Edwin Moses was the greatest 400m hurdler the world has ever seen.
Moses won two Olympic gold medals in the 400m hurdles (and would have won a third had it not been for the 1980 Olympic boycott) and a bronze medal. He set four world records and won 122 straight races over 10 years. Even now—nearly two decades after his retirement—he owns four of the fastest races ever run, including the second fastest time in history.
Why should you care about this track and field legend? Because the way he approached his event holds lessons for you, whatever your job. Moses was certainly more physically gifted than your average jogger, but—perhaps because of his background as a physics and engineering major—it was his relentless focus on process and measurement that etched his name in the record books.
A little background
There are 10 hurdles in a 400m hurdle race. Until Moses came along, conventional wisdom held that runners should take 14 steps between hurdles. Taking 13 steps for the whole race was considered impossible, because it was physically too taxing to hold the longer stride length for 400m. Taking 15 steps between hurdles would result in a stride too short to be competitive at the Olympic level.
However, taking 14 steps means that you switch lead legs for each hurdle. The problem is that almost everyone is better/faster leading with one leg than another. Most hurdlers run some combination of 13, 14, and 15 steps. If they’re one of the rare athletes who can lead well with both legs, they might take 14 steps. Otherwise, they usually start with 13 steps, and then switch to 15 steps somewhere in mid-race when they get tired.
The Moses breakthrough
Moses, who was self-coached, realized that taking an odd number of steps would enable him to lead with the same leg over all the hurdles and thereby maintain a consistent rhythm through the race. If he could do that, he’d be faster than other runners who were changing legs or taking smaller strides.
In the language of Toyota Kata, his challenge was to find a training method that would enable him to hold 13 steps for the whole race. And that’s precisely what he did. Of course, he did all the necessary technique training to improve his hurdling form. But largely he trained like a middle-distance runner to develop enough strength to hold his stride length for the full 400m. Moses almost always took 153 steps in the race, regardless of the weather (hot? cold? windy?) or the competition (Did he have an early lead, or was someone pressuring him?). Occasionally, he finished in 152 or 154 steps, but that one stride difference came in the final sprint to the finish, not in the middle of the hurdles. Those were always 13 steps. To this day, he’s the only world-class hurdler to consistently run the whole race in 13 steps.
What you can learn from Moses
Moses studied his event—which is to say, his job—thoroughly. He worked to improve his hurdling technique constantly. He experimented with different stride lengths and different stride cadences to discover the optimal mix for him. He developed a unique training regimen that gave him the physical endurance to maintain his form throughout an entire race.
Have you actually studied the myriad processes that comprise your job? Have you examined each step to develop deep understanding? How often have you experimented with different methods? In my experience, most people spend more time analyzing how to beat rush hour traffic than they do analyzing their jobs. Even the OpEx community is much faster to turn the searchlight of their analytical powers on others’ work than on their own.
There’s a long tradition—at least dating back to Frederick Taylor—of doing this sort of analysis on the shop floor. But the opportunities for experimentation abound in the office as well. For example:
Edwin Moses may have been “just” an athlete, but he approached the 400m hurdles like a scientist and ended up in the record books. You can too.