Tips for Lean Managers

Flow Counterclockwise for a Good Reason

By Jon Miller Published on September 23rd, 2004

I came across an interesting article while riding the bullet train in August during our last Japan Kaikaku Experience (Lean study trip). On page 69 of the September 2004 of Wedge magazine (Vol. 16 No. 9) there was an article by science writer Hideaki Fukami on the origins of the counterclockwise direction of athletic fields (baseball fields, track fields) and how they came to be so. There I found the reason why my kaizen sensei insisted on designing work cells and work flow counterclockwise.
According to Fukami there is a scientific reason for the standard counterclockwise flow of race tracks. He explains that in the 1896 Athens Olympics, the tracks were actually clockwise. However, due to complaint from the athletes that it felt unnatural, it was changed to “left hand inside” or counterclockwise in 1913. Was this just a feeling, or did it actually affect the athletes’ performance?
Fukami conducted an experiment by having 4 university track athletes run the 400 meter both clockwise and counterclockwise. The results of the average times were 58.62 for clockwise and 56.52 seconds for counterclockwise. More than 2 seconds difference!
Fukami further explores various examples of “left hand inside” phenomena in the article. One interesting examples of the findings of his research is that 80% of fleeing criminals fled to the left, according to the Hyogo Prefecture Police. Arrests rose by 60% when the number of police officers pursuing the fleeing criminal from the left were increased.
One of the strongest reasons given for the innate “left hand inside” preference for human motion comes from brain science. According to a Professor Matsumoto, since the right brain processes spatial recognition human perception of space is stronger through the left side of vision (the hemispheres of the brain control opposite sides of the body). When you are running “left hand inside” or counterclockwise, you have better visibility of space on the left side and you are able to run more comfortably, confidently, and quickly.
Interestingly enough, Matsumoto points out that amusement rides that are designed to terrify tend to be clockwise, putting human visual spatial perception at a disadvantage and increasing your fear and discomfort. The merry-go-round, which is not designed to make you afraid is… you guessed it, counterclockwise.
So, Lean Champion, the next time you’re challenged about the direction of the flow of the cell, and location of chucks on lathes, right-handedness, and “sensei said so” doesn’t cut it, you can explain it using brain science.

  1. Lean Champion

    September 24, 2004 - 7:16 am


  2. Bear McLaughlin

    September 24, 2004 - 2:13 pm

    This is very interesting. Recently during Lean training and looking at the TPS (Toyota Production System)we were discussing the 7 Wastes, one participant said his area was great. We immediately left the classroom to do a Gemba walk. We reached his area, which looked pretty good. We started out walking clockwise to take a look at inventory waste, a few things came up. The next step was to ask the area expert some questions and note possible quick change opportunities. The expert looked to his left and went “Oh Yea” these panels are inventory waste too, what happened then was he continued to look left and we re-walked his area. At the end of the walk this time we had 3 pallets of waste noted. Wow, what a difference in just the direction we went for the Gemba walk.

  3. jonath

    December 8, 2004 - 8:16 am

    Hi !
    I am really interested in the article you speak about.
    But, I don’t manage to find anything about some “Wedge magazine” on the Web.
    Could you tell me more about what the article contains ? Could you send me the text of this article ?
    Thank you very much.

  4. Jon Miller

    December 8, 2004 - 8:24 am

    Dear Jonathan,
    Wedge Magazine is a magazine in Japanese distributed on bullet trains in Japan. As far as I know it is not available in English. It is a short article, and my summary covers most of the points in the article. Thanks for your interest.

  5. john

    August 11, 2006 - 11:27 am

    what about horse racing direction? races have been occuring before the 1896 olympics. do the horses brain work the same way? is it also because for most people it doesnt feel right because if they are right handed,most people are,their left eye is a lefty myself my right eye is dominant,esp when batting a baseball.and so i assume car racing,counterclockwise is based on this same principle.does this also mean that on the avg right handed people have an adv. in racing since their left eye is more dominant?

  6. Jon Miller

    August 11, 2006 - 12:26 pm

    Not sure about horses, but I imagine that their right brain processes spatial information just as humans, based on the statistics Fukami found about fleeing animals.
    I don’t think it has anything to do with handedness. It is not that the left or right eye is dominant from what I understand, it is that the right brain processes spatial information in humans.
    Watching a baseball may be the same type of spatial information or it may be a different type of processing by the brain since you are fixing on a single point (baseball) and you are not physically moving yourself through space.
    Instead of processing the visual information of the changing relationship of yourself to the physical space around you, the brain sends a signal to swing the bat when it recognizes the ball is in the right place.
    Very interesting question.

  7. Julien

    November 21, 2020 - 10:33 am

    I’m a french journalist and I would like to write something about this theory of the counterclockwise run for neurological reason. But, except in this blog, I found nowhere mention of this fact and this author – weirdly, many french Internet sites used this theory without other confirmation. I suppose you don’t kept the magazine ou even the page with the article ? Or have you heard anything about it since then ?
    To put it frankly, are you sure it was a real serious article ? May be it was just an experiment made by a person, without scientific ground ?
    Many thanks if you could answer my questions.
    Best regards,

    • Jon Miller

      November 21, 2020 - 11:48 am

      Hello Julien
      Thanks for your question. I didn’t keep the magazine, unfortunately. The article made a reference to the 1913 Olympic committee decision to standardize the counter-clockwise direction.

      I found this research paper from a Google search


      In 1896, the First Modern Olympic Games was held in Athens, Greece. During this event the athletes were required to run clockwise during the track events. This was met with much complaint from the athletes. It was because of these complaints that the IOC then gathered in 1913 and set the current anticlockwise rule. We run counterclockwise because everything in nature tends towards counterclockwise motion. That spectator will perceive the runners as moving left to right-the same direction our eyes move when we read. The human body is slightly heavier than the right because of the heart and when running anticlockwise, the body would tend to very slightly incline towards the left, which could be an advantage while running anticlockwise most people are right hand/leg dominant. Moving counterclockwise we have a better control and move faster. Position of the center of foot pressure during balance tests was correlated with the turning score.

      Perhaps you can contact the IOC to ask if they have any record of this decision, or scientific research supporting it.

      Best wishes,


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