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Discovering kaizen examples and lean thinking in elite pro sports

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

ex-England Rugby union coach Eddie Jones explaining his kaizen thinking

Kaizen and benchmarking

As the Rugby World Cup in France comes into view, we thought we'd take a look at how the elite sports of Rugby, Cycling, Cricket and, ahem, Competitive Eating use lean principles to excel. Let's start with Eddie Jones, an international rugby coach who has taken different teams to 3 Rugby World Cup Finals. Here's how kaizen helped him get there.

Eddie can be hard to like, a wilfully divisive figure. On the surface he can seem arrogant and fixed mindset, especially around the media, but he's surprisingly humble and willing to learn from far and wide. Inside football alone he's studied and looks up to Pep Guardiola, Gareth Southgate and Sean Dyche. (Pep for attention to detail, Dyche for excellence on a shoestring budget) I read his book "Leadership" on holiday recently and, unsurprisingly to me, he's a fan of kaizen - see the picture below:

An excerpt from Eddie Jone's "Leadership" book about lean thinking and kaizen

One phrase stuck out from the book:

"The only reliable advantage we've got is to learn faster than the opposition"

That’s the golden thread that resonates through interview after interview with Jones, the coaching team and players alike. Every time I watch an Eddie Jones interview, he unfailingly utters some variant of “mate, we’re just trying to get better”

It's the same in print:

“The challenge is how we get better, because there is always a better Samurai around the corner. “We want to keep challenging ourselves. How do we get better next week?”

But, a word of caution. He’s not infallible and we should be cautious of overstating the case. Indeed, his current Australia squad are having a torrid time in the lead up to this World Cup. It’s the players that execute the plan, respond on the pitch & have a clear voice in Jones dressing room (by all accounts).

I remember when British cycling’s Dave Brailsford & his golden coach Shane Sutton were flavour of the day. Despite what has come to pass with Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) and the rumour mill, I still subscribe to the “aggregation of marginal gains” approach. Fundamentally it’s just another word for targeted kaizen (incremental improvement) wrapped in a healthy dose of hansei (restless reflection). In fact, I wrote a chapter about it in ‘Adventures in Leanland”

The table of contents from Russell Watkins book "Adventures in Leanland"

Kaizen examples from elite sport

Let's investigate some examples of elite sports embracing Kaizen (aka Continuous Improvement) thinking:

Continuous Improvement in Pro Cycling

In the workshop where pro team bikes are stripped, tinkered with, conditioned and rebuilt they have taken pains to coat the floor in a colour that easily shows up a dropped nut or screw – a trick borrowed from motorsport. Why bother? Well, having applied kodawari to the design of the bike and stripped away superfluous parts – every part left has a job (and probably more than one) to play. Every part counts.

Dave Brailsford's British cycling team flew back from the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with a fine medal haul (A total of 14 including 8 golds). During those Summer Games, the Brailsford approach to kodawari drove him to secure the BEST pit position in the Laoshan velodrome and establish rules for who was allowed access to the pit area during competition – only those racing and their immediate staff – to keep the cyclists focused.

Continuous Improvement in Formula 1

Competing in a sport where milli-seconds separate finishing positions, Formula One racing teams have long fostered attention to detail in their engineering teams. 13 years ago, the McLaren F1 team were seriously investigating the way that logos are printed onto Engineers race suits to squeeze out another 100g of weight.

These are the Engineers, not even the drivers. Remember, though, that they now operate in a world where refuelling has been banned since 2010. Pitstops used to take around 8 seconds but have compressed to around 2-3 seconds; in races where overtaking is difficult at the best of times and lengthy pitstops with the potential for cock-up have traditionally presented a chance to steal a place or two on the track.

Just ponder that time again. The car stops, has 4 tyres changed and is gone again in 2-3 seconds. Attention to detail matters greatly and a lighter suit can do no harm to the 17 engineers it takes to execute the delicately choreographed dance required to pull off a successful 2 second tyre change.

Kaizen in International Cricket

Take Cricket, and specifically the England team, by way of a final sporting example. For many it may lack excitement as a spectacle, but it offers up an enticing glimpse into the world of kodawari. Under the stewardship of Andy Flower, England became world Twenty20 champions, regained and then retained the Ashes all in the space of 2 years...from a dismal starting point.

In a fascinating article , Simon Hughes of the Telegraph gave his "ten reasons why England will be world No 1". This fairly eclectic hit parade has kodawari, in different guises, very much at its heart. Here is Hughes, in his own words, on number 2 “Match Conditioning"


"The Loughborough indoor facility was also deliberately heated up to 30C to check on players who might be prone to cramp in hot conditions"

Later, on the subject of number 6 "Spit and Polish"

"It sounds basic, but many fast bowlers are so consumed by their bowling that they forget to polish the ball. England have developed a more strenuous routine centred around Paul Collingwood. They have also identified the men who have the least sweaty hands in hot conditions. The ball must be kept scrupulously dry to maximise reverse swing in such conditions so only these players handle the ball as it is relayed back to the bowler"

We are tossed another gem in number 7 "Field of Dreams"

"The fielding coach, Richard Halsall, has introduced a number of new tools for catching practice, including a special rubber ramp off which the ball, fired from a cut-down bowling machine, flies at unpredictable angles"

Kaizen and Competitive Eating

I have a hunch that a large number of lean people enjoy the work of Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt, the authors of "Freakonomics" & "Superfreakonomics". The allure of entertaining, data driven analysis coupled with a clear understanding of correlation/causation is tough to resist. The story below, of Takeru Kobayashi was inspired by a chapter of their book "Think Like a Freak".

Kobayashi, a surprisingly lean (pun intended) champion competitive eater, stands at a diminutive 173 cm (5 ft 8 in) and weighs in at a sylph like 58 kg (128 lb) Kobayashi is a giant in his field. My American friends will know him well from the annual 'Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest'

It's fair to say that Kobayashi is well into the twilight of his career but he remains a prime example of Kaizen mind; the kind of attitude we all need to drive our businesses forward. I stumbled across Kobayashi during a casual surfing session and had the feeling that he was a natural continuous improvement thinker. Luckily, Dubner & Levitt have done the hard work for me by dissecting Kobayashi's approach to his 'craft'.

Below I'll pull out a few lines from the text of "Think Like a Freak" (italicised below) interspersed with a little lean commentary of my own. The authors introduce Kobayashi thus:

"He begins to speak, quietly but intensely, about how he trained for his first Coney Island competition. Those months in isolation, it turned out, were one long bout of experimentation and feedback"

They continue:

"Kobayashi had observed that most Coney Island eaters used a similar strategy...essentially a sped-up version of how the average person eats a hot dog at a backyard barbeque... Kobayashi wondered if perhaps there was a better way"

In a fine one-man intuitive example of Industrial Engineering Kobayashi challenged fixed ideas with the following Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) style trials:

1) Breaking the bun & dog in half, giving more options for "chewing and loading"whilst giving his hands "some of the work that would otherwise occupy his mouth"

2) He stopped eating the bun and dog together as it "created a density conflict". The salty slippery dogs slid down rapidly on their own (a picture beautifully painted by the authors)

3) The bun, however, "was still a problem...So Kobayashi tried something different. As he was feeding himself the bunless, broken hot dogs with one hand, he used the other hand to dunk the bun in his water cup. Then he'd squeeze out most of the excess water and smush the bun into his mouth"

You get the picture. Kobayashi went on to videotape his performance, create his equivalent of a Work Combination Table and consider his overall physical strategy, diet & muscle development.

In short order Kobayashi doubled the existing records and was promptly accused of cheating or having the good fortune to be born a genetic freak. As Dubner & Levitt conclude; "The best evidence against this argument is that his competition began to catch up with him", especially Joey "Jaws Chestnut" who secured seven Coney Island wins on the bounce.

Can your manufacturing business ever be truly lean?

As magic ingredients go, kaizen may not sound too exciting, but that’s the point. The thousands of businesses out there who have been flirting with the idea of “being” lean but remain steadfastly un-lean fall into a common trap. The words come easy, the daily thinking and doing way is a little harder.

Lean is a state of being with zero chance of achievement. At once, you are both lean & never can be lean if you embrace the central discipline of “every day a little up” (hat tip to Pascal Dennis for this great phrase). You or your business can never “be lean” because kaizen is always possible. Leaner companies rejoice in this fact and are focused on being faster than the other gazelles on the Savannah, to avoid the jaws of the big cats. Un-lean ones, easy corporate words to one side, don’t really believe any of this.

For clarity, kaizen is surely better than no kaizen. Most effective is targeted kaizen aimed towards a simply expressed goal; getting people all pointing in the same direction and pooling their scarce time for improvement work. In 2019 Eddie Jones stood in Kyoto and, having run the maths, knew that the England team needed to step up if they got through to meet the All Blacks in the semi-final. This is no different to a business grasping the fact that its delivered quality needs to improve by 10% to keep customers or open up new markets.

Eddie Jones has lived and worked in Japan, his mother is Japanese American and he’s married to a Japanese woman, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised about his embrace of lean thinking via kaizen, hansei & hoshin kanri.

Come on England

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