In search of "Common Sense"

Dec 23, 2008

Three habits of a highly effective / clear headed thinker

Book Review - The Choice – Eliyahu Goldratt

The Choice to invest time, effort, intuition and emotions in overcoming obstacles to clear thinking and leading a full-life

This is the much awaited input from Dr. Goldratt. People who have read his business novels have enjoyed the clear thinking and the common sense ways in which the solutions are derived. But, when it comes to trying our hands at doing the same in our specific context, many of us have found it difficult to be successful to that scale. In this book, Dr. Goldratt teaches us in a very carefully written way how to find the errors we make and how to correct them. I read The Choice through quickly first time, and then read it again slowly, thoughtfully several times. The material talks much of distribution, but it is about living one’s life. To have a meaningful life is up to us; we make The Choice.

We know Goldratt has made proclamations that go against the grain of common-practice. This book helps us understand the basis for Goldratt’s assertions:

1. Instead of taking the route of saving pennies to make a million, he advises to find Archimedes point or the leverage point of the system where a small effort creates a disproportionately large results in a true WIN-WIN fashion.

2. He does not believe in law of diminishing returns, he says if we practice Process of ongoing improvement (POOGI), the system can be continuously improved and the improvement will follow an exponential path.

3. He claims that there are silver bullets whereas most of the management thought lead us to believe that there are no silver bullets.

The format of the book is unlike his business novels. There is no protagonist (Alex Rogo) stuck in a time crunch (most of the times, just a quarter) to save his plant, divisions or career. So if you are addicted to the thrill of living the life on the edge with the protagonist, you will not find it here. The book is made up of Goldratt’s conversations with his daughter, Efrat, his case reports and Efrat’s reflections. Goldratt explains through conversations with his daughter and reports on past TOC projects how we can all choose to live a challenging and meaningful life based on self expression and taking responsibility for our lives. He explains his belief of 'Inherent Simplicity' -- that all circumstances no matter how apparently complicated are subject to fast improvement. He explains clearly and directly how we must try to control our situations and problems by seeking the truth of what causes them rather than being at the mercy of them.

In order to simplify understanding the instructions, the content of the book can be summarized as Three habits of a highly effective / clear-headed thinker. These habits are:

Habit # 1 – Never Say “I Know”

Habit # 2 – Be conscious of following obstacles to clear headed thinking and beware of falling prey to the same
Obstacle # 1 “Reality is Complex”
Obstacle # 2 “Lets settle for an acceptable compromise”
Obstacle # 3 “People are not good”

Habit # 3 – Practice, practice, practice

Habit # 1 – Never Say “I Know”
The way Goldratt keeps on going on and on without becoming complacent with the early successes, it is clear that this is a basic qualifying criteria to continued clear thinking. He demonstrates that this attitude leads to an exciting and rewarding journey with no end, where each success is just a stepping stone. There is no end to deeper understanding.

I relate this to the modified Johari window that William Dettmer has presented in his book “Strategic Navigation

It does not take too much of contemplation to arrive at the realization that what we know and we are aware of is extremely extremely minute compared to overall knowledge that might exist. We just have to compare an individual’s existence with the universal dimensions. An individual is one amongst about 6 billion humans living on earth. What is the mass / volume / lifespan of an individual compared to mass / volume / lifespan of the universe? It would be real dumb attitude to have even traces of arrogance of ‘knowing’. This is not to belittle our capability to hold the notion of infinite in our mind but I believe, the moment we get a feeling that we have reached the best solution, we become complacent and might miss even better possibilities. The impression of “we know” blocks us from using our intuition and brainpower. Goldratt has demonstrated through his case reports, how his constant quest for better and better solution does not lead to any disappointment.

There is always room for improvement – breakthrough improvement. Thinking there isn’t room for improvement is an obstacle in itself that needs to be removed.

