The business book club: Ancient Chinese military strategy offers key lessons on deploying OSH forces

CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS

The years between 722 and 481 BCE are known in Chinese history as the spring and autumn periods.

A region of seven nations was engaged in constant warfare. Sun Tzu was a general under King Helu and proved an effective strategist.

He wrote Art of War as a guide for military officers planning strategy. Sun Tzu saw war as a form of art, requiring thought, vision and dexterity.

Today, though, we might reclassify his approach as the “science of war” as he strips back and analyses the factors to consider when engaging an enemy.

Whatever could this book have to do with the art and science of safety management?

For centuries, business and military leaders and politicians have thumbed its pages seeking guidance on handling their subordinates and their competitors. Executive education programmes use it to inform modern management. If OSH practitioners are to be more aligned with the business world, this is a great place to start.

Art-of-War_Sun- TzuThe little book – just 70 pages – presents seven key elements that make the difference between success and failure on the battlefield. These include: knowing the enemy; knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses; understanding the physical environment; and the importance of maintaining morale among the troops.

If OSH practitioners are to be more aligned with the business world, this is a great place to start.

The text reveals that smart thinking, strong leadership and clever management of resources provide a solid foundation for success.

Using a metaphorical lens, seeing “combat” and “enemy” as synonyms for risk and accidents, and viewing the workforce as your army, you can use the book as a guide to improving workplace protection.

In the first chapter, Laying plans, Sun Tzu reminds us of the importance of good leadership: “The leader of armies is the arbiter of the people’s fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or peril… The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources”.

The book underlines the importance of culture: “We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country”. On technical knowledge: “He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents [here, think ‘risks’] is sure to be captured by them.” The reader is reminded of the value of critical thinking: “Ponder and deliberate before you make a move”.

But it’s the lessons on people that are perhaps the most salient: “The sight of men whispering together or speaking in subdued tones points to dissatisfaction amongst the rank and file.” And: “Carefully study the wellbeing of your men and do not overtax them.”

There are even reminders on innovation and continuous improvement: “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the variety of circumstances”.

If you are ready to wage war on workplace risk and ensure that your army returns safely at the end of the day, Art of War provides an excellent treatise on thinking carefully before deploying your forces.

A timeless text, and highly recommended before you write your next battle plan.



CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS 

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