The NBA Not Involving Its Employees Regarding the New Ball?


NBA NOTES: Stern says NBA dropped ball

A key aspect of the Lean Manufacturing mindset is involving and empowering your employees. This is necessary whether you're working on lean in factories, hospitals, or any sort of environment. Many companies say they are working on lean and forget to significantly involve their employees. At least the NBA has never claimed to be working on lean.

I'm not a huge NBA fan anymore, but I had noticed news reports that they had a new ball. It's a synthetic ball (as opposed to leather) among other changes in the pattern (it's now two pieces that are glued together instead of four, if you must know).

Players have been complaining about the new ball for some time and it sounds like the NBA might be starting to cave in…. admitting problems but stopping just short of going back to the old leather ball.

Let's go back to the introduction of the new ball, in June:

The NBA and Spalding subjected the ball to a rigorous evaluation process that included laboratory and on-court testing. Every NBA team received the new ball and had the opportunity to use it in practice.

Superstar Dwyane Wade said, at the time:

“…I think the grip is nice … I'll be able to do more tricks with it, so I'm excited about the grip of it. It feels really good.”

Well, the season started and the complaints started rolling in:

Some of the NBA's biggest stars, including Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and Steve Nash, have said the ball is sticky when dry and slippery when wet.

I guess Wade's initial trial and thoughts didn't play out when real games started.

Sometimes when you put in a change, no matter how good the change might be (such as Lean practices), people get uncomfortable because it's something new. Your factory layout might be much improved, but for someone who worked for five years in the old layout, it's going to be uncomfortable at first. Maybe the same was true with a new NBA ball? Commissioner David Stern said, in October:

“… as the players get more used to it, it will become less and less of an issue for us.” Stern said.

It's the “give them time and they'll get used to it” school of management. From my experience, there's some truth to that. But, it's hard to tell sometimes if people are rebelling and uncomfortable just because something's new (give it time) or because you made a mistake (such as a new layout that really isn't better — and it needs fixing instead of giving it time).

It makes you wonder how much the NBA was really working with the players. Stern said, later in October:

“We have sent out the most stringent testing crew to see what there is to the issue,” Stern said when asked if returning to leather was under consideration.

That sounds like a Six-Sigma-ish response to complaints from employees (the players truly are the league's “most important asset”)… to rely on specialized experts rather than the opinions of your front-line experts (in this case the players)

So today, Stern finally started admitting mistakes:

Commissioner David Stern acknowledged Tuesday that the NBA should have sought more input from players before introducing its new game ball.

The lack of player input prompted one of the two unfair labor practice charges the union filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

“I won't make a spirited defense with respect to the ball,” Stern said. “In hindsight, we could have done a better job.”

I'll give Stern credit for admitting management mistakes on the NBA's part. I wonder how much of this is a case of not involving players enough and how much is labor union posturing?

I'll tend to side with the players. With reports that the new ball's surface is cutting players' fingers and is suspected to cause some injuries, I'd have to doubt how much serious testing that management did.

Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are among the players who have complained that the new ball's microfibre surface gives frequent handlers paper-cut-size gashes on their fingers. Nash has been seen covering his digits in bandages and the Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported yesterday that some NBA assistant coaches, who make hundreds of passes a day during drills, have taken to wearing gloves.

Maybe I'm overanalyzing this, but use this situation to think about your change management and people leadership situations. How much do you rely on experts versus your value adding employees? How do you respond when you hear complaints? How do you know when to “ride out” the storm versus going back to reconsider your changes? Have experiences to share?

UPDATE: They're changing back

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I’ve been following this story with interest, and as a Lean guy, I see the whole “non-involvement, reaction, union intervention” thing as completely unnecessary – if things had been done differently. David Stern may be the best commissioner in sports today, but his tendency to dictate policy without sufficient consensus from his organization has bitten him on the, well, you know. Though the dynamics of sports aren’t the same as building cars or machining parts, the human dynamics are similar – people want to be involved in the decisions that affect their work. I’ve quoted others who have said that Lean is 20% tools and 80% change management. Perhaps Commissioner Stern is just starting to learn that lesson.

  2. Very insightful, Dean.

    One other approach I like to adopt from Toyota is “explaining why” to help get buy in. Did the league sufficiently explain “why” to the players? Or did they just say, “here’s a new ball, have fun”?

    There are stories out there that one of the league owners is a huge PETA type activist and pushed the league toward a synthetic ball for that reason alone.

    I still find it hard to believe that Spalding could design a ball that cuts your fingers. I wonder how much of the new ball plan was built around a business case of selling new balls to people and promoting Spalding?

    If Nike had done this, I bet we’d hear more of an uproar? That said, this could be a fight amongst sponsors (Nike players badmouthing Spalding). There’s that factor, as well. Complicated dynamics. But yes, I think Stern blew it.

  3. After more than 15 years, this sort of issue is in the news again…

    NBA players struggling to adapt to new Wilson basketball

    “Not to make an excuse or anything, but I said that about the ball, it’s just a different basketball,” George said after the Clippers’ win Monday night. “It doesn’t have the same touch or softness that the Spaulding ball had. You’ll see this year, it’s going to be a lot of bad misses. I think you’ve seen a lot of airballs so far this season.

    “So again, not to put an excuse or blame the basketball, but it is different. It’s no secret, it’s a different basketball.”

    Maybe it just took a little time to get used to the new ball?

    “When we first got the ball the guys, anything new, they were like “why’d they change” and all that, but since the first couple weeks we had the ball I haven’t had anyone come up to me and say anything about it,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said.


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