Make Your Operation Swing

We often talk about Enterprise Alignment as a dimension of the Shingo Model. The dimension of Enterprise Alignment has within it, three Shingo Guiding Principles. They are, Think Systemically, Create Constancy of Purpose and Create Value for the Customer. I’d like to address this dimension of the Shingo Model, and its Shingo Guiding Principles in a way that was recently revealed to me, and which I found both astounding and insightful.

First, allow me to say that when I facilitate Shingo Workshops, I illustrate enterprise alignment with rowing crew. Not many are familiar with crew, but it is an excellent metaphor for enterprise alignment. Crew is the competitive sport of rowing. Teams of 9 participate in long, narrow boats. There are nine team members, four of which row on their right, four of which row on their left and one that calls the commands to the crew to steer the boat and increase or decrease momentum. If one person is out of sync, then the crew is not performing at its best.

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In Crew, there is a term – and concept – called “swing.” And swing is illustrated beautifully in the book, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” (Daniel James Brown, Penguin, 2013).

In 1936, an obscure rowing team from the University of Washington traveled to Germany to participate in the Olympic Games. It was the nadir of the Great Depression. Nine young men of the working class made up the crew. The small towns in the mining and lumber regions of Washington State put up funds so their team could travel to compete in Berlin.

They were underdogs. They were less fit, less prepared and had inferior equipment. But during the race something transcendent occurred: swing. The following description of swing comes from “The Boys in the Boat.”

There is a thing that sometimes happens that is hard to achieve and hard to define. It’s called “swing.” It happens only when all are rowing in such perfect unison that not a single action is out of sync.

Rowers must rein in their fierce independence and at the same time hold true to their individual capabilities. Races are not won by clones. Good crews are good blends—someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve, someone to fight the fight, someone to make peace. No rower is more valuable than another, all are assets to the boat, but if they are to row well together, each must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the others—the shorter-armed person reaching a little farther, the longer-armed person pulling in just a bit.

Differences can be turned to advantage instead of disadvantage. Only then will it feel as if the boat is moving on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Good “swing” feels like poetry.

To use the cliché, against all odds, this team synced into perfect swing. And won. The win – an Olympic Gold Medal – was fabulous. But beyond that, every member of that team experienced a bond of unity not many often feel. It is a bond that comes when a team, any team, comes to understanding of who they are and the role they play for the team’s success. All efforts for personal benefit are subordinated to the benefit of the team as a whole.

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Think Systemically

Swing is an interesting phenomenon. But it doesn’t apply only to Crew. Swing, at its most fundamental, can be found in any team. All that’s required is understanding the needs and objectives of the team, how each team members role fits into fulfilling those needs and objectives and focusing on nothing else. Ego is not a factor. There is no WIIFM. It’s all about the team and reaching its goals. This is an example of the Shingo Guiding Principle: Think Systemically. How does what I do, impact the whole? Multiple teams that are in swing, can bring an entire department, site, division, and yes, even the entire organization into swing. Think Systemically.

One might ask, how can this be? Ken Snyder, Executive Director of the Shingo Institute put it this way: “The sum the behaviors of the individuals within an organization is its culture.” So, as it turns out, swing is dependent on behaviors. But not just any behaviors, but the best and appropriate behaviors of all those within the organization, be it a team, department, site, division, function, or the entire organization.

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Constancy of Purpose

This 1936 University of Washington team was focused on competing at the Olympics. No one competes at the Olympics without a desire to win the gold. The reason they compete, is because they feel they have a reasonable chance. The university was clearly in support, or the team would not have been able to go. The communities the team members were from showed their support by putting up the money for the team to travel to Berlin. And the team, in whatever way they did, coalesced in a way that surprised everyone, because each individual team member supported why they were there and what they hoped to achieve.

All these individuals – team members, faculty and coaches, and community members – focusing on that one end, the Olympic Gold, is an example of the Shingo Guiding Principle: Constancy of Purpose. Another iconic example of Constancy of Purpose is the effort by millions of people to land men on the moon and return them safely home. Constancy of Purpose.

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Create Value for the Customer

So here is the question for you: What does swing look like in your organization and how can you achieve it? That’s where the Shingo Model and all its dimensions, not just Enterprise Alignment, can inform how to achieve swing. There are a lot of moving parts, for sure. The key is figuring out how they can all move in harmony.

Mind you, that what works for one organization or team, most likely will not work for another. Swing is not plug and play. It requires thought and consideration of each of the team members, their temperament, aptitude for placing the team before themselves and their desire to win. The rest is practice, practice, practice. The purpose of practice is to get better. Find the points of friction and remove them. We call this Continuous Improvement, another dimension of the Shingo Model. Why do we want to improve? To Create Value for the Customer. Yet another Shingo Guiding Principle.

So now, here is your task. Block out some time on your calendar. At least a couple of hours. Remove all your distractions. Now think about how your team can achieve swing. What will it take? What will the team members have to give up to achieve such a high level of excellence? What will you have to give up? What support do you need? Build a business case for your team and your management. Discuss it with them and get their buy-in. Once you get their buy-in, get after it and achieve your swing!


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