Process Management 5 mins read

Lessons in operational excellence from the Winter Olympics

What does business operational excellence have to do with sports? Read lessons learned from the Winter Olympics on athletes improving their performance.

Dr. Helge Hess Dr. Helge Hess

This week marks the end of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, and there are some great lessons to be learned by looking at how athletes strive to improve their operational performance.

What does your business’s operational excellence have to do with sports? Professional athletes practice repeatedly, over many years, to improve their performance and ultimately prevail over their competitors. The same should be true for companies wanting to optimize their performance and strengthen competitiveness.

The Olympic Games, with a huge range of different disciplines, can provide good insights that can be transferred to your organization.

Ice hockey: In ice hockey (and many other team sports), a match plan is the basis for success. A match plan describes the strategy for a game, but also the concrete tactics for different parts of the team. In ice hockey, practiced combinations are a great advantage; there are well-rehearsed team parts (forwards duo, defensive line) that come together to form a successful team.
Lessons learnedProcess management is teamwork. Develop a strategic business model that provides the guidelines for your operating model. Use what-if scenarios to work out your strategy and play through different scenarios. Standardizing processes and work instructions is the basis for high-performance work. Define variants for alternative process handling where necessary.

Downhill skiing: In alpine disciplines, such as slalom or giant slalom, the course is set anew for each race; the athletes inspect the course shortly before the race and define an individual line and tactics. Lessons learned: Disruptive change is shaping nearly all industries. Accept this VUCA world (an acronym that refers to “volatility”, “uncertainty”, “complexity” and “ambiguity”) and change as the new normal. Use agile methods to continuously adapt your strategy and your way of working to stay on course. Technologies such as low-code/no-code platforms offer the possibility to quickly automate parts of processes or generate necessary applications.

Freestyle skiing: There are five different disciplines such as slopestyle and halfpipe, where creativity plays a particularly important role. Lessons learned: Innovation (in products, but increasingly also in processes) plays a significant role in achieving competitive advantages. Based on your business model, identify the processes that differentiate you from the competition and build on your strengths and differentiators. Use experiences from other industries.

Relay competitions: With relay competitions in cross-country skiing and biathlon it is the balance within the team that counts. The overall performance is only as strong as its weakest link. Lessons learned: Looking at end-to-end processes, including the role of partners in your supply and distribution networks, is essential to optimize overall performance. Know and analyze your entire business ecosystem across hierarchies. Develop plan B scenarios to deal with the failure of a partner.

All competitions: In all sports there is a set of rules that must be followed. This is obvious in alpine slalom, where missing a gate leads to disqualification. Ski jumpers have been disqualified from competition because their suits did not comply with the rules. Lessons learned: Operational excellence aims to increase a company’s performance while complying with all legal regulations. Performance and risk compliance only work hand in hand. Know all the regulations that are relevant to your industry. Establish an integrated management system to demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements. Use a repository to document the basic assets (processes, responsibilities, data, etc.) only once and in a reusable way.

Biathlon: In biathlon, mistakes (shooting errors for example!) are not desired, but very often cannot be avoided. For success, it is very important to think ahead about the procedures for these cases (reloading, penalty laps) and to practice their optimal sequence. Lessons learned: Be prepared for unexpected events (like cyber-attacks, natural disasters, or critical infrastructure failures) to respond and recover quickly. Work out alternatives and plan B scenarios. Describe these procedures as part of your business continuity management system.

Alpine skiing / ski jumping: In disciplines such as alpine skiing or ski jumping, where a measurement (of time, jumping distance) decides the result, analyses play a paramount role in initiating necessary corrections. It is not enough to look only at the result; for improvements, the entire process and the relevant leading indicators (intermediate times, etc.) must be analyzed. Lessons learned: The traditional BI approach of measuring metrics is not sufficient to really identify the causes in the business processes and to initiate improvement measures. Start with the leading indicators. Use process mining and task mining technologies to see where the weak points and optimization potentials are in the processes. Establish a holistic process management with these analytical technologies as important components.

Figure skatingIn some disciplines like figure skating there is no objective, quantitative measurement; rather, the result is evaluated by judges. The basis of success is a precise knowledge of the requirements and the evaluation system. Lessons learned: Ultimately, it is the customer who decides whether your offer meets with approval. Know and analyze the requirements of your target group as precisely as possible. Analyze all interactions and touchpoints along the entire customer journey to identify weaknesses and optimization potential. Integrate the internal processes and the external customer journeys to a common picture focusing on customer satisfaction.

Whether you like the mechanics of competitive sports or not, professional athletes use a lot of the practices that underpin high-performance teams. It makes sense to use these experiences for operational excellence in your company as well.

You can download your copy of an ebook with a trend map for business transformation and operational excellence here.

This article originally appeared in OPEX