Cool runnings? Change perspectives. Just do it.

It is a sporting theme again, inspired by the thrills of the Winter Olympics. Let’s hark back to the 1988 Calgary Games, memorable since British involvement started to impress outside the ice-rink. Eccentricities of Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards, our first Olympic ski-jumper matched Martin Bell’s efforts in the men’s downhill. Even our bob-sledders were competitive.

One story, now globally famous, concerns the Jamaican soldiers formed into an unlikely bobsleigh team on a shoestring budget, qualifying in 1988 as the first tropical nation at the Winter Olympics. American expats George Fitch and William Maloney were inspired by watching Jamaican push-kart racing and had initially raised the idea. At the outset, one of the eventual Jamaican team members, Devon Harris, thought the idea was ridiculous. Another, Dudley Stokes, only got involved because his superior officer in the military told him to participate.

The story was largely fictionalised for dramatic effect in the comedy film ‘Cool Runnings’. In reality the team were warmly welcomed by co-competitors and enjoyed the support of other national teams to access equipment ahead of the Games. The Jamaicans performances improved during the Games programme, but unfortunately they crashed in their final competitive run so did not reach the final. However the precedent had been set and Jamaican teams have qualified for several Winter Games over subsequent decades including the Sochi 2014 Olympics.

So what can we learn? How does this relate to our ideas for change and improvement?

  • Just do it – and keep trying. If things don’t quite work, don’t give up. George Fitch failed to recruit Jamaican athletes, so asked the Jamaican military to find volunteers.
  • Other people respond to your initiative. Jamaica’s competitors welcomed the team as co-athletes, whilst the Olympic crowds were fanatically enthusiastic about the team’s efforts.
  • People can be inspired – your team may have skeptics and cynics, but they can all be inspired by purpose and vision of what is possible and what they can do.
  • Learn from disappointments. Since the crash of 1988, Jamaica have performed at a high level, beating established winter sport nations such as France, the USA, Russia and Canada.
  • The unlikely can become the norm. A later Jamaican team-member, Lascelles Brown, married a Canadian, and subsequently won medals for Canada at two Olympic Games.
  • Seize the opportunity – even unlikely ideas can set a new way of doing things. Small initiatives can have a lasting effect. It just takes the effort to start the ball rolling…


BBC Sport (2014) Jamaica’s ‘Cool Runnings’ bobsleigh team in 1988, Sochi 2014

Evanovitch (2005) Interview with Devon ‘Pele’ Harris Jamaica Bobsled Team Member, Jamaica Primetime.

Jones E. (2014) Va. Mayor’s Little Known Link to Jamaican Bobsledding, NBC Washington




Absorb variety and increase excellence

Trying to address the demands of variety is a perennial problem. Customers wanting different features in a product, a different colour, a different size, a specific delivery slot, a student wanting specific feedback on their essay. In times gone by, the craftsman would make things according to what the customer wanted. Take the blacksmith – he would manufacture a horseshoe (or shoes) specific to the horse that was presented to him by his customer. A unique shoe every time, or at least finished from a blank to fit the foot perfectly. If you didn’t make your own clothes, you would buy from someone who did, and the clothes were produced in the same way – fitted and finished in the cloth of your choice.

Increasing numbers of customers (and therefore volumes of production) gradually made the provision this type of offer through ‘cottage industries’ more difficult. Bakers had almost always produced batches of loaves for a range of customers, for example, whilst drapers, haberdashers, corwainers and milliners largely did the same. By the 1900s Henry Ford had taken things to the extreme when he produced the Model T Ford, stating memorably in 1909 that any customer “can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”.

model T
Also in white…

Today we are used to buying off-the-shelf or off-the-peg products and services, from fruit to footwear, from breakfasts to banking. Standard products are so familiar that off-the-shelf is seen as inferior and run-of-the-mill. Of course commercially this has become a NEW point of competition and differentiation. Marketeers have identified ways in which we can customise the products to suit our needs. Why?

The reason for wanting to differentiate is, at a superficial level, because we like it. The reason we like it, however, is because we have different needs and at a fundamental level we want a product or service that meets our needs.

So what is there to do about this if we are offering services, whether financial, commercial, educational or other?

Somehow we have to design our services to allow people to request variety, so that a variety of requests from many different customers can be absorbed by the system. Does this sound like some kind of menu system (akin to the dreaded telephone services; press 1 for …). No! Because if we do that we are just providing off-the-shelf all over again: simply reproducing options based on what we already produce in the workshop (or back-office), we build up a set of stock answers that potentially meet no-one’s needs.

Instead we have to do quite the opposite. We need to design processes to be flexible to meet the needs of users/customers at the point of demand. If we do that then our services will respond to them at the point of need and will deliver against their requirements. Services will then be perceived as excellent by the individuals who matter – the people that use them!


Further Reading:

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Ford H. (1922) My Life and Work (in collaboration with S. Crowther), Chapter 4, Cosimo Classics

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK