Watching the British cycling team at London 2012 has been a heart-warming experience. Their success is quite incredible and it made me think about the approach they take to preparing their riders and, bear with me on this, how it echoes the Vanguard Method.
The team’s purpose is to be the fastest in the world at each discipline. To achieve this, they implement a continuous improvement program that looks at every detail of the end to end process of competition cycling. The base of the system has to be a cyclist with raw talent. Are our cyclists the most talented in the world? They are certainly right up there, but surely other nations have equally talented individuals with the potential to win gold? What helps set our team apart is the system that the riders operate in. There is the visible stuff like the bikes, helmets and suits, which are custom built for each rider. Then there is the less visible work with dieticians and psychologists that helps to deliver each competitor to the starting line in peak condition.
Did the team rest on their laurels after Beijing? Nope, they continued to improve each part of the process (witness the French trying to comprehend what the GB team have done to their wheels!). In Systems Thinking terms, the GB team have mapped out the end to end process and identified and removed waste, remorselessly. They have placed faith in the talented individuals who actually do the cycling and then made the system as efficient and effective as possible to maximise their talent.
I couldn’t help but contrast this approach with the everyday systems that people use to run businesses. Raw talent is again the base ingredient and this tends to be identified at interview. Now think about what happens to that talent in a normal workplace. If the techniques of the GB team were followed, then your first day in a new organisation would be spent with a resource team, working out what equipment you need to perform your role. This might mean a specific desk layout and the right specification of PC for an office worker, or the right power tools and vehicle spec for a tradesperson. The question for the organisation would be, what do we need to do to maximise your talent?
What about if you were then asked to give your opinion on the new set-up, once you had tried it? How about if the company took an active interest in your response, listened to your thoughts on what you needed and adjusted things to improve your working environment?
And then kept on asking and improving your working environment…
Just think for a moment about how motivated that might make you. Then think about how motivated the Team GB cyclists are and why they put in that extra ounce of training, which gives them the strength they need when tearing down the back straight of the velodrome.
How much wasted talent is lying dormant in your organisation? How much is wasted because organisations tend to follow a rather different approach to Team GB? How long does it take for new employees in your organisation to lose the enthusiasm and drive that shone through at interview?
If Team GB followed the approach of most organisations, then Chris Hoy would have been set a target to win gold, whilst riding a Raleigh Chopper in a borrowed PE kit. When he failed, he would have been downgraded in his performance review and new talent would have been brought in to replace him. The new recruit would be passed Chris’ bike with their name stuck over his etched-out badge. Continuous improvement? Continuous change of personnel is always more likely until businesses become more like Team GB and create systems that utilise the raw talent at their disposal.