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The Goal Tree

Big corporations use this decision-making system. Should you too?

We all know what it’s like to sit at the kitchen table with the whole family and to ask yourself, “Should I bring it up now? We’re all together… is this the right time to talk about the next big step for the farm?”

Agriculture prides itself on its family foundations. But sometimes, those family strengths are more like family complications when it comes to the big decisions.

Everybody says it’s simple. Just start communicating. But do they really understand how much is at stake?

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Farmer in field

It opens up the question: how do non-family businesses make their big decisions? Is there anything we can learn from them to help us through our own big moments?

The answer may be yes. So to learn more, we went to French business management consultant Christian Hohmann for his Goal Tree, which is winning converts in non-farm sectors as a logical, analytical structure to achieve a specific goal defined by a business, organization or even an individual.

As with any other planning tool, the process starts with defining that goal.

Using logic to define goals

It turns out non-farm businesses have a similar problem to farmers. If you put a number of people around a board table and ask them to define a goal for the business or even for a project, they will offer a bunch of different opinions, often based on personal preferences.

The aim of the Goal Tree is to eliminate personal bias and function as closely as possible on pure logic, says Hohmann, senior Paris manager for Marris Consulting, a management consulting company that works primarily with manufacturing companies to improve operational performance, and whose clients including Bayer, Procter & Gamble, Siemens and Yves Rocher.

Christian Hohmann.
photo: Supplied

“The Goal Tree starts with thinking about what you want to achieve and your desired future state. You have to be very clear about the statement of the goal,” says Hohmann, “If the senior management team is not aligned about their goals, how can they expect their organization to align their contributions. You have to clarify the intent.”

That’s where the work of consultants like Hohmann comes into play, because they are trained to analyze the responses around the table with a logical lens.

It’s a lesson for farmers, because anything that is clearly a personal bias or preference is identified as such and eliminated from the conversation.

The second step in the process is to work with the management team, owner, board or whoever holds authority, to help them identify how they can achieve the goal with minimum effort.

The Goal Tree can be used as a stand-alone tool or as one of the many tools in what’s known as a Logical Thinking Process (LTP).

The LTP refers to the work (and book) of former United States Air Force officer, university lecturer and systems management consultant William Dettmer. The LTP takes a logical, systems approach to complex problem solving. The idea builds on the Theory of Constraints, developed by Israeli business management guru Eliyahu M. Goldrat, a systems management philosophy that identifies the weakest link in a process or organization and develops a management strategy to eliminate it or prevent it from adversely affecting the desired goal.

The Goal Tree is a starting point for stating where you want to go, finding out how to get there, and looking at what might get in the way.

Critical success factors

With the main goal at the top, as you can see in the accompanying diagram, the Goal Tree begins to take shape when three to five high level indicators, known as critical success factors, are identified and form the branches underneath the main goal. The critical success factor is a kind of terminal outcome just before reaching the main goal.

Each critical success factor “branch” has underlying necessary conditions underneath it, which are tasks or processes necessary to reach that branch of the tree.

It can sound confusing, but it isn’t. Just keep your eye on the process. “We build the Goal Tree from the goal down to the very basic, necessary conditions which are at the bottom of the tree,” says Hohmann. “When you deploy your strategy or your project, you have to start from the bottom.”

Conceptually, the Goal Tree is the opposite of brainstorming where, famously, there are no “bad ideas.” By contrast, the Goal Tree quickly rejects ideas that are based on emotions, or not aligned with the business’s needs.
photo: Supplied

Hohmann gives the example of a manufacturing company that might have one critical success factor imposed by the market, such as the service rate. Many industries like retail grocery chains or the automotive industry want close to a 100 per cent service rate. In other words, if a grocery chain orders 1,000 loaves of bread from a supplier daily, they expect that supplier to be able to consistently supply 1,000 loaves of bread, not 900.

“If you do not have the minimum capacity to supply what is common in those industries, you cannot expect to enter the market or to be awarded the contract for being a supplier,” says Hohmann. “That is very critical for your business. In order to have this good level of service, then you need all of the structural, necessary conditions underneath.”