Habit # 2 – Be conscious of the obstacles to clear headed thinking and beware of falling prey to the same

This is the core of the scientific, rational and logical approach that Goldratt has elaborated in the book. He quotes Newton – “Natura valde simplex est et sibi consona – nature is exceedingly simple and harmonious with itself”

The first obstacle that we face is our perception that “Reality is complex”. Goldratt claims that this perception stems from different ways in complexity is defined in social sciences and hard sciences. The social sciences take the level difficulty and number of data points required to ‘describe’ as a measure of complexity whereas hard sciences take ‘degrees of freedom’ or the points required to be touched (manage) to impact the whole system as a measure of complexity. He uses the diagram shown below to make the point.

Which system is more complex?

By the social sciences definition it appears B is more complex than A. But if we look at it from a systems perspective then A is more complex, because there is only one point in B that has to be touched in order to affect the whole system. Whereas for A, the number is four, meaning that it is a far more complex environment to control; and what if there are more than four?

Goldratt, being a physicist asserts any system, including human based systems are inherently simple. It takes an outlook of a scientist to look for common cause which is behind the multiple effects. So if we change the definition of complexity we will have a very different answer. Thus the first step in understanding, and thence using, inherent simplicity is uncovered – the use of Effect-Cause-Effect logic to determine the root cause of the organization, and focus our efforts there. The perception that the reality is complex leads us to look for complex solutions although we keep failing to find lasting solution in this approach.

Goldratt elaborates on “inherent simplicity”, namely the application of a thinking process that allows us to delve into the causal relationships within problems to determine those few (and there may be only one) key areas upon which to focus. It is the discovery of common causes that leads to the understanding of inherent simplicity. We need to have total faith in the existence of “inherent simplicity” keep working to understand the causal relationships that exist in our context till we have a clear understanding of the system that we are part of. A leap of faith through intuition and conviction that convergence WILL happen. There is a convergence as we dive deeper by constantly asking “Why”.

Ask Why?
1. Make an hypothesis of a ‘cause’ of a particular effect that you see in the reality
2. Predict another effect of this ‘cause’, which is observable and measurable.
3. Does the predicted effect exist in reality?
4. If not (or the reality is way different than the predicted effect), then iterate again 1- 3
5. Once you have a plausible ‘cause’ again iterate 1-4 for this entity as an effect.
6. Use categories of legitimate reservation to validate logic

Goldratt says that “good luck is preparation meets opportunity and bad luck is lack of preparation meets reality” and the best preparation is to have logical maps with causal linkages clearly understood. The current-reality tree is the thinking process tool that best serves the purpose for this effort. It would be possible to attain in our practice - “The more complicated the situation seems to be, the simpler the solution must be” - by averting collision with the first obstacle. This is applicable to every aspect of reality including people and whatever they create apart from the material world.

The second obstacle to clear thinking is our propensity to look and settle for compromises. This obstacle appears to be the result of the first obstacle. As we do not understand the inherent simplicity of the situation that we face, we take various conflicts and differences as unsolvable facts of life. With such fatalistic view, the option left to us is look for compromises. Since, we fill helpless with the fatalistic attitude we develop defensive mechanisms for camouflaging the chronic problems. The book cites how in the retail industry Stock-out situations and Outlet and end-of-season sales are talked in jest. We avoid solving larger and chronic problems and go for minor problems. Although our intuition might tell these compromises are short term fixes but we expend energy and emotions to try and make such sub-optimal solutions work.

Goldratt gives example of how the practices in hard sciences are different from the soft sciences. If two interpretations of a natural phenomenon are in conflict, the scientists do not go for a compromise but with a firm belief that, one or possibly both must be wrong, explore and develop even better understanding of the phenomenon. They explore the underlying assumptions that led to such a conflict. In Theory of Constraints there is a tool for dealing with conflicts – the ‘evaporating cloud’. This tool comes handy in our search for the underlying assumptions that hold the conflict in place and then remove the cause of the conflict by dissolving the assumptions - thereby eliminating the conflict altogether. When in an organization with a common goal, two parts are in conflict (or in a dilemma) this means that the reasoning that led to the conflict must contain at least one flawed assumption. The ideas that help us by pass this conflict / dilemma are true WIN-WIN solutions as the organization can proceed towards its goal as the constraint gets eliminated.

