The Way of the Sumo Wrestler
The application of just the right amount of force in just the right place to throw a four-hundred–pound wrestler to the ground. The slow wearing away at a fault line between two geological plates that suddenly results in a vigorous shaking of the earth. The one or two harpoons that tire out a sixty-foot, forty-ton whale so that it can be killed by a precisely directed lance thrust. These are the ways of the Sumo Wrestler.
Sumo is a traditional Japanese martial art that really does resemble an earthquake. Two inconceivably massive tectonic plates in loincloths and strange hair-knobs push up against each other, the tension building until it is suddenly released and one of the wrestlers shakes the stadium by falling to the ground. (Actually, a wrestler can win either by pushing his opponent out of the ring or by making his opponent hit the ground with anything but his feet.) Here’s the subtlety: if you push too hard, your opponent might simply yield, and you’ll go flying. If you don’t push hard enough, then your opponent will push you and you’ll go flying.
A sumo match can be a delicate balancing of forces, where each wrestler is trying to find exactly the right moment to apply exactly the right amount of force to exactly the right place to get the opponent off balance. Our ally the Sumo Wrestler meets bureaucracy head-on and pushes with the just the right strength at just the right point to win the match.
- Refocus on Objectives: The Sumo Wrestler remedies buraeaucracies dysfunction of focusin on the rules rather then the ends by realigning rules and roles to support real objectives.
- Never Waste and Emergency: The difference between what you can do in a crisis and what you can do on normal days is, more or less, your bureaucratic waste.
- Call and Raise the Bureaucracy: Fight bureaucracy with bureaucracy by using it’s own rules against it.
- Read the Fine Print: If you become an expert in the rules, you’ll find ways to be creative within their constraints, and you can bond with the enforcers over a discussion of the finer points of the law.
- Redefine Quality: Create your own definition of quality that you can map to any framework you must comply with—then enforce your definition rather than theirs.
- Show Success: When things are going poorly, the bureaucratic trolls come out of their caves. When things are going well, they stay home and barbecue spherical cows. A good way to escape costly scrutiny is to be successful.
- Listen to the Bureaucracy: Just as with any new product design, we needed to get feedback from our “customers” on how well it is working for them, and adjust based on what they tell us.
- Reduce Risk and Increase Controls!: The Sumo Wrestler outbids the bureaucracy by substituting lean controls that are even more risk mitigating than the old ones.
User’s Guide to the Sumo Wrestler
A bureaucracy is a huge immovable object—a leviathan, a tectonic plate, a fourhundred- pound guy in a loincloth. The Sumo Wrestler uses bureaucracy’s force against it; he finds a small leverage point and applies force right there. Where does the bureaucracy have weaknesses?
- It’s risk averse, but is maximizing its risk.
- It loves formal ceremony, so it may be amenable to new formal ceremony.
- It can panic when something bad occurs and open itself up to new ideas that let it declare that it has addressed the problem.
- It is probably not serving its own guardians well; that is, its rules and processes may be inconsistent with what the people in authority actually want or are tasked with.
- It has little to say about success, since it’s oriented toward avoiding failure, so success can allow one to move more freely.
- Because of its commitment to the rules, someone with expertise in the rules can often take advantage of overlooked or reinterpretable rules to cause change.