Not All Optimization Is Optimal

 In Archive

We all have heard the expression, “think global, act local.” It is meant to convey how you can change the world but you have to start at home. This applies more than ever in the world of running your business.

We have all encountered process roadblocks. Obstacles toward progress are usually there for a reason – most of the time the motivation is to protect something and usually that something is efficiency. The result is the interaction between anyone and the protected has friction, the protected are benefiting from the process at the expense of everyone else. Have you ever thought of it that way? The process is a way to locally optimize but at what expense? The global, as it turns out. 

Processes protect those that are concerned with KPI or MBO attainment at the expense of the system delivery; incorrect incentives cause local optimization. 

Eliyahu Goldratt introduced the theory of constraints (TOC) in his book The Goal[1] that in summary focused on system throughput not local optimization as a method of delivering the most value in the shortest time.

As an example local optimization at the team level focuses on employee productivity measured in hours utilization rate. Employee incentives such as these cause employees to look inward without regard to the team’s goals or output. The traditional attitude of, “I developed my software now it is the QA’s responsibility to deliver to the business” become the norm. In agile the focus similar to TOC is on the team’s output not the sum of the individuals’ output.

Good Intentions With Blinders On

I worked at a company where there were two geographic locations, headquarters in location A and 75% of the software development being done in location B.

Here is what happened; the IT Director wanted to create the fastest and most robust backup and restore process as possible. This is a rational approach if IT looks inward given they are measured on quick recovery from an unplanned outage.

With inward thinking the logical approach was to move all the build servers and source control servers to the headquarters, location A from location B. Great now our company’s IP is in a controlled environment within the headquarters premises where the backup and restore process could happen as efficiently as possible.


Everyday 75% of the users of the build servers and source code servers were in location B, now they have to wait at least thirty minutes at the start of every day to retrieve the current source code from location A’s servers before they could even start work. Then consider how painful check-ins and compilation builds are, which happened multiple times per day.


Look beyond your sphere of influence and understand the whole picture. If the IT Director simply considered the bigger picture they would have realized that the backup and restore activities were important supporting functions under their responsibility. However, if the IT Director considered that the purpose of the software company was to get working software into their client’s hands as quickly as possible this situation could have been avoided.

Image Credits:

It is not blue or red, you see we live in a world full of all the colors, do not create defined boundaries and measure within the bounded area because from blue to red there are lots of colors. You see if we actually observe the boundaries instead of the full spectrum we cannot see the whole picture – those boundaries are where the protected rules form.

Pragmatic approaches should be applied to everything we do day-to-day with an eye toward one thing, delivering business value. Please see what it takes to create great organizations here, How To Build A Great Organization.

As we can see not all optimization is optimal. But if you keep your eye on the larger organizational objectives, then you really can act local to impose global, or as Steve Jobs said, “… put a dent in the universe.”

Any thoughts would be welcome, please share your views or experiences here.

[1] Eliyahu Goldtatt, The Goal, North River Press, Great Barrington, MA., 1984.

Image Credits:

– Tim Bertheau


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