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William A. Levinson

Six Sigma

Thinking Lean in 17th Century Poland

Competitive lessons from Poland’s renowned cavalry

Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2005 - 23:00

“Then the Husaria broke into a wild g allop and the heavy mass of men and horses cascaded over the Turkish ranks, bowling over the first, slicing through the second… The Grand Vizir leapt onto a horse and made his own escape moments before the winged riders thundered up to the tent and the banner was struck.”

—Excerpted from The Polish Way, (Hippocrene Books, 1987)

Adam Zamoyski’s account of the relief of Vienna on Sept. 12, 1683, adds that the Turks’ Tartar allies fled without striking a blow the moment they sighted the Poles’ dreaded armored cavalry. They had fought the Husaria 10 years earlier at Chocim and they had no desire to meet these foes again. Accounts by Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz suggest that whenever hostile troops were unfortunate enough to be on terrain where the Husaria could get at them, their prospects for organizational (and individual) survival ranged from grim to nonexistent. The Husaria, and indeed the entire army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, used many organizational and technological principles that we now recognize as characteristics of lean enterprises.

Hussar Reenactor  
 

Photo By: Rik (Suligowski) Fox, courtesy of Suligowski’s Regiment of the Polish Commonwealth, C. 1999.

 


Speed kills (competitors)

Speed comes from short cycle times and just-in-time delivery. The Commonwealth covered a huge area (modern Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine) whose defensive needs were best served by highly mobile and responsive armies of cavalry. The Poles were also a hundred years ahead of the Prussians in deploying light horse artillery that could move quickly to provide localized fire support. Many countries participated in the relief of Vienna, but only the Polish artillery was fast enough to come into action against the Turkish besiegers. This emphasizes yet another lean lesson: The best product in the world is of no use unless it reaches the customer in time.

In fact, the Turks were surprised to see the Poles at all, for they had reckoned them hundreds of miles away. Just as General Custer doubtlessly found himself asking, "Where did all the Indians come from?" at Little Bighorn, Grand Vizir Kara Mustafa must have wondered where all the Poles came from on Sept. 12, 1683. Companies that use lean thinking will soon have their competitors asking similar questions.

Lean design in Polish equipment

The Husaria were the apparent sole exception to the rule that cavalry couldn’t overthrow an infantry formation that stood its ground. They used a unique lance, the kopia, which was so long that a hussar could hit an enemy pikeman before coming within reach of the pike. One might expect an 18-ft lance’s weight to be prohibitive, but the kopia’s secret was its hollow cross-section. The material in a cylinder’s center adds weight (cost) but little strength (value), which makes it waste (muda).

The kopia’s assembly was a marvel of innovative processing. It’s difficult to drill out the center of an 18-ft wooden shaft, especi ally with the tools that existed in the 17th century. The Poles got around this problem by cutting the shaft down the center, removing the unwanted wood and then reassembling the halves with glue.

The koncerz, a long straight-bladed sword with a sabre grip that was designed to pierce armor, appears to embody the same lean design concept. A photograph shows what looks like a tubular blade that has been formed around a supporting rib, thus creating a very rigid weapon. Another version, which some sources describe as a p allasz or palache, has a blade whose cross-section looks like a plus sign.

Lean thinking also played a role in the design of the hussar’s armor, which optimized the balance between protection, lightness and flexibility. The full armor of medieval knights and the three-quarter armor of the reiters who followed them couldn’t stop musket fire consistently because the metal plates necessary to do so would have been prohibitively thick. The Poles understood the concept (expressed later by Frederick the Great) that "he who tries to protect everything protects nothing." The hussar breastplate was accordingly quite thick (5 to 10 mm) to protect the torso from musketry. Although only partial armor was worn on the arms and upper legs, a musketeer who aimed at the limbs was very likely to miss his target completely.

The elimination of protection from rarely targeted body parts reduced the armor’s total weight to 30 to 45 lb, probably less than that of a modern infantryman’s backpack. Human factors engineering also influenced the breastplate’s design. The waist of the hussar cuirass was segmented (like the Roman lorica segmentata or segmented breastplate) to make it easy for the soldier to bend in the saddle.

Ergonomics and human factors

Ergonomic thinking was also very obvious in the practices of the Husaria. Strategic mobility depended on how quickly cavalry could march and on how far it could travel before the men and horses became exhausted. Polish cavalry could, according to Zamoyski, travel 120 km (more than 70 miles) a day without killing the horses. Although the reference doesn’t specify whether these were Husaria, 70 miles is a prodigious distance for even unarmored light cavalry. The Poles may also be the inventors of what is now known as the posting or rising trot, in which the rider moves up and down with the horse. It’s far easier on both the horse and the rider than the more dignified but stiffer sitting trot. Poland also used saddles of Eastern design, which were far more comfortable for the horses than those of Western Europe.

