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The High Cost of Ignoring Standard Work

By Jon Miller Updated on May 23rd, 2017


This June marked the 200th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon by Wellington at Waterloo, which effectively ended his career as a military and political leader. Reading Andrew Roberts’ excellent book Napoleon: A Life, it became apparent that it was in fact Napoleon who defeated Napoleon at the battle Waterloo. Therein lies an important lesson for lean leaders.

Napoleon is considered a military genius, making innovations in how troops were organized and deployed, with an emphasis on mobility, flexibility and striking decisive blows. He had a brilliant military mind that could adapt flexibly to emerging opportunities and threats in ways that his opponent generals could not anticipate or adapt to easily. What was also important was that he codified his brilliant military practices into what are known as the 78 military maxims of Napoleon. While many of these built on ideas of past military leaders he studied, they formed the foundation of a repeatable process of military operation.

The beginning of the end for many successful people, especially leaders, comes when they begin to think that they are brilliant, rather than that they are successful because of fortunate circumstances or because they are following brilliant processes. Napoleon was self aware concerning how fortune’s wheel turned, but he was less self aware of the importance of checking adherence to his own maxims. There is a danger when following standards that it becomes second nature, routine, because we lose some degree of self-awareness. We get into a flow and believe we are smarter or more capable than we are, when in fact we are merely executing brilliant processes competently, keeping eyes open to good fortune and staying out of our own way. All three are necessary, and not always easy.

Returning to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Roberts writes that when the battle of Waterloo is wargamed, Napoleon’s army defeat the forces lead by Wellington every time. The French forces had many advantages. Had Napoleon properly executed his average, rather than mistaken-ridden military operation, he would have emerged victorious. What is more unfortunate is that the errors he made were not failing to cope with surprises, but rather predictable ones that he had developed maxims to protect against. Roberts writes, that Napolen’s defeat at Waterloo (as well as the disaster of the earlier Russian campaign) were “…the result of Napoleon not following his own military maxims.” These errors included splitting his forces, positioning his troops to his enemy’s advantage, believing the battle was going better than it was and not sending out reconnaissance, remaining too long in one place, and delaying his attack on Wellington by hours thus allowing Prussian reinforcements to arrive. Napoleon was not following his own standard work, and this cost him dearly.

We can only speculate as to why his judgment failed him at Waterloo. It’s a puzzle why he resorted to judgment at all rather than falling back on his maxims, his standard work. There is some speculation that he was exhausted at this point, not in the best physical condition and perhaps ill. He had just fought his way back to power from exile on the island of Elba, had fewer friends and confidants than at any prior point in his career, and a potbelly. He was in his late forties rather than a young man in his late twenties. Yet these are the types of realities that all leaders must face at some point. I believe Napoleon’s greatest failing was in not having a conscious system to check that he was following his own standards, taking his own advice, acting based on his maxims. Instead, his exhausted body tricked his brilliant mind into taking deadly shortcuts.

There are lessons here for the lean leader. First, create and maintain standards, maxims, or guidelines of what to do or what not to do in critical circumstances, based on best knowledge and experience. Second, have a system to check that the standard work or maxims have been referenced as guidelines to the work being done. Third, have a system to check yourself, to take note when not behaving as your “standard self” and judgment is affected by feeling ill, confused, stressed, optimistic or confident. Napoleon failed these two at Waterloo. Finally, make it safe for colleagues and lieutenants to challenge the leader’s decision when she is failing to adhere to her maxims. By Waterloo, Napoleon had lost many of his trusted field marshal who could have helped to prevent or correct his errors. Whether because he was blinded by confidence, mentally and physically exhausted or simply forgetful, Napoleon failed to adhere to his standard work at Waterloo and for that he paid a very high price.

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