The “All Blacks,” New Zealand’s rugby team, is arguably the most successful sports team in history. Since its founding in 1903, the team has won 77% of its matches. However, something went wrong in 2003. They lost the World Cup that year, and by the following year, players were drunk and disorderly, on-field discipline faltered, senior players threatened to quit, and the team began losing.

A new management team under Graham Henry began to rebuild the world's most successful sports team with a culture emphasizing individual character and personal leadership. Their new mantra was “Better People Make Better All Blacks,” and it was anchored in 15 core principles. 

                                                                                   infographic courtesy of @YLMSportScience

                                                                                   infographic courtesy of @YLMSportScience

Although the specifics differ, many of the principles echo that of lean.

1. Sweep the Sheds. Before leaving the dressing room at the end of the game, all players clean up as a symbol of humility. This humility is at the core of Paul Akers’s insistence that visiting CEOs clean the Fastcap bathrooms with him, or the way the president of HOKS Electronics in Japan sweeps and mops the floor along with his employees everyday.

2. Go for the Gap. A focus on continuous improvement means that even when you’re on top, you always have room to get better. You can see this mentality at all organizations that have truly embraced lean, from hospitals like Thedacare to manufacturers like Danaher.

3. Play with Purpose. People perform better when they’re in service of a larger purpose. For the All Blacks, it’s elevating the performance of the team. Toyota talks about “true north,” and Simon Sinek preaches about starting with “why.”

4. Create a Learning Environment. Team leaders are teachers of the younger players. Teaching and coaching cannot be outsourced to the HR department at your company; everyone must take ownership of that responsibility.

5. No Dickheads. Or as Bob Sutton would say, “No Assholes.” Self-explanatory.

6. Train to Win. Preparation and practice are essential to success in competition. Great organizations enable people to thrive in their daily work, not just by showing them how to do their jobs, but by supporting their growth. Mike Hoseus’s story about how his Japanese teammates actually thanked him for pointing out an error he made is a beautiful example of this approach.

7. Invent Your Own Language. A vocabulary, language, and values that everyone understands bind the group. This, of course, is the reason I wrote Building the Fit Organization—I wanted to provide people with a way to express core lean ideas without relying upon often off-putting references to Toyota. Whether you use the language of fitness (as I did), or something else, the key is finding something that resonates with you and your team.

8. Ritualize to Actualize. Rituals reflect, remind, and reinforce the belief system that you’re creating at your organization. Whether that’s the morning meeting, the 30-minute “lean and clean” time that Cambridge Engineering gives its employees everyday, the daily “walk around review” at Lantech, or the peer-to-peer review of lean concepts at Kaas Tailored, these aren’t just breaks from daily work for the employees. They’re rituals that reinforce the principles and beliefs that the company espouses.

These principles are powerful enough, but their impact is heightened by clarity and simplicity. Compare them to the typically turgid, grammatically tortured, long-winded, and uninspiring mission statements that most companies carve into plaques on their walls. Even organizations pursuing continuous improvement sometimes make the mistake of larding up their intent with meaningless corporate-speak.

Find your own principles. Live them daily. Speak plainly. That’s the road to excellence. 

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