The True Value of Standard Work: Lessons from Olympic Swimmers

As I'm sure you know, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games are off to a great start.  I know I'm not the only one who gets excited to watch the world's premier athletes compete at the highest level for the right to say that they're the best at what they do. The diverse array of events is a great attraction as it offers the opportunity to reconnect with sports like gymnastics, track & field, and swimming, that aren't necessarily ingrained into our nation's consciousness, and for sports like basketball and golf that do have greater resonance, the Olympics are compelling because the athletes we know are now performing in an entirely different context.

For me, one truism that the Olympics reinforces is that people behave differently in a competitive environment.  Healthy competition is a huge motivator... it can drive people to advance beyond their perceived limits, innovate their approach, and subjugate their egos in order to win.  

I'm reminded of some of the great Olympic moments of all time, such as Rulon Gardner's victory in Greco-Roman wrestling over Alexander Karelin, who had not lost a match in 13 years.  Or speed skater Dan Jansen finally winning a gold medal 10 years after his Olympic debut and following the death of his sister.  Or the 1992 men's basketball "Dream Team," which required some of the greatest basketball players of all time to become mere "role players" in service to the team.

Competing for Excellence

Of course, the sports world isn't the only environment characterized by competition.  The business world fits that mold as well, yet many organizations don't seem to operate as if that's the case. The desire to improve, the urgency to change, the willingness to function as a team... these attributes are sometimes lacking in many companies.  So perhaps there are a few lessons that those of us who compete for customers, shareholders, and talent can learn from the amazing athletes competing at this summer's Olympic Games.

Over the next few weeks we'll be publishing a series of blog posts examining different Olympic sports with an eye toward a key lesson that those of us who are charged with advancing operational excellence can apply to our own organizations.  We're making an effort to challenge OpEx leaders to be more innovative in their approach to overcoming the perpetual barriers to OpEx effectiveness; lack of scale and lack of sustainability.

My encouragement to anybody involved with operational excellence and continuous improvement is to enjoy the Olympics for what they are, but also consider their applicability to your environment and use them as motivation to drive effort and innovation and teamwork within your organization.

The first Olympic event we'll be focusing on is the one that is arguably one of the more popular ones to watch: Swimming. 


Why is it so popular? It's most likely due to the success of US swimmers like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Katie Ledecky, all three of whom have already won medals in Rio.  Most Americans know that swim events vary based primarily on two criteria; distance (i.e., 50 meters, 100 meters, etc.) and stroke (e.g., backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, etc.).  Perhaps the best-known swim stroke is call "freestyle," which typically involves the swimmer gliding face down across the top of the water through a combination of flutter kicks and an alternating "arm over arm" motion.  

What many casual fans don’t realize is that the swimmers in a freestyle event can actually swim any stroke of their choosing.  They don’t have to use that familiar face down, arm over arm swimming motion. 


So why is it that all Olympic swimmers use the same motion for the freestyle events when they don’t have to?  Why don’t some swimmers use the butterfly or the breaststroke or some other technique?


The answer is simple; they all use the same stroke because that stroke has proven time and time again to be the fastest way for a human being to move across the water.  It’s become “the standard” that all freestyle swimmers follow to get the best possible time.  

Similar to freestyle swimming, standard work exists to align all employees on the best way to perform a task, or set of tasks, that are important to business operations.  In industries that rely upon generating consistent, repeatable outcomes, variability is the enemy.  When employees the same tasks in different ways, the greater the likelihood of mistakes. 

In the book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, he documents his effort to reduce patient care error rates in hospitals.  He introduced simple checklists for surgical teams to use when caring for their patients.  The purpose of these checklists was to make sure that the surgical team remembered to execute all of their standard procedures. Here are some of the results:

  • When introductions were made within the surgical team before the surgery as required by the checklist, complications and deaths dropped by 35%

  • Line infection rates in one hospital dropped from 11% to 0% following the implementation of these checklists

  • Similarly, line infection rates in another hospital dropped by 66% for the same reason

What this data shows is that, when implemented correctly, standard work improves key outcomes by minimizing the variability associated with human error or different approaches to the same activities.

Standard Work vs. Innovation

How is the workforce supposed to innovate if the organization is always pushing them toward standardization?  Doesn't standard work turn employees into robots who are discouraged from using their professional judgment or working toward a better solution?

While at one level this logic makes sense, the reality is quite the opposite... standard work actually creates a solid foundation upon which proper innovation can happen because the opportunities to innovate are illuminated by current standards. 

Take Dan Fosbury, for example. He pioneered the "Fosbury Flop" technique for the High Jump, and that is now the standard technique for all world class high jumpers.  What's important to know is that the reason why Fosbury changed his technique in the first place was because he recognized that he would not be successful by doing it the "standard way."  In other words, by initially following the existing standard and comparing his results to his peers it became apparent that he would need to innovate in order to compete.

The same is true in business.  Standard work helps to eliminate variability and achieve more consistent outcomes.  But when the outcomes generated by standard work are no longer sufficient to meet evolving customer expectations, accommodate changing regulatory requirements, or differentiate from competitors, then the need to innovate becomes abundantly clear.  On the other hand, in an environment that doesn't have entrenched standard work it's virtually impossible to decipher whether existing processes are actually sufficient but simply inconsistently applied, or truly insufficient and therefore need to be innovated.

Conversely, standard work serves as the vehicle to systematize innovation in the enterprise. There's perhaps nothing more frustrating to a business leader than finding out that one part of the business has failed to implement an innovation that was pioneered elsewhere.  One reason why this happens is a lack of knowledge sharing within the enterprise, but in many cases it's less a knowledge management issue and more an inability to fully implement the new standard work that should have been generated as a result of the innovation.


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EON Team

The EON Platform team works tirelessly to write content that provides valuable, actionable insights.