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Written by: Kent Hatcher on May 22nd, 2008

The writings of Sun Tzu, which are collectively called The Art of War, are over 2,500 years old, and yet they are as applicable today as they were when they were first written. Throughout Sun Tzu’s writings are the themes of leadership, engagement, communication, planning and preparation, and discipline.Picture3_2

Sun Tzu claims that to succeed in war, one should have full knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of the enemy. Lack of either might result in defeat. The Art of War was written in a universal style that draws parallels between the challenges in business and those of war, specifically:

§         How are you collecting data and does it originate from both internal and external sources?

§         Do you have the right data on your dashboard or are you still largely relying on business intuition?

§         Can you discern any patterns, gain insight, and extract meaning from the data?

§         How is your organization incentivized to positively respond to and learn from the resultant information?

Modern businesses have deployed automation and information technologies that have led to vast amounts of data becoming available.  The true art is sieving through large amounts of data, extracting useful information and turning that information into actionable knowledge with an appreciation and understanding of the resultant outcome.

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Sound leadership advice on where to start the journey towards business wisdom comes from the first chapter of Art of War.  Sun Tzu says, "If people are treated with benevolence, faithfulness and justice, then they will be of one mind and will be glad to serve," which shows that workers simply want to be treated fairly and have the faith of their co-workers and supervisors. Sun Tzu tells us that we first must know ourselves and there is no better way for leaders to learn than by getting out of the office and seeing what is really happening in your environment.

Once out of your office, leadership can adopt a consistent and straightforward continuous improvement approach to discern the root cause of successes or problems. 

Consistently ask these simple questions:

§         What was our plan?

§         What actually happened and did we follow the plan?

§         What went right first and how do we sustain that part?

§         What went wrong and ask ourselves why (5-why’s) this occurred?

§         Finally, how do we fix the problem and who is going to be responsible for verifying that it is fixed?

This simple leadership act can be a key to success or failure of your continuous improvement efforts and also serve as positive reinforcing behavior for employees to remain engaged.  This is an important lesson as durable gains in productivity and quality accrue only when your workforce is engaged in a continuous improvement culture. The true goal here is not just to transform manufacturing, but rather to create "thinking people" who are glad to serve and sustain the process. 

Without engaged employees, continuous improvement initiatives die on the vine.  Companies experiencing positive bottom-line effects from their efforts in continuous improvement are doing so because they have learned and adopted the tactics that Sun Tzu described long ago about tapping into a self-reinforcing cycle of respectful employee engagement.

Chart: Ackoff, R.L., "From Data to Wisdom", Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, Volume 16, 1989 p 3-9 

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