Continuous Improvement – Samurai Style


Ever since I saw the movie “Ghost Dog” I’ve had a bit of a fascination with the “Way of the Samurai”. You name it – I like everything from books on Bushido to Kurosawa movies. One of my favorite reads is the Hagakure, a collection of philosophy and principles as they applied to the Samurai. I love the purity of purpose and dedication that is embodied in “The Way”. The following quote caught my attention today:

“In one’s life, there are levels in the pursuit of study. In the lowest level, a person studies but nothing comes of it, and he feels that both he and others are unskillful. At this point he is worthless. In the middle level he is still useless but is is aware of his own insufficiencies and can also see the insufficiencies of others. In a higher level he has pride concerning his own ability, rejoices in praise from others, and laments the lack of ability in his fellows. This man has worth. In the highest level a man has the look of knowing nothing.

These are the levels in general. But there is one transcending level, and this is the most excellent of all. This person is aware of the endlessness of entering deeply into a certain Way and never thinks of himself as having finished. He truly knows his own insufficiencies and never in his whole life thinks that he has succeeded. He has no thoughts of pride but with self-abasement knows the Way to the end. It is said that Master Yagyu once remarked, “I do not know the way to defeat others, but the way to defeat myself.”

Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never ending.”

Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo translated by William Scott Wilson

The notion of “levels” that he talks about in this passage reminds me of the notion of Shu Ha Ri. I like the notion of levels in the Hagakure better. After all, in a project oriented world we can’t help but find our selves repeating the same thing over and over, never truly finishing our work. This notion of levels helps me to put it all in some sort of perspective.

It even occurs to me that you could map this notion of levels to the Dreyfus Model of skill acquisition:

Hagakuri Dreyfus
Unskillful/Useless Beginner
Unskillful/Aware Advanced Beginner
Worthy/Proud Competent
Knowing Nothing Proficient
Never Succeeded Expert

Of course the final paragraph brings in the notion of continous improvement. The Japanese must be the all time champions of continuous improvement. It seems it is built right into their culture. I don’t have anything really profound to add to all of this – I just wanted to hilight some of the diverse influences behind our modern notions of continuous improvement and Agility in general. It seems we are only rediscovering what some have known for a very long time.

2 Responses to Continuous Improvement – Samurai Style

  1. Thank you for this great passage. I like the way the first 3 levels pass judgment on others and then at some point there is a realization that understanding yourself is the “Way”.

    I sometimes find it interesting when I go back to visit family and some of my elders will sit with a look that I can’t quite understand. It shows a certain inquisitiveness in what is going on around them yet does not pass judgment and rarely renders a response. Yet there are times that they speak and I know that they know much more than I.

  2. […] Tom Perry takes a passage from the “Way of the Samurai” and relates the text with continuous improvement in this article. […]

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