Lessons from Science – Metabolic Pathways

Citric Acid CycleAs part of a course on system management and process design we had to read the book “The Goal” by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. I found it easy; not just because Goldratt does a terrific job of explaining the concepts, and not just because it’s presented as a novel.  The concepts are familiar, they map to similar concepts in metabolic pathways.

Metabolic pathways are a series of chemical reactions that occur within a cell, examples include photosynthesis, glycolysis (the breakdown of glucose to release energy) or the Citric Acid Cycle (the energy producing pathway used by all aerobic cells, shown above).

Essentially a set of processes in a certain order convert a set of chemicals or metabolites into something else, with either a release or absorbtion of energy. It’s a lot like a business or manufacturing process, except that it’s generally energy absorbed.

Bottle Necks

In talking about process design the concept of a bottle neck came up, this refers to any step in a process that takes a long time, and slows the whole overall process. If you’re looking at improving a process this is a good place to start. Sometimes adding more equipment or resources can remove the bottleneck, sometimes a better solution is to move the bottle neck in the process. Many years ago I was overseeing the assessing of residence applications and it turned out that doing the qualification checks first (the bottleneck) made the overall process faster since we could begin working on whichever case had cleared that step.

In biochemical terms this is usually called a “rate limiting step”, and exactly the same thing happens, the total time of the whole process is dictated by the rate limiting step. Adding more metabolites (resources) or increasing the concentration of the enzyme can increase the overall rate, but these are not easy steps for an organism to take.

Catalysts

The rate of chemical reactions can be altered by adding catalysts, or in biochemical reactions enzymes.

In project terms this could be the endorsement by upper management, which suddenly removes a number of obstacles and releases resources in support of the project.

I don’t want to stretch an analogy too far, but a concept developed to understand one area can easily be applied to another. It certainly made the process design concepts easier for me to learn – although I did get some flashbacks of memorising the complex pathways that keep organisms working. Far more complex than any business process I’ve encountered so far.

image; Work found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Citric_acid_cycle_with_aconitate_2.svg / CC BY-SA 3.0

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