On Sheet – The Art of Operations

On Sheet – The Art of Operations

o I’m reading Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War. The applications of this are very interesting – just about every management style, political book or hobby how-to (from archery to gardening) makes an interpretation of The Art into their aspect. So let’s take the opening description, the rule atop all other rules, and apply it to hosting an operations session. After all, in this regard, you (as the host) are “the general” and your operators are your troops. And let me say that I apologize for any miss-interpretations in advance. I’m not that good a Taoist.

So, the primary rule states that the five fundamentals of war (and life, the universe and everything) are: The Way, Heaven, Earth, Command, and Discipline.  To quote The Way:


The Way
Causes men
to be of one mind
with their rulers,
To live and die with them,
And to never waver.

My thought here is that The Way refers to the overall effort of the op session. Is everyone committed to doing it and taking it seriously? Is everyone willing to face whatever maintenance and operational problems the group might encounter? Is everyone going to stay for the whole session, from briefing to debriefing? Will people take their conversations into the crew lounge and be respectful of those trying to work (or being in the zone of operations)? Are you a team of operators or just a bunch of guys running trains?

Heaven is
Yin and Yang
Hot and Cold
The cycle of seasons

So, Heaven is the physical elements of the room. Is the temperature right? Are the aisles wide enough? Is there seating for those with weak legs? Is everything laid out logically, within reach, so as not to detract from your session?

Earth is
Height and depth,
Distance and proximity,
Ease and danger,
Open and confined ground,
Life and death.

In The Art of War, Earth refers to the ground on which the battle will be fought. In our application, we’re looking at the layout itself. Does it represent a coal hauler line threading through the mountains? Or a high-speed Midwestern intermodal route? Is there a bottleneck someplace? Is there an active yard where the session can bog down? You probably want your layout to convey the pace and scale of operations that appeals to you and which works as a living history to your guests. My two layouts are night and day to each other: My Cuesta Grade is mostly passenger service down the Central California valley in 1954. My Tuscarora microlayout is a small town on a coal branch in 1962. They run totally differently, and were designed to do so.

Command is

Clearly, as a host, you must possess all the Command traits. I’ve run under hosts who freak out or moan about every little thing. And I’ve run with hosts who just turn on the layout and then yack with operators and don’t keep things moving. All of these sessions were failures. You need to set expectations and keep everything on the rails. You also need to take suggestions and give instructions. Even if the session falls apart and you have to abort it, how you handle this determines if everyone comes back for the next one. The session is yours to lose.

Discipline is
Chain of Command,
Control of Expenditure.

If you’ve ever run on a Disciplined layout, you know what a joy it is. Nobody argues because everyone understands their role in the Great Game. There aren’t long arguments on what needs to be done – there are no arguments at all. If you are stuck waiting on a siding, you know there is a reason for it – you don’t bang on the dispatcher’s door and scream about the delay. Everyone runs in a tight formation, doing their jobs in focused fashion. In fact, I’ve always felt that if you are a truly good operator, all the jobs around you go better for those other crews. You realign your own turnouts. You help rerail cars another person can’t reach. You answer questions to new crewmembers to save the host from doing it.

If you do all these things as a host, you’ll have no problems getting crews, no matter how large or small your layout is. And if you are an operator, you’ll be on the A-list crew call and have more session invites than you know what to do with.

Okay, I’m done with this loopy new-age piece. It was just something I thought of on a walk after reading Tzu’s book. Next week, back to the nuts and bolts of operations!