Are successful Sports coaches really successful Lean leaders in disguise?
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Are successful Sports coaches really successful Lean leaders in disguise?

I’ve been listening to, and reading some books and interviews, about the world of high performance sports coaching recently. I started to see many similarities in the minds of some of these leaders to those that you see in Lean leaders delivering great results and organisational transformations.

To be specific Dave Brailsfords’ UK SKY cycling team this year delivered 1st and 2nd in the Tour de France, won 7 of 10 Olympic track cycling gold medals and the Olympic time trial – phenomenal by anyone’s standards. So what does Brailsford put his success down to – he often refers to a snappy phrase called the pursuit of marginal gains and in his words,

 The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together,”

 he explains’

 “There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places.

 ‘Do you really know how to clean your hands without leaving the bits between your fingers?’ If you do things like that properly, you will get ill a little bit less.

 They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

Translating across into the world of lean-speak Brailsford, in a very systematic manner, is driving a continuous improvement agenda., In particular, he is focusing on removing defects and waste, creating more time for value creating activity for his athletes, and doing it incrementally, from the bottom up, and not by a big shift (such as designing a new bike).

He also talks about the culture of challenge and learning within the team. For example, he brings in surgeons to talk about hygiene, psychiatrists from Rampton to create a mentality of phenomenal performance beyond the exceptional, learning from the Royal Ballet – these are all experiences that our research around great lean organisations support where a trait of learning and bringing ideas into the business are common.

If we switch our attention to Sir Clive Woodward, England rugby coach from 1998 to 2003, who created the most successful rugby team in Northern Hemisphere history, winning the 2003 world cup, defeating Australia 6 times in succession home and away and going into the world cup off the back of 10 straight wins against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (apologies to my Celtic & Gallic friends for bringing this up).

Woodard talks about building a culture of team-ship, leadership and partnership and engaging the entire team in understand their mission, each unique role within it and their personal accountabilities – sounds somewhat like Hoshin Kanri or Strategy Deployment to my mind.

He also talks in his autobiography, Winning.  about his and the teams focus on more than just skills and training. He spent much of his time focusing on getting what he calls the critical non essentials right.

These are not necessarily what he would call the value adding moments, the best pass, tackle or scrummage but, rather, making sure the environment around the players reduced wasted time and effort and again gave more time for the essential value add stuff to be perfected . So Woodward and his team of elite coaches drove a collection of small changes such as:

­ CTC – Cross bar, touchline. Communicate – a team discipline to improve their awareness of space in match-play improving game management and opportunism.

­ Shirts – Working with Nike to develop skin tight rugby shirts that were harder to grab onto.

­ Training pitches – digging them up and relaying them to replicate Twickenhams’ turf.

­ Learning – bringing in advice from football, NFL, rowing and F1 among others.

­ TCUP _ thinking critically under pressure – working with Royal Marines to learn how to make critical decisions in the most extreme environments.

What rings true from Woodward’s description of becoming the first fully professional English Rugby coach is that he examined the whole value stream of English Rugby that brought through and optimised the English team – from initial selection through the organisational processes that created an international team.

I’m sure there are more sports coaches out there who would excel as leaders in organisational life, not because they do or need to understand how to make a car, run a hospital, a bank or service system, but because they have proven thinking and behaviour that challenges what we in lean know as waste. They think about the whole stream, they increment and they coach self-accountability and learning.

I’d be interested in your views and experience in the world of sport and how this relates to lean.

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