about processes and engines


“Method and Routine” is the title of the chapter 4 of the book 2 of Clausewitz On War. It was written between 1816 and 1830, the author was taken away by cholera before he could complete the final revision of this work. Only the first chapter of the first book was considered finished.

I found a few passages in “Method and Routine” that could be put in perspective with business process management / workflow. In our age, it’s common to draw parallels between the conduct of war and the conduct of business, so let me reproduce those passages here. I’m very interested in the rise of ACM and its relation to BPM (see Mastering the Unpredictable), those quotes bring forth valuable reflections (for me at least).

I took them from the excellent Howard and Paret translation, for those of you who read German, here is a link to an online version of the book/chapter.

“Method,” finally, or “mode of procedure”, is a constantly recurring procedure that has been selected from several possibilities. It becomes routine when action is prescribed by method rather than by general principles or individual regulation. It must necessarily be assumed that all cases to which such a routine is applied will be essentially alike. Since this will not be entirely so, it is important that it be true of at least ‘as many as possible’. In other words, methodical procedure should be designed to meet the most probable cases. Routine is not based on definite individual premises, but rather on the ‘average probability’ of analogous cases. Its aim is to postulate an average truth, which, when applied evenly and constantly, will soon acquire some of the nature of a mechanical skill, which eventually does the right thing automatically.

(Routines) As such they may well have a place in the theory of conduct of war, provided they are not falsely represented as absolute, binding frameworks for action (systems); rather they are the best of the general forms, short cuts, and options that may be substituted for individual decisions.

Finally we have to remember that as the number of officers increases steadily in the lower ranks, the less the trust that can be placed on their true insight and mature judgement. Officers whom one should not expect to have any greater understanding than regulations and experience can give them have to be helped along by routine methods tantamount to rules. These will steady their judgment, and also guard them against eccentric and mistaken schemes, which are the greatest menace in a field where experience is so dearly bought.
Routine, apart from its sheer inevitability, also contains one positive advantage. Constant practice leads to brisk, precise, and reliable leadership, reducing natural friction and easing the working of the machine.
In short, routine will be more frequent and indispensable, the lower the level of action. As the level rises, its use will decrease to the point where, at the summit, it disappears completely. Consequently, it is more appropriate to tactics than to strategy.

But any method by which strategic plans are turned out ready-made, as if from some machine, must be totally rejected.

The chapter ends with warning about poverty of imagination and examples where routines where re-used out of context and led to [military] disaster. (Could the re-use of those quotes out of their original context led to [some kind of] disaster ?).

When it comes to strategy and tactics, here is how Clausewitz put it in the same book :

Tactic teaches the use of armed forces in the engagements.
Strategy teaches the use of engagements for the object of war.


Written by John Mettraux

August 6, 2010 at 6:52 am

Posted in acm, books, bpm, workflow

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