Sunday, June 19, 2011
Reflections on the passing of Eli Goldratt
Eli Goldratt, creator of the Theory of Constraints, author of many books including the best selling and seminal, “The Goal”, passed away last weekend. I had the pleasure of meeting Eli twice and interacting with him via email a few more times. Eli’s work strongly influenced and inspired my own and I’d like to share my thoughts on the sad occasion of his death.
I first encountered Eli’s work when my boss at the time, John Yuzdepski, gave me and my colleagues copies of The Goal in March 2001.I read it on a flight from Dallas to Tokyo. About 2/3rds of the way through I had the epiphany that I could equate Features in Feature-Driven Development to inventory in Eli’s Drum-Buffer-Rope system. I spent the remainder of the flight vigorously marking up notes in the margins throughout the book. What evolved from that was my 2003 book, Agile Management for Software Engineering
Eli was kind enough to respond positively when he heard from me out-of-the-blue asking him to review my manuscript and write the foreword. He referred me to his friend and colleague Eli Schragenheim who provided the foreword. Goldratt was polite, patient and welcoming to a newcomer to his community. I had not taken the classes, passed the exams or become a “Jonah”. I was just some guy who’d read 7 books mostly written by Goldratt and figured some stuff out for myself. I came to realize later that Goldratt’s kindness extended to the professional courtesy that my use of his ideas was probably ill-founded. He knew the underlying assumptions behind his own work and his choices to focus on physical goods businesses was not an accident. He almost certainly knew that the assumptions his work was founded upon were not true in knowledge work problems like software development. He was kind enough not to shoot my work down given that I’d spent a year writing a 300 page book about it.
I believe that Eli was incredibly tolerant of failure and of early innovation that wasn’t fully baked or thoroughly thought through. We saw this with his tolerance of the early failures pitching “viable visions” and with his grace to hand off my manuscript to Schragenheim who concluded that the mapping of requirements to inventory was ingenious and enabled a major step forward in managing software development. This was particularly poignant as both he and Goldratt had owned and run software companies and the use of DBR had never occurred to them.
I was invited to the 2004 TOCICO conference in Miami where I was to meet Eli for the first time. During the conference I learned that my own father had died. Eli was very warm and compassionate, surprising to me as I was a total stranger to him. I was unable to get a flight back to Seattle to collect my passport and actually stayed through the end of the conference returning home on my scheduled flight, only to turn around and fly to Glasgow immediately afterward.
The following year I was invited again to TOCICO where I presented the XIT case study as a DBR implementation. This was the foundation of what we now refer to as Kanban (for software development) and it had evolved directly from my experience writing my first book. I was inspired by Eli’s “5 Focusing Steps” and the incremental evolutionary approach to change inherent in TOC. Once again I found Eli warm and welcoming of an outsider presenting ideas and experience from a different field. It was evident that he was fiercely loyal to his people as well as affectionate in a fatherly sort of way. Everything he gave he got back tend fold from his loyal following.
I will primarily remember Eli Goldrat as a warm, affectionate, kind, loyal, trusting and respectful man who just happened to care deeply about how people worked together while holding a passion for effective performance of businesses. Eli never approved of an improvement that was achieved at the expense of the workers. He could be viewed as a very social capitalist. I believe his leadership in this respect is exemplary and will in future be recognized as visionary and ahead of its time.
I have the greatest respect for Eli the man and the intellectual and his work continues to inspire me even if my focus has changed and I’ve come to see the limitations of applying TOC to knowledge work problems. To recognize limitations isn’t to criticize. Today we’re solving a different set of problems from the ones Eli tackled. Eli’s work will continue to be a core foundation of how we think about improving the effectiveness of the knowledge workplace. Eli’s leadership and example will continue to inspire us as we seek the intersection of performance that is a better economic outcome together with a better sociological outcome for everyone involved.
Eli Goldratt may you rest in peace. My deepest condolences to your family and everyone at Goldratt Consulting.