book: “The Choice”

book cover: The ChoiceThis is the second of Mr. Goldratt’s books I’ve read (previously The Goal). And this may be the last. Not because it’s bad–quite the opposite!–but because taken together, these books proved comprehensive and clear enough for me to understand his approach to business improvement.

This book’s message is encapsulated on p. 48: “… as long as we think that the only way to handle a conflict is by compromising, we’ll never think about the underlying assumptions and how to remove at least one of them; we’ll never find the way to eliminate the conflict; we’ll never come up with the breakthrough; we’ll never reveal the great opportunity that hides there.” This is true, and for once I don’t complain that an author writes 165 pages to make one case.

Indeed, I’m tempted to wish he’d taken it farther–every skilled business consultant, most engineers, and many scientists will recognize Goldratt’s message here as the universal warning against Premature Optimization. “Don’t assume your local optimum is the global optimum” or “At least consider you might find a better local optimum.” This isn’t mentioned. Still, the book makes the case for exploring the solution space around current practices-especially around practices comfortably assumed to be optimal–and it provides well-developed and very helpful examples.

In any book of this ambition, you’ll find a few boo-boos.

  • This claim I find extremely dubious (p.49): “…reality, any part of reality, is governed by very few elements, and…any existing conflict can be eliminated.” Ouch. I’m pretty sure that just 10 minutes with any competent molecular biologist will reduce Mr. Goldratt to babbling his apologies. But another, more hidden meaning is that we can find a better solution to any problem. Evidence, please?
  • Goldratt occasionally crosses the line from encouragement to dogma. “A win-win solution always exists.” (p. 76) Always? Doubtful in the extreme. Again: evidence, please?
  • This crossing the line into dogma happens without warning (p.117): “The key to thinking clearly is avoid circular logic, that’s all.” No, Mr. Goldratt, take a breath–you know bloody well that’s not all. There are also: prefer evidence over feeling (prefer Bayes’ Law evidence over posteriors); indeed, positively seek evidence that might contradict your theories; reject ad hominem evaluations of an idea (beyond, that is, as just another small piece of evidence–and even then, perhaps more about the speaker rather than about the idea itself); etc etc.
  • Possibly the book’s ugliest and worst transgression (p. 157): “The deeper the emotions…the higher the chances to successfully apply logic.” Egad. Barf. I don’t care by what path Goldratt gets to this sad mistake, or in what logical sequence he may include it. This assertion demonstrates only that there’s no level of brilliance that can prevent occasionally writing something abysmally stupid. Every sane genius and peacemaker from Socrates to Bertrand Russell to Gandhi to the Dalai Lama has warned about how intense emotions dangerously cloud the mind even while making things seem clear. Plus the mountains of experimental evidence to back this warning. So the statement is baffling. I can only assume charitably that it perhaps arises from an understandable second-language conflation of “emotion” more with “motion” and “motivation” than with “irrationality.” Whatever riches our intense emotions may render to life, they are no path to logical behavior. Ask any jailer, any historian, any divorce lawyer.

Lastly I think that in this book, Goldratt’s device of putting words into his well-educated daughter’s mouth so he then can give brilliant answers never quite works. It comes across as weird, and once or twice on personal notes even creepy. But then, Goldratt records all his business insights as personal books. The two I’ve read have been astute and much more entertaining than other business books (a low standard, I know). So let’s not complain about small things. Let’s just read and grasp.

And it’s worth the effort. Not only businessmen, but scientsts and engineers (particularly in the business world) could do a lot worse than to devour a book of this depth and on this subject, once or twice a year.

A quick read, and a valuable refresher. Four stars.

“The Choice”, Eliyahu M. Goldratt, 2008, North River Press.

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