"So, Joe, you ever heard of the theory of constraints?" Higginbotham and I sat in his dining room as a bipedal OmniBot, one of his company's signature products, deftly bussed plates to and from the kitchen. Our meal was delicious, if simple. While each ingredient was of the highest quality, in lieu of anything fancy like filet mignon or foie gras, our repast consisted of bread, cheese, pasta and wine. A good deal of wine, in fact, and I consciously slowed myself down so as not to get tipsy after the whiskey we'd enjoyed in the courtyard.
"I have, actually," I responded. "I remember encountering the concept in business school, but I don't know if I could describe it accurately."
"Okay, just give me what you got. This isn't a test. We'll use what you know as a starting point and go from there." Higginbotham leaned forward and winked. "Though, as an aside, I will admit to a passing interest in what kind of lousy excuse for an 'education' they're offering in business schools these days."
"Sure. Give me a moment." I closed my eyes and pushed my mind, searching for any imagery that I could associate with the theory. Something clicked. I opened my eyes and pointed to the wine. "When I think of the theory of constraints, I think of bottlenecks."
"Good! Good! What else?"
"I also think of a weak link that determines a chain's strength."
"Precisely!" Higginbotham was pleased, and I gave myself a mental pat on the back. "The essence of the theory is as simple as that. Every system has a constraint. Now, Joe," he paused to sip from the crystal wine glass that had replaced his tumbler. "Next question (and this is a test). Knowing this, what do you do about it?" He had taken on a tone of feigned gravity.
"Well, first you find the weakest link. You have to identify it. Then you strengthen it. Do so and you strengthen the whole chain."
"Good, good, go on. Then what do you do?"
"The chain is strengthened, but only to the point of whatever is its new weakest link. So … I guess you start over."
"Yes,” he exclaimed, “You nailed it!" setting his glass down to applaud me. "A moment ago you said you didn't know if you could describe it, yet here we discover that you're an expert."
"I wouldn't go so far as to call myself an expe—"
"I would! And I just did." Higginbotham said with finality. "But I interrupted you. Go ahead, tell me, Joe: why aren't you an expert?" He presently gave me a look of incredulity with a note of impatience.
I squirmed almost imperceptibly, but I was sure he caught it. "Because, Larry, I mean … it's common sense."
"A genius, my new friend, is someone with a mastery of common sense." He had me there. "I didn't invent the theory of constraints, but I do take credit for the theory of common sense. It goes like this: name any mistake committed by any person in any endeavor at any point in all of human history, and if we drill down deep enough, we'll find that every single one of them can be attributed to the failure to employ common sense."
I nodded. "That's a sound theory. In other words, at the root of even the most complex mistake is a decision that either ignored or opposed some simple, fundamental principle."
"Yes! Well done. You lost a point there for your ridiculous humility, but you just regained it for your swiftness of mind and eloquence. Ha!" He raised a glass to me. "Like I said, Joe, you're an expert. Are you ready to concede the point?"
"I concede the point, Larry." I smiled, noting for future reference not to argue with Higginbotham over compliments.
"Listen, generals from time immemorial have known that an army can only march as fast as its slowest unit, otherwise the entire column will stretch out to infinity." He snatched the thin salt and pepper shakers with one hand, and the stout crushed red pepper shaker in the other. He then placed them in a line on the table. "Cavalry units move faster than infantry, and infantry units move faster than artillery." He reached for the breadbasket and set it at the end of the line. "And God forbid you move so quickly or through such rough territory that your supply wagons can't keep up. Then you'll face the same fate as Napoleon en route to Moscow. And that didn't work out so well." He gave a hearty laugh, and I smiled and chuckled with him.
He continued. "So we can agree this isn't a new concept, yes? That it's essentially an expression of common sense?"
"We agree one hundred percent."
"That then raises the question: How did this concept come to revolutionize business the world over?" Higginbotham's question was obviously rhetorical, so I sat back and waited while he took a final bite of his pasta. The OmniBot recognized his action and carried off his plate, but not without first refilling his wine glass. Its learning heuristics had picked up quickly that it was never to leave Larry Higginbotham with an empty glass.
He sat back in his chair and took a deep breath. "As is so often the case, it started with a single man who had a single, simple idea. This man's genius was centered in his realization that while many problems only have one solution, most solutions have more than one problem they can fix.
"As the story goes, once upon time, our humble hero led a troop of Boy Scouts on an overnight hike through the woods. While destined for greatness, he was nothing special at the time, no one knew his name, and he'd never done anything particularly noteworthy in his life. But all that was about to change.