In a non-farm corporate business, the senior management team or owners should be the ones to identify the critical success factors since they understand what is critical to be successful in the marketplace or a particular industry. They are also responsible for the business’s vision or mission, and how it relates to the goal.

On the farm, that might mean it’s up to the current management generation to have oversight over the process.

“You stand for something which gives the flavour of the culture of the company,” Hohmann says. “For instance, if your ambition is to make money, to go and rob the old ladies coming out of the church is one way to make money, but this is not the way you are going to act. Or, if you’re in a high-tech industry, selling potatoes might be very profitable but it’s not what you do. By imposing this factor you’re adding some constraints, which is a reminder of your culture and your traits.”

Once the senior management team has set the higher critical success factors it can often hand over the Goal Tree process to subordinates to work out the details and add more branches of necessary conditions.

An effective communication tool

The Goal Tree is very visual so it’s also an effective communication tool because it’s easy to read and understand. “Some of our customers just display them in a public place and everybody can instantly understand the intent and how to contribute to the achieving of the goal,” says Hohmann.

If a necessary condition is fulfilled or already in place it is coloured green. If a necessary condition is basically still in progress so it is not totally under control, it is coloured orange.

A necessary condition that is coloured red means it is missing or potentially failing, and should be a priority for action.

“We colour the tree from the bottom up and the rule is quite simple. When you assess a necessary condition and underneath it you have a green, an orange or a red, the colour of this necessary condition will be the worst of the underlying,” says Hohmann. “It’s quite rational because if you have something missing underneath, you cannot say the necessary condition it feeds into is mastered or complete.”

When a Goal Tree is created it’s always multi-coloured, with lots of orange and red branches. Then the job is to turn them green.

Taking the emotion out

The Goal Tree is not about brainstorming, says Hohmann. Instead, it’s about achieving a goal.

It means that you have to maintain some discipline, because experience shows that some members of your team might continue hanging on to goals that they think are important for them.

For that reason, it’s not always easy to get people to buy in to the process because people tend to want to hang on to what they think is important to them, even though you’ve already decided that that wouldn’t be the right way forward for the farm.

Actually, though, that may be easier than it sounds.

“Any proposal must comply with the company goal and if it doesn’t, it’s a ‘nice to have’ and you discard it,” says Hohmann. “It takes all the pressure from the management, because it’s not management refusing something, it’s the rule of building the tree which cannot include something which is not mandatory to achieve the goal.”

Hohmann feels the Goal Tree could have a particularly valuable place in the family farm transition because it takes the emotion out of decision-making. It defines the future goal of the farm business and is designed to help people recognize, rationally, what needs to be done by everyone to achieve it.

Still, it’s a good reason for having a facilitator or trained advisor to guide the process, says Hohmann. “If they try to do it by themselves, they will probably tweak the tree to let the nice-to-haves in anyway. It’s better to have a practitioner guiding them and leading them to accept that if something is not rational, it’s not a necessary condition, so you drop it because it has nothing to do with the intent.”

In essence, as long as the philosophy of a business is properly defined, i.e. for a farm business, that might be the desire to be known as a farm that produces high-quality food, the structure of the Goal Tree can be built around it and actually helps in preventing ego from taking over or feelings being hurt.

Needs practice

That said, it’s never easy to introduce a new concept — and certainly one that is something of a radical departure from the traditional family farm consultancy approaches that are more prevalent in North America.

In Europe, where the Goal Tree and Logical Thinking Process are more accepted and used, industry associations are often at the forefront of adoption, using the approach for their own planning, then disseminating it to their members as a tool they can use in their own businesses.

Hohmann sees potential for Canadian and U.S. agricultural commodity organizations or producer groups to do the same.

“When an organization trials this process for its own purposes, it very soon understands how it could apply to its members for their own needs,” says Hohmann. “When I explain what the Goal Tree is, how it’s built and its purpose, everybody’s interested in it. As we start the exercise, people realize that it is very simple looking but requires some practise to have it done correctly and to avoid falling back into brainstorming.”

Resources to learn more about goal trees, the Logical Thinking Process and Theory of Constraints include:

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