Changing the Game – An Olympic Story:


It is the Olympics season right now. One of my favorite stories about the Olympics is about an underdog from Oregon, USA named Dick Fosbury. Fosbury won the gold medal for the High Jump in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. In those days, there were only a few different styles used for jumping. The main one was called the “Western Roll” where the athlete jumps forward with his face downward. Another style was called the “Scissors”, the oldest style of High Jump. This is where the athlete ran toward the bar and moved the legs in a “scissor” fashion to clear the bar. Fosbury chose the Scissors to be his style. His High School coach asked him to stop using the Scissors and to use the “Western Roll”. The Western Roll was the norm in those days and was used by the star athletes. Fosbury found no success with this. He was called the worst High Jumper in his school. He was getting frustrated, and intuitively he came up with a style that was not seen before. Rather than running straight and rolling “forward”, he ran in at an angle and jumped “backwards” which allowed him to move the bottom part of his body away from the bar. In his words;

“I take off on my right, or outside, foot rather than my left foot. Then I turn my back to the bar, arch my back over the bar and then kick my legs out to clear the bar.”


He was able to jump higher and higher with his method. The coach was not sure about the method, and even questioned whether the method was legal. He cautioned Fosbury that he was going to hurt his back. In those days, the athletes jumped into a big pile of saw dust. As luck would have it, Fosbury’s school installed a soft spongy landing pad at that time enabling him to perfect his style.

Fosbury went on to compete in the 1968 Olympics. As 80,000 spectators watched closely, Fosbury rocked back and forth, talking to himself and gaining confidence. It was also interesting to note that Fosbury wore different colored shoes. Fosbury slowly started running toward the bar and did what became to be known as the “Fosbury Flop”. He cleared 7 feet 4 1/4 inches to win the gold medal. His method was counterintuitive at that time. U.S. Olympic Coach Pat Jordan considered the Fosbury Flop to be dangerous and warned that it would “wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they will all have broken necks”. But the method was proven to be quite effective and the world of High Jump changed after that. Everybody started imitating him and improving their performance. Today the Fosbury Flop is considered to be the norm. All world record holders since 1980 used the Fosbury Flop to achieve their best performances.

Looking back, the scientists are able to explain that the Fosbury Flop is the ideal method for the high jump. The athlete is able to manipulate his center of gravity through this method to perform much higher (no pun intended) than any other method. Although Fosbury had an Engineering background, he came upon the method by accident. He was making the method work with his tall stature. His frustration with the standard methods of the day led him to find a new method.

Corollary in the Lean World:

The best form of kaizen happens when you are extremely dissatisfied with the current set of standards or if you are extremely lazy and want to find a better way of doing things. The spirit of kaizen is simply the thinking that there is always a better way of doing things. Fosbury was extremely dissatisfied with the methods in his days. In his words;

My assignment was to get over that damn bar. I was bound and determined not to quit. But I had to do something different.”

He knew that there was a better way and he found it. He explained that it was an iterative process. Once the method was proven, everybody wanted to copy it. Fosbury continued;

That day I was not trying to change the world. I was just trying to get over the bar.”

This is an important lesson for the Lean Leaders.

In a similar vein, Toyota started the Toyota Production System as a means to catch up with Germany and America. After the Second World War, Toyota realized that the productivity of the Japanese workforce was much less than their German and American counterparts. They tried to learn the norms of the day by visiting foreign manufacturing plants. But they came up with counterintuitive ways to achieve their goal slowly and steadily. They rearranged their factories to achieve better flow. They limited their work-in-process. They reduced the lot sizes and found ways to perform quick changeovers. For the painting operation, Toyota started using a paint cartridge system so that they can maintain small lot sizes. Toyota’s methods gained the attention of the world through the oil crisis in the 1970’s. Their process, Toyota Production System, became their Fosbury Flop which everybody wanted to emulate.

You can watch the Fosbury Flop performed by Dick Fosbury below.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Buy the Mountain Side.

One thought on “Changing the Game – An Olympic Story:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s