Factory Fitness: What managers can learn from Athletics

This week, the 2013 IAAF World Championships in athletics is held in Moscow, Russia. If plant managers watch carefully, they might pick up a few ideas for improving their factories. A specific concept that comes to mind is the notion of Factory Fitness – proposed by Kasra Ferdows (Georgetown University) and Fritz Thurnheer (Hydro ASA) in 2011. The key take away is the following: Whereas becoming lean is right for many, becoming fit is right for all. How to become world champion depends on the event.

The marathon runners (Lean production)

Nowadays, it is particularly important to remind about the notion of Factory Fitness: More and more companies are seduced by the “lean euphoria”. Managers in all type of industries are looking high and low for places to remove waste from their organisations. They are joining the bandwagon. Running with the rest, towards new personal records in marathon. But, are they marathon runners?

Not all athletes, nor factories, should be super lean. Good athletes apply exercise- and nutrition programmes that are tailored to their needs. Common for all, however, is building the core muscles. Consider these different athletics: Marathon, 100 meter run, discus throw, high jump and decathlon. Which athlete should be leaner? Which should be fatter? Have more stamina? More power?

Moscow athletics 2013 factory fitness

If your factory is a shot-put athlete (say, for example a shipbuilding yard), a pole vault athlete (say, a high-tech medical equipment manufacturer), a marathon runner (e.g. a car manufacturer) or a decathlon athlete (e.g. a mechanical job-shop) your factory needs a tailored fitness regimen with a generic core: healthy food and a lot of core muscle building. Marathon runners need to be most lean – having stamina to run long distances at the fastest pace possible. Athletes in the throw events (put shot, discus, javelin and hammer) should have the most power. If they become too lean by removing all body fat (“inventory and waste” in the terms of lean production), they will not have the needed weight to perform at world-class levels. Athletes in the jump events must be the most resilient. Sprinters and hurdle runners must be agile. Decathlon and heptathlon athletes need the most balanced regimens. All of them, however, are fit.

Factory Fitness

The notion of Factory Fitness can help all the factories that have been misguided to sign up for the marathon event, while in reality being other types of athletes. They should focus on fitness rather than leanness. In the words of Ferdows and Thurnheer:

“There is a difference in becoming lean and becoming fit. One requires taking the fat out, the other building muscles and agility. A production system becomes leaner when it reduces waste and activities that do not add value for its customers; it becomes fitter when it improves and expands its core capabilities. Being fit and lean are innately complementary, and there is no sharp line between where one ends and the other begins. But a lean production system that ignores working on fitness – even if it belongs to the legendary Toyota – becomes fragile and can eventually wither, whereas a fit production system can stay lean under changing conditions and over long periods.” (p. 916)

They propose that manufacturing plants should focus on building core capabilities (muscles) like safety, quality, and delivery performances, instead of exaggeratedly focus on a slimming diet (“lean”). When companies design and structure their company-specific production systems (XPSs) a tailored fitness programme should be the target. Ferdows and Thurnheer suggest that a factory can become too lean, but never too fit(p. 927). These are wise words to remember. And the Athletics World Championship is a good reminder: Is your factory aiming at Faster, Higher or Stronger?

Model for building factory fitness (Source: Ferdows and Thurnheer, 2011, p. 923)

Model for building factory fitness (Source: Ferdows and Thurnheer, 2011, p. 923)



  • Ferdows, K., Thurnheer, F., 2011. Building factory fitness. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 31, Iss. 9, pp. 916-934

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