Perfecting the Shift Change: Lessons from Olympic Track & Field

The United States men's and women's track and field teams are generally considered to be among the best in the world.  Some of the greatest Olympians of all time are US track athletes, including Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Florence Griffith Joyner, and Carl Lewis.  

So it was no surprise heading into the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing that both the US men's and women's track and field squads were expected to perform well. But things didn't exactly go according to expectations that year. And in order for this year's Rio competitors to prevent history from repeating itself, there are some lessons to take away from those that came before them.

Among the most compelling events in track and field is the 400-meter relay because it interjects the element of the team into a sport that is typically highly individualistic.  On the men's side, there was little doubt from prognosticators that the US team would medal.  The question was whether they could beat the Jamaican team led by 100-meter world record holder Usain Bolt.  The women were also expected to medal and compete with their Jamaican counterparts for the gold.

Unfortunately, in a shocking turn of events, neither the men's nor women's teams even made it to the final because they both made the same crucial mistake... failing to properly pass the baton.

The baton pass is the "X-Factor" in a relay event.  If executed well, a relay team that may lack a bit in overall speed can outperform its faster rivals.  If executed poorly (or improperly), there is little hope of winning and a high likelihood of disqualification.  What's interesting is that despite its importance, the baton pass is often not practised with a high degree of frequency.  The reason is that most of the competitors in the relay event are too busy preparing for their individual events to devote much time to working together.  So when asked to function as a team, the lack of practice in performing increases the probability of failure.

There's an interesting parallel between the baton pass in a relay event and the shift change process that many manufacturing and healthcare organizations need to effectively navigate their work each and every day.  Namely, the process by which organizations transition job assignments and communicate critical information from one shift to another is crucial to the effectiveness of the operation.  Yet many organizations don't have a standard, disciplined process for how the proverbial baton gets passed from outgoing to incoming personnel, which can result in missed assignments, lost productivity, or poor customer/patient outcomes.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, healthcare providers are taking a fresh look at how shift changes are managed with a particular focus on how to involve the patients and their families in the process:

"When nurses aren’t in the room for the handover, patients not only fall more often but also may have problems with intravenous lines or urinary catheters. And there is no opportunity for patients and family members to ask questions, state concerns or convey their own goals.

In contrast, bedside reporting helps improve patients’ ratings of their hospital experience at a time when Medicare is linking some payments to quality measures including how well hospitals score on patient satisfaction surveys."

In manufacturing, an effective shift change is important to overall productivity but, more importantly, as a matter of employee safety.  So what needs to happen to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the shift change process?  Here are a few tips:

1. Optimize both the one-on-one shift handover and the team-based start of shift meeting

The one-on-one shift handover is necessary to ensure that specific job assignments are effectively transitioned.  The start of shift meeting exists to coordinate the activities of the oncoming shift-based team and make everyone aware of operational priorities or threats that may impact their work.  We typically recommend that the start of shift meeting is a "stand up" activity in front of a visual board and that it follow a standard agenda to drive efficiency and ensure that critical details are always covered.

2. Clarify roles & responsibilities

It's particularly important to specify who should be the team leads for the oncoming and outgoing shifts and what responsibilities they have in supervising the shift change.  These responsibilities may include making job assignments, assigning action items, running the shift change meeting, and escalating operational issues to department management.

3. Implement a disciplined shift log process

It's impossible to communicate every relevant detail about what happened on a previous shift to oncoming personnel, so maintaining a detailed log that can be used to support shift change and referred to afterwards is crucial.  The medium for logging critical details (i.e., electronic vs. paper) will vary based on industry and other factors and needs to be considered relative to other repositories where critical information is stored (e.g., medical records database, distributed control system, maintenance management system, etc.) but what's crucial is that personnel are held accountable for documenting critical information that supports a seamless transition from one shift to the next.

Finally, the shift change process must be documented, communicated, and regularly assessed everywhere in the organization where shift work is performed.  By documenting your critical standards, deploying them anywhere in the organization will be significantly faster, and easier. From there, you can assess maturity, and implement a work plan to improve.  

In fact one of our own clients, Milk Specialties Global deployed their enterprise quality management system using EON to document, standardize, and assess everything along the way. The business value they found was tremendous, and they're only just beginning.

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EON Team

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