachings come in two flavors. Like every guru, he, too, is often gnomic, asking his student cryptic questions and sending him into spirals of self-guessing and torment. But business isn’t Zen, and for every koan it offers, The Goal delivers lines like this: “So this is the goal: To make money by increasing net profit, while simultaneously increasing return on investment, and simultaneously increasing cash flow.” Other threads of business-speak abound, and they weave in nicely with the plodding plot and the cumbersome prose. Rogo implements Jonah’s methods, saves the plant, and teaches the reader a lesson in what may be gospel for aspiring MBAs but, to the uninitiated, comes perilously close to the utterly obvious.
But it would be unkind, and narrow-minded, to belittle The Goal for its yawning shortcomings. Its achievement is extra-literary, and it lies with its author’s keen understanding that obvious processes aren’t obvious at all, that weak links make for weak fences, and that no link is ever weaker than the human mind. When Rogo begins to implement Jonah’s suggestions, and the factory’s productivity begins to soar, so do the gripes. The union objects to rearranging the work schedule. The foreman hates the fact that some of his machines are kept idle. No one sees the bigger picture.
No one, that is, except for Jonah. It’s no coincidence that he—and his creator—are both business outsiders, trained physicists who had made careers observing the forces of nature. Anyone who has ever worked in any sort of organization knows just how sorely we all need a Jonah, someone who can make the artifice of any enterprise a tad more natural by introducing a healthy dose of commonsense. And it’s no coincidence, either, that Jonah is Israeli. He’s a business commando: a man of action, a blunt dude, a thinker trained by decades of deprivations to maximize resources and insist on efficiency.
Herein lies much of The Goal’s charm: The story of Rogo and Jonah reads like what might have happened if Goliath, rather than challenging David to a duel, had hired the little red-headed lad as an organizational consultant. Corporate America, after all, is not fond of slings but of machinery, orderly and consistent and infinitely scalable. It’s a great system for any organization with the capacity and the discipline to grow exponentially, but, like the biblical behemoth, it is not without its weak points. And like every Israeli of his generation, Goldratt—who was born a year before the establishment of the state of Israel and whose father, Avraham Yehuda, was a renowned rabbi and a member of the first Knesset—could think of little else but weak points.
Whatever else The Goal is, then, it’s also a surprisingly poignant treatise on the inherent nature of Americans and Israelis and on the complex affinities between these two distinct cultures. It can almost be read as a fable: The Americans are prosperous and grand but burdened by a system that is too big to realize its own fault lines, and the Israelis are small and nimble but forced by circumstances to constantly reinvent themselves and forever be on the lookout for the next fatal flaw. You don’t need a guru to know that when these two meet, the result is both fruitful and fraught.
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