On Saturday morning, Alex lies in bed next to Julie, who is still asleep. His son, Dave, is standing in front of him in his Boy Scout uniform, reminding Alex that he promised to go on their overnight hiking trip with them weeks ago. Alex feels bad about abandoning Julie, but feels like he should go, so he quietly gets out of bed and drives with Dave to the hiking trail. When they arrive, the other hikers tell Alex that their scout leader is sick, so now Alex is the only adult available for the trip. He’s irritated that this hike is suddenly his responsibility, but he decides to lead them. The boys show him the map which will lead them to Devil’s Gulch, where they’ll camp for the evening.
Alex’s personal life is plagued by competing commitments to his wife and kids, which he struggles to manage. His personal life thus parallels his career, in which Alex struggles to manage the various crises and demands of his management position. This suggests that Alex struggles to manage his life overall—to juggle the competing demands of family, career, and personal wellbeing—indicating that much like the factory’s current operating procedures, Alex’s lifestyle is unsustainable.
They have about 10 miles to hike and, at an easy pace of two miles per hour, Alex estimates it should only take five hours to reach their destination, plus an hour and a half added for lunch and rest breaks. The group starts hiking a well-marked trail single-file. The hikers begin together, but Alex notices that the boys quickly begin to spread out along the trail, some hiking faster than others. He lets a boy named Ron take the lead and moves to the back so he can keep an eye on the whole procession. Alex notices a chubby boy, Herbie, in the middle of the group who hikes slowly and thus slows down the boys behind him.
This section introduces Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, which the novel usually refers to as “bottlenecks.” Essentially, a constraint or bottleneck is the slowest stage of a process. The hikers along the trail symbolize Alex’s manufacturing system at the plant. Each hiker represents one stage of manufacturing, where raw material is gradually processed into an industrial product that can sell. Their struggle to stay together as a group or maintain a consistent pace symbolizes the disorganization and inconsistent flow that the plant suffers from.
As they walk, Alex thinks about Julie and his conversation with Jonah about statistical fluctuations and dependent events. In Alex’s mind, such fluctuations should average themselves out. For instance, while he’s hiking, sometimes he’ll hike faster and sometimes slower, but it should average out to two miles per hour. Looking up, he notices that Ron is too far ahead, so he calls out for the hikers in front to stop while everyone else catches up. Some of the other boys make fun of Herbie for being slow as he struggles to catch up, though Herbie’s backpack looks especially heavy. It takes a long time for the boys behind Herbie to jog up to the boys ahead of him.
Since the hikers represent the manufacturing system, Herbie, as the slowest hiker, represents the system’s chief constraint—its bottleneck. Alex’s observations about Herbie’s struggle to maintain the pace of the rest of the boys and need to intermittently run to stay with the group demonstrates how such a bottleneck can disrupt the pace of the entire system if it’s not proactively dealt with.
As they stop for a rest, Alex tells Ron that he should’ve kept a moderate pace, but Ron insists that he did. Although Alex thinks they’ve been hiking for several hours, Ron’s map shows that they’ve only hiked two miles—far less than their average speed would predict. When they start hiking again, though Ron hikes at a moderate speed, Alex sees that the line of hikers spreads out and slows down again. He realizes that each hiker is essentially a dependent event whose speed fluctuates up and down. Whenever someone slows down for a step or two, everyone behind him must slow down as well, and they cannot simply run to fix the fluctuation because they are constrained by the hiker in front of them.
Each hiker is constrained by the speed of the hiker in front of them, meaning that even if they wanted to run to catch up to the hikers in front of the group, they could not. This implies that the occasional delays of the hikers in the front of the group will have a compounding effect for every person behind them. In terms of manufacturing, whenever a stage in the process has to wait on materials or has a machine error, every subsequent stage of that process is thus thrown off schedule.
Alex realizes there are athletic limits to how fast each hiker can go, but no limits to how slow or how long they can be delayed. So rather than the fluctuations in hiking speed averaging themselves out, the negative fluctuations accumulate, the hikers spread out, and the whole group slows down. Alex considers how these sorts of fluctuations create problems in the plant, since each machine is like a dependent event; it must wait for the machine before it to finish its work before it can even begin. The distance between Ron, in the front of the line, and Alex, in the back, represents the plant’s increasing inventory. Alex’s slowed walking speed represents the plant’s decreasing throughput. Soon enough, Ron stops the whole troop for lunch.
The fact that negative fluctuations compound on one another, rather than averaging themselves out, implies that whenever time is lost in one stage of the manufacturing system, it is very difficult to recover by simply speeding up another stage. Additionally, the increasing distance between Ron and Alex represents increased inventory, suggesting that more money is trapped as inventory in the system, rather than being regained through sales or being available as cash on hand.