Project Management and History (3) – Samurai, 17th century

Today we speak of the most famous Japanese samurai: Miyamoto Musashi.

Better, we speak of his famous book, `A book of five rings´.

You have already heard of this book, probably: it is widely used by Japanese (and not only) managers; there exist many “management” books based on it, usually free interpretations with plenty of even more free commentaries.

At any rate, we are interested in the original, unabridged, uncommented book, the one that has never hinted at some modern “interpretations”.

As a reference, we have used an Italian translation we like: `ll libro dei cinque anelli´, Miyamoto Musashi, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, translated by Cesare Barioli, original title `Gorin-no-sho´.

Obviously, for the newsletter we had to translate some parts into English: we hope we have been good enough at it. Unfortunately, we did not like much the English translations we came by, even if they were undoubtedly of some help in our choice of terms when we tried to apply `Heiho´ to our translation 🙂

Musashi was the greatest of Japanese samurais: after his retirement, he wrote `A book of five rings´: as he wrote in the foreword, `I have applied the enlightenment on Heiho’s [Musashi’s Way] principles to various arts and crafts …´.

We are going to speak of some of these principles.

His foreword ends with `…I just take up the brush and begin to write.´ Practical, and to the point; we like it.

The Way of the artisan

Musashi wrote about four Ways: the third one is the ´Way of the warrior´ but, astonishingly enough, the fourth one (i.e., the most important one in that part of the book) is the `Way of the Artisan´.

He wrote: `To earn his living, a carpenter must take great care in maintaining his various tools and employing them, when necessary, with the maximum skill. He must plan with accurate measures and carry out plans with precision

Astonishingly actual! Shouldn’t the project manager be a professional who knows his tools? First plan accurately, then follow your plan.

We add something else: that sounds like product-based planning. We know this is a modern Prince2 concept, but Musashi was writing about carpenters and `accurate measures´: at that time, carpenters produced products, not chatters – better, they could chatter if they wanted, but never forget that Musashi killed at least sixty men.

The Way of the carpenter and the `Big project´

Musashi compared the Way of the carpenter to Heiho: `This comparison is even more valid as the word “carpenter” is written with Chinese ideograms whose meaning is “big project”, and the principles of the art of war, too, are a “big project”.´

This is really interesting and not present in the English translations we don’t like.

Not only are plans taken in great respect by Musashi, but also the original meaning of carpenter (Musashi always speaks of carpenters building a house) is `big project´.

If you have read the piece on ancient China (newsletter nr. 2), you already know how advanced the Chinese were in the project management field; now, we have a confirmation that “project” in our acceptation of the term is a very – very old concept indeed.

Building a house was truly a big endeavour; we must now quote a sentence Musashi wrote almost immediately before the afore-mentioned sentence: `In speaking of houses, we say “house of nobles”, “house of warriors”, …´

We are speaking of true houses here, not of makeshift things.

Adapt and win

`… the commander is the master-carpenter who must know everything related to the tools he is going to use, the nature of terrain, the special tastes of the owner he is building the house for. Such is the task of the master-carpenter. He studies temples’ proportions, palaces’ plans and builds houses for the people.´

This is very interesting, indeed: contrary to what we have done in our previous historical flashes, Musashi uses an example from civil life and applies it to the military; it would seem certain rules are definitely universal. At any rate, a professional should plan and draw sound plans, that is clear.

Besides, marines would probably say `Adapt and winIt doesn’t matter how well you know your craft, you must adapt to the local situation.

How to manage a “big project” without forgetting your men

`In the construction of houses, choice of woods is made. Straight un-knotted

timber of good appearance is used for external pillars, […]  Even the timber which is too knotted, crooked or weak is used as scaffolding and in the end as firewood.´

Everything finds its place in the project. Mind, everything that is at hand, even what would usually be discarded: a good lesson for contemporary project managers, often complaining because they are not given the best-of-the best. Btw, Musashi killed many swordsmen with a wooden sword – theirs were made of steel.

`In employing his men, the master-carpenter must take into account the skills of each of them and allot tasks accordingly …[…] In short, one makes the best use of the personnel he has to do the best job.´

The same as above applied to men. When will many contemporary project managers understand this? Complaining about not having the right specialists (they never seem to be the right ones) and claiming that only the “right team”, maybe built according to contemporary psychological fads, could do the job is not project management – but this is just our opinion … and Musashi’s.

`To work fast and well, nothing is left to chance: it is necessary to know where and how to use something, and when; to encourage your men and understand the limitations of everyone

Project management isn’t just planning. Besides, ´nothing is left to chance´: isn’t it a wonderful definition of project management?

The job needs to be performed fast and well. When will this lesson be understood? Fast and well does not mean “I want it for yesterday”, nor does it entail doing the job … you must do it well!

Soft skills? In the end, then as well as now, all can be summed up in `encourage your men and understand the limitations of everyone´.

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