Sun Tzu and the Art of Engineering
By Tamara Wilhite
Before Sun Tzu’s treatises on professional generals, most societies simply
assigned leadership of the army to the senior most royalty or nobleman. With the
definition of a general as its own profession came the refinement of the
profession and distillation of the wisdom to a set of text books. Sun Tzu’s call for
a specific profession of generals was based upon the realization that specialists
alone have the skills and expertise for certain situations, due to the fact that they
have the time to study and refine their specialized skills.
Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” contains many precepts specific to resource allocation
for military forces. However, it also has ideas on management of soldiers, loyalty
building, intelligence gathering and personal realization. There are now books
based upon Sun Tzu’s concepts on everything from modern warfare to
marketing, from martial arts to computer games. His specialized advice has been
broadly applied to many areas. It has been democratized as it has been
Does this mean that the profession of the general is no longer needed? No. We
still need the specialists. Why?
Only the specialists have the time to refine techniques and the redefine the
methodologies of the specialized knowledge. Only the specialists can update time
tested knowledge to changing circumstances and knowledge. Furthermore, only
specialists have the continuous and in depth experience within the expertise to
apply the concepts of the profession to a wide range of circumstances. Thus the
distribution and democratization of concepts within Sun Tzu has revitalized many
areas, but it has not eliminated the need for the specialists within the art of War.
The same concept applies to industrial engineering, Six Sigma, lean sigma and
other IE principles. While the distribution of these concepts has allowed many lay
people to apply those principles to their workplaces, it has not eliminated the
need for specialists. While a human resource professional may apply lean sigma
to their hiring process for contractors, their focus and continued learning will
overwhelming be within human resources, not lean process improvement. Six
Sigma training of line operators can lead to brainstorming sessions with
hundreds of solutions to decrease defects or cycle time; however, the complex
implementation or cost-benefit analysis may not be in their skill set. Only the
specialists have the specific expertise in the art of industrial engineering to apply
the methodology to any circumstance.
The democratization of industrial engineering concepts has served to raise
awareness of the profession and its expertise. However, as the Art of War has
not eliminated the need for generals, application of Six Sigma and Deming’s
quality standards have not eliminated the need for the specialists in the Art of
About the Author:
Tamara Wilhite is a six sigma green belt, professional technical writer, and has
over 1000 articles in print. She is the Institute of Industrial Engineer’s “IE in IT”
blogger, covering industrial engineering and process improvement topics within
the IT field. Tamara Wilhite is also the author of “Humanity’s Edge”, “Sirat:
Through the Fires of Hell”, and “Saving Money, Time, Sanity and Yourself”.
Tamara Wilhite's frugal living articles have been published in "The Dollar
Stretcher" and "Capitalist Chicks".