Business Perspectives

November 17, 2011

Businesses can learn from Patton’s successes

Back in the early 1990s while heading out on a business trip, I picked up a book titled “War As I Knew It,” which was the autobiography of General George S. Patton.

Back in the early 1990s while heading out on a business trip, I picked up a book titled “War As I Knew It,” which was the autobiography of General George S. Patton.

It was first published in 1947 – two years after his death – and was taken from his personal journals and diaries during World War II. After reading it, I became intrigued with Patton and over the next 20 years conducted my own research, learning more about the man, his leadership style, philosophies and accomplishments. I was amazed at how he took young, inexperienced and undisciplined troops and in a very short period of time led them to victories in North Africa, Sicily, France and the Battle of the Bulge.

Patton was one of the most successful Allied leaders of World War II, and we can learn from his success. Patton realized the critical need for an organizational vision and the benefit of a well-thought-out, resourced, communicated and executed plan.

This is clearly illustrated with his victory in December 1944 at the Battle of Bulge. In the midst of a winter storm, he pulled his Third Army out of their eastward drive toward Germany, turned it 90 degrees north and within a couple of days had travelled more than 100 miles, rescuing the Allied forces pinned down at Bastogne. Patton and his team successfully developed and implemented their plan.

For the past 20 years, I have been conducting turnarounds for mid- to large-sized businesses. Typically these turnaround scenarios are the same: Cash flow and on-time delivery are poor; inventory and overtime are high; quality is low; and the customers, suppliers and employees are frustrated. In general, I find that these organizations got themselves into these situations through the lack of a vision and comprehensive strategic plan. The plan may have existed, but was sitting on a shelf in the president’s office collecting dust and was never really communicated or implemented.

As a result, the employees had no idea as to the company’s destination and direction, or the plan as to how it was going to get there. It was a ship without a rudder floating aimlessly at sea. When I ask the employees of these troubled organizations to define the company strategy, I am met with, “We have to make the month,” meaning they were tasked with only one objective: to meet the monthly sales goal. Putting the focus on only making shipments drives the wrong behaviors and gets the organization in trouble.

What I’ve learned in my research on Patton and my experience with business turnarounds is that there are strong similarities between conducting a military operation and running a successful business. To be successful in both environments, it is critical to have a firm understanding of where the organization is going and how it is going to get there. You need a plan.

Patton believed this, and it is just as important in today’s business world. For a business to successfully move forward, this strategy or plan needs to be well communicated and aligned with supporting departmental actions coupled with strong leadership to maintain the course and drive the accountabilities in its execution.

In a military operation, if these elements are missing, then the battle is lost. In business, if these fundamental elements are missing, then we end up making poor decisions that result in generating excess cost and inventory, inhibiting production and limiting quality, and we end up with unhappy customers. We, too, lose the battle.

There is a lot to be learned from Patton. By following his basic and fundamental philosophy for the need of an organizational vision and a well communicated and comprehensive plan, those of us in business can also be successful.

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