When it comes to supply chain management, there is no doubt that companies are in the thick of a battle to beat their competition and gain dominance in market share. But the fog of war is heavy, and the map pointing toward success is often poorly drawn. Could the ideas penned by the real-life warrior named Sun Tzu be the key companies need to focus their efforts?
Sun Tzu, depending on the translation you read, was either a great warrior, a compilation of several writers in ancient China or a fictional character. The consensus among historians, however, is that he did indeed exist and lived during Wu Dynasty between the sixth century and the third century BC, coming to prominence around 519 BC and slipping into obscurity prior to his death.
His writings were first introduced to the Western world when French missionaries translated them between 1772 and the early 1790s. Significantly, Napoleon Bonaparte studied the translation and applied it in the battles of Jena and Austerlitz. During the Napoleonic Wars, Baron Henri Jomini and Karl von Clausewitz served as both allies and opponents of Napoleon at various times, and after the wars they wrote about Napoleon's tactics and strategy, which were based on Sun Tzu's teachings. Their writings form the basis of today's modern military thought and, in fact, the principles of war. For example, the teachings of Sun Tzu were put into practice during such U.S. military operations as Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the use of speed and deception produced a much shorter war with much fewer casualties than expected; it also allowed coalition forces to capture the Rumallah oil fields, averting an environmental disaster in the form of burning oil wells.
The military implications are clear, but how can one draw the relationship between Sun Tzu and supply chain management? 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, communication, planning and preparation, and discipline. Additionally, The Art of War was written in a universal style that lends itself to templates, which have been translated into topics from financial to business management.
This article will explore the themes of The Art of War in light of matters of vital importance, clearly-stated missions, knowing yourself, speed, competition, the importance of remaining current, the use of after action reviews (AARs), and collaboration — all as they apply to supply chain management and supply chain leadership.
Sun Tzu and Supply Chains
In the second chapter of The Art of War, Sun Tzu states, "War is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied." Few would argue that supply chain management is a matter of vital importance to any company. In fact, the biggest cause of the dot-com implosion was companies' failure to properly establish supply chain strategies. For example, one major toy chain paid more in coupons to compensate for late deliveries at Christmas a couple of years ago than it made in profit. Truly, leaders of all companies that want to ensure the most efficient supply chain operations are in place and posture their company for survival and growth must study supply chain management.
What should be the matters of importance in supply chains and to corporations? They are those items that are of vital importance to the customers. It is imperative for the survival of a company that these items be benchmarked internally and against the competition to ensure that the good or service is delivered better and faster than the customer desires or than the competition can offer. If what you are measuring is not important to your customer or to customer support, it should not be important to the company and, therefore, should not be measured.