The third obstacle to clear thinking is our tendency to blame other people. This I believe, stems from the second obstacle. Any compromise is not a WIN-WIN solution. The party which has supposedly LOST more compared to the other feels aggrieved and develops antipathy. In a compromise, this applies to BOTH the parties. As human beings we always have our own win in mind; we are “programmed” for self-interest. Therefore, when we are involved in a conflict, in a situation that is handled as a win-lose situation, we will be more protective than generous. Goldratt takes us through the importance of harmony, of understanding and seeing the issues from the perspective of the other side and of examining the blame culture that dominates many relationships, both internally within organizations and between organizations. The key here is to recognize that for every relationship there is a change that will cause the parties to achieve what they need from the relationship and thus achieve a level of harmony previously thought unachievable. This is all about changing the mind set such that win-win relationships can be developed and encouraged to grow. The definition of win-win that Eli uses is interesting and novel: the win for my side is less than that for the other side!

Goldratt refers to the accepted wisdom that many improvement initiatives are stymied by resistance from people. He advises to be on guard when the cause contains an abstract entity, like conservatism, resistance to change etc. If we try to come up with a predicted effect with another effect that must be the result of the same cause. Then people should resist every change in different aspects of life. But the reality proves that people, in fact, look for to drastic changes in life like getting married, graduating, changing jobs etc.

Resistance to change is because people like to be in their “comfort zone”. Comfort zone is defined as an area where people feel that they have control or at least a sufficient amount of influence. An additional piece of comfort zone is where a person feels that he/she has sufficient knowledge of the cause and effect – what is going to be the likely outcome of an action and what is going to the likely response to a suggestion. So if you clearly explain the cause-effect, people may be more likely to respond positively to change. Also perform a test to validate the cause-effect that has been suggested.

Habit # 3 – Practice, practice, practice

The keys to thinking clearly are the belief in Inherent Simplicity and, not less important, the belief that people are not bad. A belief that leads to the practice that every hypothesis, before it is even entertained as a plausible hypothesis, should first pass the test of not being derogatory. This is a proagmatic approach which works without fail and leads to improving our chances of living a full life.

Goldratt says that logic doesn’t exist in vacuum. To perform any logical step we need to jump-start and constantly feed the logic with connections that are raised by our intuition. Our intuition stems from our emotions. For things we don’t care about, we have zero intuition. In short, our thinking stands on three-legged stool; emotion, intuition and logic.

We tend to concentrate on our areas of interest as our emotions and intuition are strongest in the areas that are most important to us. Now suppose that we use the intuition that we have in these areas to fuel logic to gain further understanding of other areas, our chances of success improve. The success leads to intensifying emotions in that area. Thinking clearly results in deeper emotions, resulting in stronger intuition, resulting in higher chances to apply logic successfully, increasing the chances to achieve good results, resulting in more meaningful outcomes, resulting in deeper emotions. This is like a helix that swirls upwards.

Each one of us has enough brainpower and intuition to reach a full life. No matter what the starting levels of brainpower and intuition, if we practice thinking clearly, the helix will intensify them to new heights. What we become is a matter of our CHOICE.

Goldratt calls this approach as that of a ‘practical visionary’.

We realize
1. People are good
2. Every conflict can be removed
3. Every situation, no matter how complex it initially looks, is exceedingly simple

4. Every situation can be substantially improved; Even sky is not the limit
5. There is always a win-win solution
6. Every person can reach a full life


  1. Hi Deepak,

    An excellent review!!!

    What strikes me the most in the review is the Habit 1 " I Know ".
    Its always that intelligence screen that comes in front of my eyes when ever i am encounter something. This stops me from exploring further beyond my requirement.

    Did Goldratt cite anything in 'The Choice', using which we could become conscious about the habit 1? or is it that this would only come by repeated practice?


  2. Hi Hasham

    Goldratt has just demonstrated by his case studies and Efrat's reflection on how someone else would have been satisfied with a brilliant solution and would have missed even more simple and brilliant solutions that Goldratt got by keeping at it.


  3. Hi Deepak,
    You have a wonderful blog. Very informative.

  4. This post is very insightful, and demonstrates the contents of the book in a simple to read and again understand way.

    Nkululeko Nkonde