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Akhilesh Gulati

Quality Insider

Why Victory Favors Small and Motivated Companies

Lean times call for lean strategies.

Published: Monday, July 19, 2010 - 14:27

These days when the economy is uncertain, smaller organizations worry about survival while many larger, well-established organizations sit smugly, thinking they don’t really have much to worry about. However, some  of these large, well-established organizations are vanishing. How is this possible?

Perhaps, tales of yore will provide a lesson for us:

During the fourth century in China, states often fought with each other. During one particular skirmish, the general of the Chin state was seated in his chambers conferring with Meung, the incoming lieutenant general of the 3rd Division, when a lieutenant arrived with a report about the logistics of an upcoming battle between that division and another in a neighboring state.

The lieutenant brought good news stating that they enjoyed significant advantages: superiority in the number of troops, abundance of weaponry, superior experience, and a regiment that was well fed and taken care of. He assured victory for the Chin state.

Upon hearing this news, the general looked worried and ordered the lieutenant to dispatch reinforcements and return to the battlefield. This left Meung perplexed; after all, they had been assured of victory, so why the worry? After all, they were superior in manpower, weaponry, and experience.

Instead of explaining, the general asked Meung to follow him as he walked over to a large lake. Sitting on a rock, the grand general picked up a leaf and threw it on the lake, where it stayed in one spot. After about an hour, Meung, getting restless, inquired what it meant. Instead of explaining, the grand general continued walking until they came to a narrow, swiftly running brook. Again, the grand general picked up a leaf and threw it into the water. This time the leaf did not sit still; it sailed along quickly and soon vanished. The general asked Meung whether he now understood.

Seeing the still perplexed Meung, the general explained that the 3rd Division is like the lake: large, complacent, and commanded by an arrogant lieutenant who isn’t motivated to fight. Victory, like the leaf floating stationary on the lake’s surface, has no momentum. The enemy’s attitude, however, is completely different. The troops are few, fast moving, and agile. The lieutenant participates in the front line, side by side with his troops; he is committed to die in order to win (and, in turn, win the commitment of his troops). Victory, like the leaf carried along by the stream, is assured.

Four days later, as predicted by the general, the 3rd Division was defeated. The moral? While a small, swift brook easily carries a leaf, a large placid lake can’t do so; manpower, weaponry, and experience are important, but it is a leader’s commitment and the regiment's agility that determine victory.

We see this almost daily in our economy. Smaller, agile organizations win despite their small work force, level of technology, or lack of business maturity. Giant corporations, the anchors of the economy, are vanishing because their sheer mass makes them cumbersome and slow to react. They are victims of their own success, perhaps. We've come to believe they are too big to fail, and we invest in them because we believe that returns (i.e., victory) are assured. Yet, they continue to fail us. Like the Chinese general’s 3rd Division, these organizations gather mass, increase their troop levels, and build their weaponry of technology, yet they are unable to anticipate problems or move quickly to address them. Although they might have a lot of potential energy lying latent, it often isn’t channeled, and change becomes almost impossible.

Although employees of large companies are able to enjoy the benefits of security, the excitement that a small, agile organization generates as it tumbles along overcoming obstacles is more valuable. Imagine sitting peacefully in a boat on a lake, enjoying the cool winds and the scenery vs. the whitewater rafting experience. Who is more alert to the changing currents and the upcoming obstacles? Who is more likely to handle challenges coming from all directions? Who is more likely to anticipate unintentional consequences?


About The Author

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati has 25 years of experience in operational excellence, process redesign, lean, Six Sigma, strategic planning, and TRIZ (structured innovation) training and consulting in a variety of industries. Gulati is the Principal consultant at PIVOT Management Consultants and the CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in S. California. Akhilesh holds an MS from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and MBA from UCLA, is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.