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Hunting Down the “Herbies” In Your House

Applying the Theory of Constraints to the Management of IT

Recently some colleagues and I were discussing applications of the Theory of Constraints to various process and financial management scenarios.  In our current  economic environment in which organizations are constantly being pushed to new expectations of efficiency, the effective use of all available resources is absolutely critical to the success of an organization.  As we were considering some of the themes from Eli Goldratt’s classic business novel “The Goal” (right around the first anniversary of the author’s passing, coincidentally), I began to see the applicability of Goldratt’s work to the management of enterprise information technology much more clearly.  Although the focus of Goldratt’s seminal novel is primarily targeted at manufacturing, the discussion got me thinking about how well IT professionals embrace similar concepts to focus on eliminating bottlenecks in heterogenous systems and monitoring the various functional components of an application, solution, or environment.

For those unfamiliar with the book, it is the tale of a manufacturing manager who is assigned the dubious honor of fixing persistent production problems at his factory.  In a style that was very unique at the time of publication (1984), Goldratt provides instruction on the Theory of Constraints and methods for dealing with process problems by telling a story rather than rote or more traditional step by step instruction.  One of the core lessons of “The Goal” is provided via a boy in the protagonist’s scout troop named Herbie.  While out on a wilderness hike with the troop, our hero is constantly frustrated by the fact that the scouts seem to have a total and complete inability to stay together.  As the chaperone in charge of ensuring that these young men all come out of the woods safe and sound, he is understandably annoyed.  He eventually notices that Herbie, whose physical condition is less than optimal compared to his peers, is the bottleneck.  Herbie is always bringing up the rear and slowing down the entire troop.  Our hero attempts various methods such as lightening Herbie’s pack, but ultimately discovers that the optimal way to keep the troop together is to let Herbie be the leader leader of the hike.  This ensures that no one will ever hike faster than Herbie and that the group will stay together.  And therein lies one of the core tenets - the slowest activity in any process is the biggest determinant of the overall process cycle time.  Or, the total length of time required to execute any multi step process is most impacted by the length of time required to execute the longest-running task.  This observation is the spark that inspires our hero to analyze the activities in his manufacturing process flows, identify the bottlenecks, and work to optimize and eliminate them with the help of those who actually perform the work.  As the operations at his factory improve, he also fixes his marriage and becomes a better father, but such are the elements of drama (hence the “business novel”) and the side benefits of enjoying one’s vocation.

So what do out of shape scouts and manufacturing process flows have to do with the implementation of enterprise class information technology solutions?  I recall back in the 90s as the middleware market was being developed that there was a great deal of focus on speeds and feeds when comparing message oriented middleware (MOM) software solutions.  The competitive focus was on which solution provider could move message payloads from point A to point B (across networks and operating system platforms) the fastest.  As this technology was the foundation for many business process automation solutions upon which hybrid applications could be built by serializing cross platform components of executable business logic, the point seemed to be that the technology that delivered message payloads fastest would also enable the overall process to execute the fastest.  By extension, this speed of execution would provide a competitive advantage for one’s business.  Those implementing these sorts of solutions quickly realized that if the applications that were processing the messages were inefficiently written or being hosted on inadequate computing platforms, the speed at which the information was delivered to the participant applications made no difference.  This is because the overall process execution time was always determined by the business software applications that were providing actual business function at the endpoints rather than the speed at which the information could be delivered to those endpoint applications.  This is true with humans as well of course, because one cannot process information faster by simply DVRing their favorite news channel and watching it at 2x the speed.


Fast forward to the 21st century and we still see similar issues and impressions that have to be addressed.  According to Jake Gibson, VP of Customer Operations at LightEdge Solutions, “We often see situations in which there are requests for networking speeds that far surpass the performance of the business applications.  This enables us to have additional conversations about true performance requirements in the context of customers’ businesses and provide more appropriate solutions.”

 

Like any business process or heterogenous system, IT solutions have their share of potential bottlenecks and optimization opportunities.  When we take into account the complexity of our networks, storage systems, and computing hardware and combine it with the configuration and tuning options available in the operating systems, database management systems, application servers, and integration middleware, we can truly develop an appreciation for the depth of infrastructure skills required of the modern IT professional.  Add to that the specialized processors, business applications (both custom written and those supported by vendors), and other specialized capabilities such as business process management and analytics that are hosted by the  computing infrastructure and the many challenges that can arise with performance issues start to become apparent.  And don’t forget the need to securely deliver a great deal of functionality to customers and employees via mobile devices that are not located within the corporation’s facilities...

 

IT professionals will find bottlenecks and performance issues such as these easier to address as the burgeoning market for workload optimized and expert integrated systems develops.  Pre-configured hardware and software solutions that have been tuned and optimized for specific business requirements, applications, and workload characteristics will eliminate much of the guesswork and troubleshooting required to squeeze additional performance out of solutions.  Some of these solutions are available today from leading enterprise-class solution providers and many more will be released in the near future.  Additionally, as more solution providers expand the capabilities that can be provided to enterprise customers via cloud computing technologies, some of the burden will be shifted to the providers themselves.

 

The vast majority of the time all of the components in today’s complex information systems function quite well together and the business gets value out of its investment in information technology.  But full optimization of the modern IT environment, or the “hunting of the Herbies” when performance issues do arise, requires coordinated and proactive monitoring of the environment and an in-depth understanding of the overall systems architecture.  And that requires investment in the IT professionals who bring it all together for the business.

More Stories By Douglas Allen

Douglas W. Allen is a husband and father from Des Moines, IA and the owner of the winningtechnicalsales.com blog, dedicated to the sales engineering profession. As a technical sales manager at IBM, his team is dedicated to helping customers design and deploy enterprise-class business technology solutions that enable those customers to make money, save money, or mitigate risk. He is currently on a campaign to convince the world that the past, present, and future of rock and roll recently came out of New Jersey in the form of The Gaslight Anthem. He can be reached at www.linkedin.com/in/douglaswallen.