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Fiction isn’t fact only better

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Everyone has a story.

I was re-reading Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. It’s the principles he first elucidated in his groundbreaking “business novel,” The Goal, rewritten as prescriptive methodology.

Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (ToC) is, as process improvement methodologies go, quite brilliant and sadly underappreciated. And yet, early in the book appears this disturbing statement about the value of ToC success stories:

Who would be helped by such testimonials? The people that have already been persuaded by The Goal do not need them, they have their own real-life proof. Those who were not moved by the common sense logic in The Goal will certainly find it easy to demonstrate that their situations are different and that these ideas will not work in their environment.

I say disturbing because Goldratt appears to be asserting that fiction not only is more persuasive than fact, but that it should be.

It probably is — when I talk to clients about DevOps, for example, more cite The Phoenix Project than any company’s real-world experience.

By this logic, if, in a debate about military strategy and tactics, my opponent were to support a point with Grant’s victory at Vicksburg as described in his personal memoirs, my best counterargument should come from the battle of Helm’s Deep as described in The Lord of the Rings.

Fiction can be an excellent way to illustrate a point. But offered as evidence it’s a cheat. Fictions’ authors are puppeteers, able to make their characters say and do whatever is necessary to “prove” whatever point they’re trying to make.

Not that business case studies are much better. They aren’t, because those presenting them (1) start with the conclusion they’re trying to prove rather than starting with evidence and using it to guide their opinions; and then (2) sort through the available stories to find those that support the predetermined outcome, ignoring all the others that don’t.

Then there are the anecdotes we consultants tell. We all have them.

I recall (but couldn’t track down) a bit of braggadocio from a Lean consultant who described his experience on a construction site. After a brief period of observation he was able to use Lean principles to save the construction firm oodles of time and sacks of cash by repositioning the concrete mixers.

In my own consulting we once saved a client the time, expense, and aggravation of a multimillion dollar process reengineering project through the simple expedient of having IT educate a business department in the use of an already-installed feature of the software package they used.

Twenty minutes later the problem the reengineering project was supposed to fix was taken care of.

We all have these stories. They’re fun to tell. We hope they convince potential clients that we’re adept at finding “low hanging fruit” — quick and easy improvements that can justify and fund the hard stuff.

Quick and easy improvements that, astonishingly enough, never require significant investments in new or changed information technology. In fact I’ve yet to hear an apostle of any of the major process improvement methodologies explain the importance of cleaning up and modernizing the organization’s portfolio of business applications. I have often heard them explain how they’ll work their magic without requiring major investments in information technology.

There is, for example, this little ditty, found in Six Sigma Daily. It does a nice job of presenting some Lean Six Sigma principles Jeff Bezos relies on for making Amazon hum.

Don’t get me wrong. The principles and examples extolled in the article, while not the sole province of Lean Six Sigma, are good principles and examples.

It’s just that, reading the article, you’d be forgiven for concluding Amazon runs its warehouses with stacks of 3×5 index cards and not highly sophisticated information systems.

Why are these tales of easy, IT-free success so popular? That, at least, is easy to explain: it’s confirmation bias in action. That is, most people, most of the time, including you and including me, tend to accept without much scrutiny anything that tells us what we want to be true, while we nitpick to death anything that tells us anything else.

Fiction, case studies, and anecdotes of the “all you gotta do is …” variety tell business decision makers what they want to hear the most: making revenue grow, costs shrink, and risks disappear is going to be cheap and easy.

Against this “logic” there’s this simple but unattractive fact: When you’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit there’s a tree-full of peaches left that’s going to need a lot more effort to harvest.

Someday I’ll have to write a business novel about picking them.

Comments (3)

  • Hindsight is NOT 20/20.

    Folks say it is, but Monday morning quarterbacking is complete fiction. Uncle Bob says confidently if they’d have thrown the ball instead of run, they’d have won the game. Right. No interception possible, no dropped ball possible.

    Of course, the coach probably says if they’d have run the [running] play correctly, they would have scored. riiiiiiight.

    The reason hindsight isn’t 20/20 is because
    1) you don’t know the future ever and
    2) with hindsight, we’re actually revising reality to something totally fictitious and then moving forward from there.

    Reply
  • Perhaps identifying that there is a problem, then finding and using the resources to identify what the problem is, and what a solution looks like still doesn’t tell people how to solve the problem, if implementing the proposed solution is something beyond what they intuitively know themselves to be able to readily do, regardless of the facts.

    So, little or nothing changes, despite the validity of the advice and analysis.

    While I am an agnostic, it might be useful to consider how Jesus’ parables are different from an example of success. Some Jesus’ parables pointed to a change that re-framed a situation for his audiences that did not require them to see themselves as being more or different than currently saw themselves.

    I’ve always assumed that those parables were true stories.

    I think it takes considerable thought to create an accurate parable, but sometimes, it may be time well spent.

    Note that those parables didn’t usually suggest an easier way, just ones that anyone would was possible for them to do.

    Reply
  • Thanks for writing this, Bob. Your blog prompted me to re-read “You Are Not So Smart” by David McRaney. It is good to remind ourselves from time to time how flawed our thinking can be, so we can be on alert to stay away from the traps.

    Reply

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