From Flabby to Fit, or Why Track Spikes Don't Make You Faster


When I started running in 8th grade, I was dead last in every race. I stunk. I had asthma, allergies, and I couldn't run more than 3/4 of a mile without stopping (definitely not a competitive advantage in a 2.5 mile race). Over the next nine years, I became a pretty decent runner,  and ended up as a pretty competitive at the college level. Not world-class, not national class, but pretty good. I studied and learned how to train and race better. I became a student of the sport—and of my own body. By the end of my racing career, I was a much smarter athlete. 

The organizational journey from mediocre to outstanding—from flabby to fit—is similar. You need to study the way your organizational processes function on the macro level, and how individual jobs are done on the micro level. You’ll have to become a student of your own company so that you can build better processes and more capable people.

Tools alone won’t make your organization fit, any more than a new pair of track spikes would have made me fast. Don’t get me wrong—I loved buying new racing spikes, but they didn’t make any difference on the stopwatch (sadly). But if the past 25 years have shown us anything, it's that tools alone are insufficient. You can look up how to make a heijunka board; you can read a book on installing a kanban system; you can hire a consultant to set up manufacturing cells; and in the end, you’ll join the very long list of companies that attempted to copy Toyota and ended up mired in mediocrity. There is a place for tools, of course, but they’re useless unless they’re deployed in an environment that observes the fundamental principles of continuous improvement.

Honoring those principles will set you on the road to organizational fitness. And as with personal fitness, the biggest obstacle is likely to be . . . you. Your own well-established habits and preferences, your likes and dislikes, represent a formidable inertia that will be a challenge to overcome. Getting out of bed at 5am in the middle of winter for a swim workout or an eight-mile run isn’t easy, and neither is coaching a front line worker through yet another problem solving session when you’d rather just tell her what to do.

Culture’s no excuse, either. You’ll undoubtedly face some resistance to the changes you want to make. However, it’s likely that the resistance is largely due to fear from past experiences with command and control leaders, or the cynicism of dealing with managerial “flavor of the month” initiatives. That resistance will dissipate when people hear the sincerity of your words and witness the commitment of your actions. Cultural resistance won’t last long in an environment where process improvement and employee development are woven into the fabric of daily work.

W. Edwards Deming said, "Survival is optional. No one has to change." He was right, of course -- but that doesn't mean that it has to be a long slog through the muck under enemy fire. Whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a five-person organization that doesn’t even subscribe to Fortune, you can embark on the organizational fitness program that I detail in Building the Fit Organization. It’s simple (if not easy), and progress will be slow. But the financial, intellectual, and emotional rewards make it a journey worth taking.

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