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Blog Posted in avatar   kyle toppazzini's Blog

Olympic Athletes and Lean Six Sigma-What do They Have in Common?

By kyle toppazzini
Posted Aug 6, 2012 in Business
Already halfway through the 2012 London Olympics, I, along with millions of viewers, have been glued to the TV watching our favourite athletes compete. These are all the best of the best athletes on the planet competing for their own nations. How could they not be the best role model if I want to learn more about performance for a company? We, advocates of Lean Six Sigma, always proclaim that Lean Six Sigma is one of the best tools to be used to enhance a company’s performance. Not that I have doubts about it; but I wanted to use this blog as a platform to discuss if-and-how the tools used by Olympic athletes are similar to Lean Six Sigma.
At a high level, I observed a couple of similarities between the two:
1-Focus on Performance Metrics
An Olympic athlete takes a disciplined approach in training so that they can put their best game forward on the day of the Olympic games. For many (if not all) athletes, performance metrics are one of the most critical tools at his/her disposal. A sprinter, for example, will set timing goals and will keep track of every run that he/she conducts. He/she will practice the run thousands of times with a focus of obtaining the goal set.
The athletes will have many meets to run and prepare for their Olympic race. They continue to adjust their timing goals and to improve his or her times in order to beat their competition. Not only are the runners likely to time the entire run, they may decide to time certain portions of the run, e.g. the first 10 meters to ensure that they have a great start or the last leg of the race.
Similar to Lean Six Sigma, it is a process improvement framework with a focus on performance metrics. When implementing Lean Six Sigma, companies put in place key performance measures for the entire process and key areas within the process. Key performance measures may include through-put time, cycle time, and processing time (along with quality and cost measures).
Also in the Lean Six Sigma engagement, targets will be put in place for the company to meet, and these targets will be periodically adjusted, if needed. Like the Olympic athletes, the company will adjust and improve its targets in order to keep up and beat its competitors.
2-Focus On Continuous Improvement
An Olympic athlete is constantly striving to achieve breakthrough performance. He/she continually refines his/her methods and techniques in search of that magic formula that may result in a gold medal at the Olympics.
In an article written by Wayne Goldsmith, one of Australia’s leading thinkers on sport (, Goldsmith talks about what is required to win and win again as an Olympic athlete, i.e. to win at more than one Olympic games. Goldsmith states, “To get to the top required the athlete to make significant change, to dare to be different, to innovate, to take a new and different direction to their competitors to find a competitive advantage; then once they found it, inexplicably they lost their commitment for change and continuous improvement.”
In fact, you can find countless examples of the importance of continuous improvement as a critical success factor for Olympic athletes, e.g. from athletes’ diet, training and design of their equipment.
Comparing to a Lean Six sigma engagement, a continuous improvement process will often be put in place to assist the organization and its employees to continuously delivering superior results. Continuous improvement is not a one-time event but a process for ongoing improvement that is constantly taking place by every employee.
For an Olympic athlete, no continuous improvement will take place without the athlete being closely involved as he/she is the sole person who can provide input into what works well and why. The same is true for an organization, ongoing process improvement will less likely to happen without the involvement of its employees.
Closing Thoughts
Aside from the two similarities discussed above, tools used by Olympics athletes and Lean Six share a lot more similarities. The next time you are watching or reading about the Olympic athletes, think about the examples I have provided, think about how those athletes became best of the best, and think how you can use this information to make your company the best.