What the Civil War can teach us about Operational Excellence

There’s a phenomenal set of books called The Civil War:  A Narrative, by historian Shelby Foote. It’s a fascinating analysis of the struggle to reunite the states and end slavery between 1861-1865.  It is one of the first wars to be clearly documented via telegraph posts, personal letters, and photography and tells an excellent story around operational excellence (or lack thereof).

What always struck me reading Foote’s account was the consistency with which battles played out.   Whether we review the Battle of Gettysburg, Second Bull Run, or conflicts in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the narrative is pretty much the same.  Generals would devise a complex plan to out-flank their opponent, drive troops at a point of vulnerability, and ultimately control the battlefield.

Yet inevitably, these plans went awry. Or as Foote would say, “…and then everything went wrong…”  You see, as soon as plans were put in action, communications broke down, entire divisions got lost, and troops mistook each other for the enemy.  In short, Civil War battles were pretty much chaos.

Lessons in Operational Excellence for Today’s Business Environment

It’s amazing to think all of this occurred just 150 years ago.  It was an era where there were no cars, no electricity, no radios. Transportation was by train, horse, and on foot. Communication was by (sporadic) telegraph, hand-carried letter, and spoken word.  In short, it was a time technologically closer to the Dark Ages than the present day.

What can business leaders today learn from this well-documented, but technically primitive war? That plans have no meaning if they can’t be executed.  Military leaders invested huge amounts of time crafting the perfect battle plan.  Yet, they lacked the visibility and coordination mechanisms to carry them out and achieve the desired result by leveraging operational excellence. The plan they put on paper could not be effectively completed.

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Business leaders today operate in environments not dissimilar from battle.  They have objectives (to win), plans, and resources.

Luckily for us, we live in a different era.  We can issue dispatches with a click of a mouse.  We can get information instantaneously.  We live in a digital, connected age.

Yet, I’d argue there’s still a gap leveraging our current, information-age technology to make these leaders more successful than those Foote chronicled so well. For example, a recent survey conducted by Clarizen indicates even with current technology, managers spend more time preparing status updates than they actually do executing their plans. Sound familiar?

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The time is ripe to take the best current technology and make it more relevant to the business challenge of achieving results leading great teams of people.

The time is right for Results Management Systems (RMS) that maximize visibility and coordination to help leaders reach their objectives and achieve true operational excellence.

Let me know your thoughts on the matter!

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Meagan M. Flores
Meagan M. Flores
Meagan M. Flores is the Vice President of Marketing for AchieveIt. A genuine 'problem-solver', when Meagan isn't nose-down in the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, you can find her leveraging her expertise spanning early stage startups to mature growth enterprises to comment trends and best practices related to strategy development and execution, leadership and revenue marketing.