What can the Slowest Hiker teach you?

If you’re starting to think about strategic planning, it might help you to develop a different perspective as a way to challenge your thinking. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of just doing more… ‘our plan for next year is 20% growth’ and while that might be a fine outcome, it doesn’t really lead to an identification of what needs to change to make that happen.

That’s where a different perspective might help.

One example of a different perspective would be to apply the Theory of Constraint to your business model.  In case you’re not familiar with it, the Theory of Constraint was introduced to the business world in 1984 by author Eliyahu Goldratt and his bestselling business novel – The Goal.  The book is a story about a manufacturing plant manager who is assigned to a struggling plant in his hometown.  Despite a lot of hard work, current best practices, and a motivated team, his new plant isn’t profitable and the trend is in the wrong direction.

With some help from his college physics professor and the willingness to look at things differently, the plant manager recognizes that the plant is struggling with some significant bottlenecks in the manufacturing process. He makes some radical changes to resources and processes, and eventually, through some trial and error, gets the plant to the point where they are outperforming everyone else in the company.  The good guys get promoted and everyone rides off into the sunset.

How does this apply to your planning?  And what does it have to do with the slowest hiker?


The Theory of Constraint and the slowest hiker…

The central theme of the book is all about the Theory of Constraint – which simply states that the overall throughput of any process is only as good as the throughput of it’s weakest link.  This is first illustrated in the book with the example of the lead character (the plant manager) taking his son’s scout troop on an overnight hike.  The first day of the hike goes poorly with the boys all hiking at different speeds and being forced to wait for Herbie (the slowest hiker), which ultimately puts them well behind schedule.

The second day of the hike, the troop adopts some new rules.  They put Herbie at the front of the line (so he sets the pace for everyone) and they distributed most of the weight in his pack to everyone else.  This allowed Herbie to walk faster and kept the entire group together, which made them much more effective.  By focusing on, and improving, the slowest hiker, the entire group was able to move much faster.

In the book, the Theory of Constraint is applied to manufacturing processes, but it can be applied to any business and it can be a really helpful way to look at your business – especially if you’re looking to grow.


How to apply this to your business…

The first step is to look at your overall business as a set of processes that start with a potential customer learning about your business (marketing) and ends with you depositing a check (finance).  Don’t worry about getting too detailed with this – maybe start with 6 or 7 key steps and write them down – here’s a really simple, generic model:



Once you’ve got a good high-level model, then it’s time to start asking some questions:

1. Do you have each of these processes documented (at least at a high level)?


2. Do you have a way to measure productivity for each of these?  If not, could you come up with one that intuitively makes sense?


3. Which of these processes are holding you back the most?  In other words, which one of these would be your ‘slowest hiker’?

Can you figure out the root cause of why that process is your biggest constraint?  Using the ‘5 Whys’ approach here could be a good way to figure that out.  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s simply the idea of bringing together your team and asking why the problem exists.  Once that’s clear, then you dig deeper and ask why about the first answer… and so on until you get to a true root cause that you can do something about.

Once you’ve got a clear idea of how to address your biggest bottleneck (and hopefully a way to measure improvement), then you’ve got the basis for a new strategic project. Develop a high-level plan, including milestones, dates, and responsibilities and get started on fixing your biggest constraint.  Once that’s done, you should be seeing better results and it will be time to look for the next constraint (it’s a never-ending process…).

There are a couple of big reasons why this approach works well for any business:

  • It’s a different way of looking at your business and it will force you to take a more systematized approach, which will help you scale much more effectively.
  • It gets you and your team into the habit of continuous improvement. The world is changing fast and the companies that are constantly improving are going to be the ones who win in the long run.


Do you know what your biggest constraint is right now?  Do you have anything in the works to help improve it?  If not, then you’re going to be hard-pressed to grow.  We’d love to hear your thoughts on if this approach could work for you (or not).

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach


1 thought on “What can the Slowest Hiker teach you?”

  1. Brad Steinlage says:

    The Goal was required reading in the Industrial Engineering curriculum at KSU back in the early 90’s when I was there and to this day is still one of the best books I’ve read to help an individual or group understand the power (and necessity) of zeroing in on the constraint of a process or system to expand capacity. The Boy Scout hike chapter is a classic.

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