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Pole Vaulting 4.0

Too many organizations spend millions for new technology but skimp on training employees how to use it

Published: Thursday, October 8, 2020 - 12:02

One summer when I was a kid, my friend Rick and I built a pole vault setup in my postage stamp-sized backyard with a plant box (the place where you plant the pole as you begin your vault) and a couple uprights to hold the crossbar. We used bamboo poles acquired from a local carpet store for both the crossbar and the pole vault pole. The pit consisted of a couple old pillows—good enough for 12-year-old beginners.

During the months of July and August, we wore out a path in the grass and the skin on our elbows as we tried and failed to clear the bar. To try this event is to appreciate the number of things that have to go right simultaneously. Our only source of information was a chapter from a book on track and field events. But by summer’s end, bruises and all, we were both able to clear a height of six feet.

As Rick and I entered junior high school, we joined the track team to continue our trek to greater heights. Our backyard skills transferred fairly well, but now there was new technology. An eight-foot bamboo pole was replaced by a 12-foot aluminum version, enabling a higher vault, but also requiring significantly more speed on approach. With a singleness of purpose, we trained every spring day, and by season’s end we were both able to manage the longer, heavier pole and hoist ourselves to a lofty elevation of nine feet. 

Time marched on as Rick and I honed our skills, but with little technology change. During the next six years, the sawdust pit was replaced with an air-cushion landing area, a nice safety feature that did nothing to increase the height of our vaults. And while new technology in the form of fiberglass poles was beginning to replace aluminum, the skills to capitalize on the new material were conceptually very different and even counterintuitive. The idea of “bending the pole” to gain greater height was very new and not well understood. In the absence of this new information, fiberglass poles behaved much the same as their aluminum counterparts, providing little height advantage. Rick and I both maxed out our pole-vaulting careers just under 12 feet during our senior year of high school.

So, what does this story have to do with lean and continuous improvement? Several things:

First, Rick and I became practiced with a method that required revision as technology changed. The method we learned well as kids ultimately bounded our development. In the words of improvement expert Tomo Sugiyama, in The Improvement Book (Productivity Press, 1989), “Practice makes permanent, not perfect.” Or paraphrasing Deming Prize winner Ryuji Fukuda from Managerial Engineering (Productivity Press, 1983), “Before you practice, first be sure you are learning from a good teacher. Practicing a bad golf swing does not improve it.”  

Second, having new technology and benefiting from it are two different things. In 1965, my friend Rick and I had the physical technology in our hands, but the information component necessary for human benefit was not yet available. As Stan Davis notes in Future Perfect (Basic Books, 1987), information is the new currency. First to coin the terms “information society” and “mass customization,” Davis augured the impact of what is now dubbed IoT, the internet of things. Today, for example, thanks to multi-sensory technology, biomechanics, high-speed digital video, and analytics, the physics of pole vaulting is informed like never before. The result? The current world record for pole vault is more than 20 feet.

Unfortunately, like Rick and me, too many organizations spend millions for new technology, but then skimp on training employees how to use it. Perhaps this is because the technology is an “investment,” but training is an “expense.” 

Finally, pole vaulting is a human endeavor that has been around for thousands of years, slowly advancing from oak sticks to bamboo to tapered aluminum to fiberglass and carbon fiber, each technical change meeting first with objections (fiberglass poles were actually banned from the 1972 Olympics), and then through gradual learning and acceptance, propelling athletes to new heights. Owing to the science now behind it, perhaps we can call it pole vaulting 4.0, not really a revolution but more a continuous evolution supporting human endeavor.

So, why not take it to another level: Replace the athletes with robots. We could. But should we? This consideration is, for me, the most worrisome. Hearkening back to my backyard, where Rick and I first learned to fly, I wonder about the implications for human development. What do you think? 

(By the way, current pole vault world-record holder, Armand Duplantis, also began his reach for the sky as kid in his back yard. Have a look at the joy of human endeavor: 20 feet and climbing.)

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About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.