How Lean Practices Mirror Olympic Training

How Lean Practices Mirror Olympic Training

How Lean Practices Mirror Olympic Training

Daniel Penn - How to...

By Tony Rodriguez, President, Daniel Penn Associates, LLC

Striving for Perfection

Your company’s Lean and continuous improvement teams drive organizational growth and excellence. While their critical role may often go unnoticed, these teams share traits with the world’s most elite athletes. Like Olympians, they demonstrate dedication, strategic thinking, and relentless pursuit of perfection. By digging into these parallels, we can better appreciate Lean teams’ impact, fostering pride and recognition for their contributions.

Goal setting

Both Olympic and Lean teams start with a clear vision and end goal. These goals provide motivation and direction, ensuring everyone knows what they are working towards. In Lean, company teams set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) objectives to achieve their goals. For instance, a manufacturing team might aim to reduce production defects by 20% within three months. This clear objective guides their improvement efforts and keeps everyone focused.

US Olympics Basketball Team

One notable example of a U.S. Olympic team using SMART goals to achieve gold is the U.S. Men’s Basketball team (The “Redeem Team”) during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After a disappointing bronze medal finish in the 2004 Athens Olympics, the team set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals to reclaim their dominance in international basketball.

Specific: Win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Objective: Improve team chemistry and defensive skills.

Measurable: Achieve an average winning margin of at least 20 points per game throughout the tournament.

Achievable: Assemble a roster of top NBA players committed to the full preparation and competition schedule.

Relevant: Restore the U.S.’s reputation as the leading nation in basketball.

Time-bound: Prepare and finalize the team roster, training schedule, and game strategy within six months leading up to the Olympics.

A prime example of a company that has achieved remarkable success through goal-setting and continuous improvement is Danaher Corporation and their Danaher Business System (DBS), influenced by Lean manufacturing principles.  Danaher’s goal to expand its market share in life sciences and diagnostics led to strategically acquiring companies like Pall Corporation and Cepheid and integrating them into its operational framework.

Aligning everyone to the goal

Maintaining alignment with goals is crucial for both Olympic and Lean teams. Regular communication and monitoring ensure everyone remains focused on achieving the objectives.

The 2008 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team held multiple training camps, focusing on building chemistry and understanding each player’s role. Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff developed a game plan emphasizing strong defense, quick transitions, and unselfish play. As a result, the team won the gold medal, defeating Spain 118-107 in the final game. They achieved an average winning margin of 27.9 points per game.

In a Lean manufacturing environment, communication tools such as visual management boards help companies and their employee teams align to goals. These boards display key performance indicators (KPIs) and project progress, ensuring all team members are aware of and committed to the objectives.

Leica Biosystems, a Danaher company, excels at using Visual Project Management (VPM) boards to map, communicate, and adjust the company’s workflows.

Looking at a visual project management board

Meticulous Planning

Well-thought-out plans ensure that every detail is accounted for and that the team has a structured approach to achieving its goals.

Bike riders racing

Olympic teams create training schedules, diet regimes, and competition strategies. For example, the British Cycling Team’s Olympic Development Squad program uses detailed performance plans that outline every aspect of an athlete’s preparation, from daily workouts to recovery protocols.

Toyota developed the A3 technique as part of its Lean methodology to address and summarize problems on one side of an A3-sized paper.

Assessment of Current State (Understanding the Competition and Improving Problem Areas)

Whether you’re solving a warehousing crisis or training for the balance beam, it’s essential to understand the current situation, pinpoint what’s not working, and identify areas for improvement.

TEAM USA at the women's team finals in Rio 2016 Summer Olympics

During the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. “Final Five” Women’s Gymnastics team won seven individual medals in addition to their first-place finish in the team all-around event. To achieve gold, they underwent individual athlete assessments, video analysis and benchmarking of their performance against competitors, and mock competitions to simulate what they would experience during the Olympics. This continuous feedback helped them adapt their training plans and mentally prepare.

Lean teams in production use current state assessments to understand process inefficiencies. The Ford Motor Company employs Gemba Walks and Root Cause Analysis to help identify problem areas. For example, a team might discover that machine downtime is causing production delays and work to address this issue. These tools have helped Ford optimize workflows, reduce waste, and improve assembly line efficiency, which leads to faster production times and cost savings.

GEMBA Walk to Frame Line

Daily Management (Daily Practices that Understand Current Problems and Adjust them to Make Them Better)

Daily Management can be summed up in the practices of these elite swimmers. Olympic athletes engage in daily practices that involve routine training sessions. Coaches provide feedback and make adjustments based on performance metrics like stroke style and timing – which are increasingly measured through tech devices.

Michael Phelps swimming

At companies, Lean teams practice daily management through activities such as daily stand-up meetings, which discuss process bottlenecks and brainstorm solutions.

Woman in a hard hat talking to two coworkers

Three Heavy Industry Engineers Stand in Pipe Manufacturing Factory, Use Digital Tablet Computer, Have Discussion. Large Pipe Assembled. Design and Construction of Oil, Gas and Fuels Transport Pipeline

Standard Work (Creating the Plays/Procedures to Use and Practicing Them Each Day)

Usain Bolt runningWhether you’re training for a half-marathon or re-designing a manufacturing cell, consistent application of standard work ensures consistently great results.

Track and field runners achieve record-beating times with consistent training patterns that build strength, speed and agility. Olympic Gold Medalist Usain Bolt, dubbed “The Fastest Man Alive,” trained six days a week, combining gym exercise with speed drills on the track.

Consistency and clear instructions also get results on the manufacturing floor. Standard operating procedures – the step-by-step work instructions that guide operators through a task, ensuring that everyone follows the same steps. When teams incorporate SOPs into their lean daily management, costs decrease, efficiency increases, and customers get the quality products and services they need on time.

Culture Change (Work as a Team to Do Better Continuously)

A strong culture focused on continuous improvement is essential for long-term success. High-performing sports and Lean teams benefit from a supportive, improvement-focused environment.

New Zealand-based rugby team All Blacks achieved their three Rugby World Cup wins based on a culture of humility, excellence, and continuous learning.

Rugby team holding up a trophy

Successful company Lean teams also nurture a culture emphasizing teamwork and continuous improvement. Strategies such as Kaizen events and team-building activities foster a supportive environment. Kaizen events are even more effective when they bring together cross-functional teams to brainstorm and implement process improvements across divisions or departments.

Kaizen race car

Kaizen helps reaching goals, pictured as a race car with a phrase Kaizen as a metaphor of Kaizen playing important role in getting value and achieving success in life and business.

Training (Ongoing Development Based on Needs)

Some athletes may have innate talent, but their success comes more often than not from years of training. While everyone in a company has ideas about the best way to do things, training is the super-connector that helps everyone understand the “whys” and work together to make the “dos” effective.

Olympic athletes undergo ongoing training and development based on their performance needs. They use specialized coaching and technology to enhance their skills. For instance, track and field coaches now use sensors and motion analysis software to help athletes improve their technique and minimize repetitive stress injuries.

Lean teams continuously train and develop to stay updated with the latest methodologies and tools. For example, training sessions on Six Sigma techniques can help team members identify and eliminate process variations.


Olympic sports and Lean manufacturing teams share goal-setting principles, meticulous planning, daily management, standard work, culture change, and continuous training. By adopting an Olympic-level approach to Lean and continuous improvement, your company will achieve excellence and sustained success.

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