Be a Samurai Warrior at the Gemba:


There is a great Japanese notion about the Samurai Warrior. I first came across this in Norman Bodek’s preface to “Kanban and Just-in-Time at Toyota”. The main idea is that a Samurai warrior never stops perfecting his style. This is akin to a manager who should never stop improving his managerial ability. The Samurai warrior also never stops polishing his sword. This is akin to the manager constantly trying to improve the process and the product.

This got me thinking about Miyamoto Musashi. Miyamoto Musashi (1564 – 1645) was a great swordsman and a great artist from Japan. He is most commonly known as the author of the great book – “The Book of Five Rings. He was said to be undefeated in duels. His book is still considered to be a great book on strategy similar to the Art of War. His book consists of five different themes (earth, water, fire, wind and void). In this post, I will talk about five of his sayings from the Book of Five Rings that resonated the most with me.

  • If you practice diligently day and night in the strategy, your spirit will naturally broaden. Thus you will come to comprehend large scale strategy and the strategy of one on one combat. (Book of Earth)

Musashi is talking about the small picture and the big picture view here. In the book, the strategy refers to the use of the long sword. He advises the student to practice every day and to be fluent in both large scale strategy and small scale strategy.

In a similar vein, Musashi states the following in the Book of Water:

In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things. It is important in strategy to know the enemy’s sword and not to be distracted by insignificant movements of his sword. (Book of Water)

The key points I am taking away to use are diligent practice in order to broaden your spirit. This allows you to see the big picture vs. the small picture, and strengthens your ability to look at the small details and not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Musashi also said, “Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things.”

  • The teacher is as a needle, the disciple is as thread. You must practice constantly.(Book of Earth)

In Lean we say that the Teacher has not taught, if the student has not learned. Musashi requires the student to follow the teacher as a thread follows the needle. This is such a powerful analogy.

  • Really skilful people never get out of time, and are always deliberate, and never appear busy.(Book of Wind)

When you look at successful people, they make you go, “How does he/she do it?” Continuous learning and practice makes you better at what you do and allows you to become so skilful that you are able to flow gracefully. Business does not equate to busyness. Being busy and getting things done are two different things.

  • You should not have any special fondness for a particular weapon, or anything else, for that matter. Too much is the same as not enough. (Book of Earth)

Musashi cautions us against having a favorite tool. This is akin to the saying; if you have a hammer everything you see is a nail. One should use the right tool for the right problem. To use the right tool, one should understand what the problem is. Do not become over-reliant on a favored approach or process.

  • There is rhythm in everything; however, the rhythm in strategy, in particular, cannot be mastered without a great deal of hard practice. (Book of Earth)

There is a constant theme in the book about being fluid. Musashi talks about having a rhythm in what you do. This is a toyotayesque approach of production leveling and takt time. Musashi also rightfully points out that the rhythm cannot be achieved without a great deal of practice.

Final Words:

Musashi’s book succinctly sums up the idea of constant practice and constant learning. I encourage the reader to read the Book of Five Rings. It is full of great nuggets that are applicable at the Gemba. I also encourage the reader to be a Samurai warrior at the Gemba – never stop practicing your style (always keep on improving) and never stop polishing your sword (always keep on learning).

I will finish off with a Zen Story that talks about working smarter and not harder:

A young man went to a famous teacher and asked, “I am devoted to your way of thinking. I am willing to work hard under you. How long will it take me to reach enlightenment?”

“Ten years”, the teacher replied.

“Ten years!”, the young man remarked. “But I want to reach enlightenment faster. I will work harder and devote ten or more hours a day. How long will it take me then?”

The teacher sipped his tea, thought for a bit and said. “Twenty years.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cpk/Ppk and Percent Conforming.


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