The Polish sabre (szabla) was also designed with ergonomics in mind. "It was the curved Eastern sabre, modified by the Hungarians and further adapted by the Poles in the 16th century until it reached a combination of length, weight and curve which gave it a uniquely high ratio of cutting power to effort expended," reports Zamoyski in his book The Polish Way.

Despite their sword-like appearances, the armor-piercing koncerz and p allasz were used like short lances for straight charges and were too long to be used in a melee. Therefore, the hussars carried another weapon for use against armored opponents at close quarters. Zamoyski describes the czekan as "a long steel hammer which could go through heads and helmets like butter" or, as Henry Ford put it in My Life and Work (DoubleDay, 1929), "What is the use of putting a tremendous force behind a blunt chisel if a light blow on a sharp chisel will do the work? …For any one to be required to use more force than is absolutely necessary for the job in hand is waste."

Teamwork and organization

Most members of the Polish gentry ( szlachta) practic ally grew up in the saddle, but they still had to learn to work as teams to be effective. Horse and rider formed the basic organizational unit of a Banner (hussar squadron) and this has vital management implications. The rider (manager) must convey absolute confidence and determination to the horse (workforce), as illustrated by such as jumping a fence for example. If the rider has doubts about going over the fence, the horse will sense his lack of determination and balk or turn aside. A hussar who charged a hedge of enemy pikes could entertain no doubt that he and his mount would knock down the pikeman in front of them instead of impaling themselves. He had to convey the absolute determination that, "We’re going to go through them like stuff through a goose," or the horse would doubtlessly pull up short. A workforce can similarly sense when management treats lean manufacturing or total quality management as a "program of the month" as opposed to something that "has to happen if we’re going to survive and prosper."

Two very distinctive pieces of equipment, the hussar’s cloak of leopard or tiger fur and the wooden-framed arcs of feathers on his back, were specific ally intended to disrupt the opposing horse-rider organizational unit. The enemy rider’s skill and courage became tot ally irrelevant to any further proceedings if his horse bolted at the sight and perhaps the odor of a predatory animal’s fur. A horse’s hearing is far more acute than a man’s, so opposing horses certainly found the wind’s terrifying hiss (sometimes described as a rattle) through the hussar’s wings and lance pennon quite unnerving as well. The Poles’ own horses were accustomed to the furs and the wings. The wings served the additional purpose of preventing lariat-wielding Tartars from lassoing the hussars.

Further evidence of lean thinking in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Zamoyski states that 16th century Polish regiments could fire 10 times as many shots per man as contemporary Spanish ones—and Spain was renowned for its musketry. It’s very doubtful that the Poles had better muskets but it’s well known that two workers can get drastic ally different results from the same tool if one of them knows about motion efficiency. As an example, Frank Gilbreth tripled the rate at which bricklayers could work by simply delivering the bricks at waist level instead of on the ground. American manufacturers must use similar thinking today to make American workers 10 or 20 times as productive as their low-paid Chinese counterparts.

To achieve outstanding results, think like a Lean Hussar

The battles of the Thirty Years War made "The Swedes are coming!" a threat with which Central European parents would quiet unruly children for many decades to come. The legacy of Gustavus Adolphus, "the Lion of the North," included pike-and-musket formations that were often c alled "castles that walk the earth." Henryk Sienkiewicz described what happened to those walking castles when they met the 17th century’s ultimate weapon: “There was a huge sound of a collision then, like a toppling mountain, and then a vast ringing as if a thousand blac ksmiths were beating on their anvils. We looked again and—dear God alive!—the Elector’s men were all down and trampled like a wheat field scoured by a hurricane, and they… the Husaria… were already far beyond them, with lance pennons flickering…”

Sienkiewicz elsewhere describes the Husaria splitting enemy pike and musket formations "like ripe melons." A small (in terms of capital, personnel, or resources) organization can defeat a much larger one through innovative and lean thinking, short cycle times and pure speed. American businesses must embrace this lesson today to defeat offshore competitors that substitute cheap labor pools for lean thinking.

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About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. He is an ASQ-certified quality engineer, quality auditor, quality manager, reliability engineer, and Six Sigma Black Belt, and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford's Universal Code for World-Class Success.