Find your bottlenecks: the missing chapter from 101 Ways To Win An Election

Production line - CC0 Public Domain

Usually when I return to something I’ve written a while later, I can produce a list nearly as long as the original writing of things I’d like to change – wording to improve, facts to add, insights to tweak, better examples to use and metadata to revise.

So far, however, and doubtless due to my co-author Ed Maxfield, the contents of 101 Ways To An Election have aged pretty well since the book came out and pushed past Peter Mandelson on the sales charts.

Only the typo in the contents page of the first edition makes me wince and though we accumulated quite a few ideas for when we put together a second edition, there’s really just one additional chapter I discovered I wished Ed and I had written for the first edition.

I realised this when reading a fascinating account of a novel by a physicist about managing a factory: The Goal by Eli Goldratt.

As the account I found says:

The Goal narrates the story of Alex Rogo, a fictional plant manager in a fictional small town. Alex’s factory is floundering—shipping orders late, losing money—and his marriage is deteriorating under the stress. His division manager has given him three months to turn the plant around before it’s closed and all his employees are laid off…

In the novel, Goldratt lays out what he terms a “theory of constraints.” The idea is that the success of an entire factory (or, in fact, of any process at all) is determined by the choke point that constrains the overall output. In other words, the whole factory can only move as fast as its slowest element. This bottleneck could occur at the beginning of the process, the middle, or the end. It could be an outdated machine, an incompetent worker, or a stupid company-wide regulation. But whatever the bottleneck is, every action should be taken with it in mind, and every resource should be directed at eliminating it. Once the worst bottleneck is identified and vaporized, you go hunting for the next worst, and then the next.

I’ve since read The Goal myself and it’s pretty weak as a novel. The use of a fictional story to bring to life a management theory is a neat one, but the characters and dialogue are all pretty basic at best, and often slow moving, even cumbersome. It’s more interesting to read than a textbook on management theory would be, but not as convenient a reference source nor as enjoyable as a good novel would be.

However, the theory of constraints should be rescued from its means of communication as it is an important one, widely applicable in business.

This management approach is also highly applicable to political campaign organisation, especially for the year-round activities outside of formal election periods. What is the most pressing bottleneck which is stopping more campaigning happening? 

It’s a great question to ask because people often implicitly give the wrong answer. For example, a team struggling to get leaflets out through letterboxes may blame national politicians for not doing better in the media, when actually the immediate bottleneck is the backlog of offers of help that have come in to the local party that no-one has quite followed up properly. (Hence the fairly dismal results of my little test of how local parties react to an offer to join the party.)

Fix that bottleneck. Then fix the bottleneck about getting leaflets to helpers. Then fix the artworking bottleneck. And so on… Eventually of course in a local political organisation you’ll hit a bottleneck that is out of your control and perhaps amenable only to very indirect influence. But work through all those other bottlenecks first and the imperfect world you’re left with will still be an awful lot better than the one you started with.

The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt
Great management theory, mediocre fiction
My rating (out of 5): 3.0
Mark Pack, 29 November 2017 |

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