"A manufacturing plant manager by trade, the man wasn't a Scoutmaster but was filling in for one as his son was part of the troop. There were 15 boys in the troop, all 12 to 13 years old, and it was the man's charge to keep them together across 10 miles of trail to their campsite.
"As you'd expect, some of the boys were faster than others. But there was one boy in this troop who presented a real problem. You see, he was the fat one. No matter what you did with him, he was sure to hold up everyone behind him and everyone in front was sure to speed ahead. And so, with all the boys moving at different paces and the statistical fluctuations between them accumulating, the troop stretched way out over the trail. This man, who was to be called a genius one day, experimented with various configurations and orders in hopes of keeping the boys together and getting them moving efficiently enough to arrive at the campsite before dusk.
"His first attempts failed, but then it struck him that the way to keep everyone together was to force them all to move no faster than the slowest boy. The solution was to place the fat boy up front.
"This worked excellently. The whole troop stayed together. But then the troop moved so slowly that the other kids started to complain, and their pace wasn't fast enough to make it to the campsite by nightfall.
"It was then that the man had another grand epiphany. Now that everyone was moving together, the way to increase the overall speed of the troop was to make the fat kid go faster. So the man told the fat kid to set down his rucksack so they could lighten his load. The fat kid, as you'd expect, was carrying all kinds of food and a bunch of heavy, useless stuff, including — get this — an iron skillet. They divvied his things up, and now that he was unburdened, even the fat kid could move at a reasonable pace.
"While outwardly relieved, the fat kid was secretly humiliated. Placing him at the front of line meant that every boy behind him was being held back and forced to walk at a slower pace than he was capable of. But this was the fastest the fat kid could go. The embarrassment was compounded when he was forced to stand there while the man emptied his pack in front of the whole troop. At first, everyone smirked at its contents, but then they had to help carry all of that crap, and the humor of the situation quickly turned into resentment.
"What the man and the other boys didn't know was that the fat kid hadn't packed all of those things himself. His mom — God bless her — had forced him to bring all the extra food and the iron skillet 'just in case' he got hungry on the trail and needed to cook something. She loved him, and knew he had an appetite, and the thought of him being hungry for even a moment was unbearable. But the fat kid clearly couldn't admit to that. Ashamed as he already was, what greater conceivable humiliation could there be for a Boy Scout than to admit his mother had packed his rucksack for him? Rather than admit to this, he cited his commitment to the Boy Scout ethos of always being prepared.
"They made it to the campsite by dusk and returned the next morning in record time with the fat kid up front where he belonged.
"At school the next day, the crueler boys of the troop made sure to recount the tale to all and sundry, repeating and exaggerating it until snickers filled the halls. At recess, three of them surrounded the fat kid and pushed him to the ground as punishment for slowing them down on the trail and to teach him a lesson for being so fat. The boys and girls on the playground looked on and laughed.
"Fortunately, over time, the story ran its course and receded into the past. The fat kid — who quit the Boy Scouts not long thereafter —hoped everyone would simply forget about the hike. But that was not to be, for just as the hike had faded into memory, the theory of constraints as applied to business came into being.
"You see, the man who had led the hike went back to his manufacturing plant and applied the principles he learned leading the troop there. And in so doing, he saved it from failure and completely turned around its operations. He went on to do the same with many other plants and many other operations, until he eventually ran the company himself and became a local hero. Along the way, he gave interviews, spoke at seminars, and wrote books about the amazing things he was doing. And he always — ALWAYS — told the story of his brilliant epiphanies while leading a Boy Scout troop and the fat kid who had inspired his insights. Over time, within his company, then within the industry, and eventually throughout the business world, that kid's name became synonymous with the constraint in a system holding it back.
"The man's name was Alex Rogo. And the fat kid went by the name Herbie."
That's when it hit me. "Wait … Alex Rogo? The Alex Rogo, former CEO of UniCom?"
"One and the same!" While not a household name, Alex Rogo had been featured in Forbes many times over the years. He was well known for leading UniCom to huge success, and though he never accepted credit — preferring to give it to his team members — he gained a great deal of personal fame in the process. I kicked myself for not making the connection the first time Higginbotham mentioned the name Herbie. I had been too caught up in the story of his mother and his childhood to put it together.
"I knew that name rang a bell!" I exclaimed, wide-eyed. "Wow. What a story! And you … you're Herbie?" I knew the answer, but the significance of the revelation had rattled me.
"Yes. I've gone by Larry for the past few decades, but yeah … I'm Herbie. Fat Herbie, to be precise."
"That's incredible." I let that sink in for a moment while sipping some wine. "You know, I imagine after all you went through, you must really hate Rogo."
"Hate him? Are you kidding?" Higginbotham laughed jovially and looked me dead in the eye. "I named my son after him!"
To be continued …