Achieving Operational Efficiency: Classic Concepts for a Modern Workforce

In the mid-1600s, a master swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi wrote a book on strategy and the art of swordsmanship, called Go Rin No Sho, or The Book of Five Rings.  While intended for use by martial artists, this book is often referenced by business leaders for insights into managing competitive conflict and strategic management. 

As the Director of Operations at iProspect, I’m passionate about exploring how we can derive insights from Musashi’s teaching and apply them in today’s context.  I have directly applied these concepts to my own department, which has translated into greater operational efficiency, high morale, and a strong sense of purpose.  

No matter the industry, teams and departments must be both more nimble and more efficient than ever before, which presents an intrinsic paradox as the faster the response, there’s a corresponding decrease in efficiency.  Steps are skipped, mistakes made, communication more disjointed.  What I suggest is through the application of these pillars, any department can reach a point of speed, adaptability and efficiency. 

Musashi’s work is based on five books, with each book focusing on an area of teaching:  Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void, and my insights follow these themes as well.

Earth: Building a solid foundation of knowledge and process

A solid foundation is often the most underserved element of a department.  We are all tasked with growth, new ideas and expansion.  These are critical to any organization’s growth and should not be neglected, but without the solid foundation of knowledge, processes, and structure to work from, the results of any effort will be inconsistent and inefficient. 

Resource attrition and knowledge management is a challenge that can be overcome through the development of an operating manual of some type – evolving past “tribal lore” where knowledge is passed down informally from person to person, or worst case scenario, a two-week data dump provided by a departing team member.  The information is typically incomplete, and context is often lacking for the team members taking on the work.  Developing a body of knowledge around how a department does things, and equally importantly why, will increase efficiency and confidence in the team, in addition to mitigating risk of lost knowledge and processes. 

Another principle to consider is allowing your team to breathe, train, recover and prepare.  Champions train intensely, but they understand the need to rest to maintain peak performance.  A common issue with peak performers is they have a tendency to maintain top velocity until they burn out, or else managers pile on the work to make the most advantage of their stars.  However, this can often lead to burnout, or at least missed opportunities to develop the team in a more comprehensive way.  Recognizing that there are cycles of activity in any industry, use the slower times of the year for vacation, training (both independently and cross-training), and to shore up any gaps in the department infrastructure, such as process documents, templates, and workflows.  Providing the team time to evaluate and improve their work, will increase morale and a sense of ownership, increased efficiency, and likely new ideas that result from taking the time to brainstorm. 

Water: Staying flexible to adapt to changing conditions

It’s very easy to fall into a mindset of “this is how we do things”, and there are often very good reasons for doing things in a certain way.  But in order to meet the changing needs of customers, both external and internal, we must be fluid and adapt.  In Operations for a digital advertising agency, there is a fine line of applying enough rigor and process to ensure a high quality and accuracy of work, while retaining the ability to adapt to circumstances and the needs of the business and our clients.  Failure to adapt and respond results in frustration and even possibly missed deadlines.

After building a foundation and body of knowledge, a team can afford to be fluid and interpret how best to respond to ad-hoc situations. Instead of deriving a completely new solution, possibly an existing one needs only be modified. An existing process is likely known to be successful, so modifying it slightly mitigates the chance of an unexpected issue. 

Fire: Maintaining focus on the executive vision

Strong organizations will have a clear mission and objectives that are laid out by the President or CEO, and then waterfall down to each department.  Everyone in the organization should understand how their role and the work they do roll up to that executive line-of-sight.  Not only is it important to imbue a sense of purpose for all team members, but also it ensures that we do not silo ourselves from the rest of the organization.  This can happen due to conflicting personalities and personal vision, but more often it’s through a failure to develop the objectives at a department level at the outset.  For very large organizations, it’s surprisingly easy to for fiefdoms to be created, departmental kingdoms that stand alone and do not align with the larger vision.  This creates so many issues as to warrant a separate response of its own.  Suffice to say, operating in isolation does not serve either the larger organization or the department itself, and so the proper infrastructure to ensure alignment should be developed at the outset.  This is often done during annual planning (typically Q3-Q4) for the coming year, and every team member should participate.  The objectives of the organization should be transparent to everyone, and then each team member’s objectives are defined in collaboration with their manager.  There should be room to cultivate personal interests, but the manager should also have a clear vision where each of their team members can best contribute to the organization.  The end result is a set of objectives that have both alignment with executive line-of-sight and room for personal growth. 

Wind: Building up speed with a solid foundation

Accuracy and quality of work is critical, but if the product or service is not delivered when the customer requires it, quality becomes moot.  Granted, SLAs and managing expectations are all important as there can be intrinsic constraints.  However, there is often opportunity for every organization to reduce wasted time, efforts, and materials to provide that good or service more quickly and without any impact to quality.  Lean, a process improvement methodology invented by Toyota, provides a number of tools and approaches to evaluate and implement improvements in delivery, be it products or services.  One valuable exercise of Lean is to evaluate any given process by breaking it down into its individual parts, and then classifying them as “Value Add” or “Non-Value Add”.  If a given step is something the customer will ultimately see or perceives as having value, then it should remain.  If, however, a step provides no actual value to the customer, then it should be ideally removed.  Examples of Non-Value Add activities include:  rework due to defects, reformatting, excessive QA, and lag time between steps.  The core principles of Lean should be well understood by any organization looking to increase their velocity.

It’s important to note that Wind on its own has no clear direction or focus, and can have positive or negative effects depending on how it’s harnessed.  A department should focus on increasing speed only after it has reached a level of maturity with Earth (a solid foundation of operating knowledge, processes and procedures), Water (the ability to respond to the needs of its customers), and Fire (a clear focus and understanding about what it is to do and why).  Only then should the department start to dig deeper and conduct these change management exercises at a large scale.

Void: Putting the pieces together

This is the most abstract discipline, but also the one that can occur the most organically when the other disciplines have been applied.  In the context of Musashi’s writings, to enter Void is a state of “thought – no-thought”.  When a practitioner has executed a thousand sword strikes in exactly the same way, the body understands what is to be done and exactly what manner.  Today we call this “muscle memory.” Through extensive practice and training we gain the ability to adapt to new situations, leverage existing knowledge, and act at speed with confidence.  A person, department or organization that can reach this level can operate at peak efficiency and confidence.

Now, to be realistic this is an incredibly difficult level to reach, and even more difficult to remain there.  Our customers have shifting needs, our industries are constantly evolving, and new challenges present themselves constantly.  However, the goal is a worthy one and just by making the effort to implement these concepts will make a positive impact to your department and organization.  Quantitative benefits aside, personally I can say that there is nothing as satisfying as seeing everyone working in concert, with confidence and skill.  New situations don’t intimidate them; they take on the challenge like the champions they are. 

Over 350 years after Musashi wrote The Book of Five Rings, I find the concepts are as relevant today as they were then.  I encourage you to try these disciplines in your department and see the changes that unfold.