A Lean Guy Reads USA Today – NBA Unis and Teacher Merit Pay


It's time for a Lean Blog feature I haven't done in a while…. “A Lean Guy Reads _______”. I've done this before with the WSJ, Fortune, and USA Today (click here for past editions). This time, it's Tuesday's USA Today with articles that caught my lean eye.

In the paper, I saw articles about the NBA's new uniforms and merit pay for teachers, so that's today's random combination of topics.

NBA Has Learned Its Lesson?

Back in 2006, the NBA foolishly forced a new synthetic basketball on the players without getting their input. I wrote about it here: “The NBA Not Involving Its Employees?”

It seemed like a classic case of bad “change management” practices — if you force a major change on people without doing small pilots and without getting their input, they are going to be upset (especially if they are millionaire athletes with a lot of power). The NBA quickly backpedaled and scrapped the new ball, with the commissioner admitting his blew it (redeeming himself as a leader).

Well, now the NBA has introduced new uniform fabrics for all 30 teams. They were sure, this time, to 1) test early and 2) get player input.

From Tuesday's article:

To sidestep problems such as the player revolt over Spalding's synthetic game ball in 2006, Adidas tested uniforms with more than 200 NBA and Development League players over the past four years.

The NBA's biggest stars wore prototypes at the 2009 All-Star Game, then the final version at the 2010 All-Star Game.

Sal LaRocca, the NBA's executive vice president of global merchandising, says feedback from players such as  Amar'e Stoudemire of the  New York Knicks has been positive.

“We haven't come across a single player who's said, ‘I'd prefer to wear something that isn't as comfortable, that's heavier and doesn't dry as quickly,' ” LaRocca says.

Smart move on the NBA's part (or on the part of Adidas). I bet David Stern learned his lesson, he's a smart man.

Think about your workplace — it's so easy to say “people resist change” but that seems to be an excuse. When you want to point the finger at others for “not accepting change,” look in the mirror and think if you've really truly involved them and gotten their input or not…

Merit Pay Not Working for Teachers

I'm a big believer in Dr. Deming's philosophy that merit pay based on individuals is more harmful than helpful, as it can breed dysfunctional internal competition or it's just not fair at times. Alfie Kohn (who I interviewed here) makes the case in his book Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes.

I usually roll my eyes when politicians (of either party) say that merit pay or incentives are the key, that by bribing teachers we'll magically get better test scores. My mother, sister, and brother-in-law are all teachers and I know that sometimes, regardless of how good you are or how high you try, you might be put in a bad situation. My mom was an elementary school teacher (now retired) in inner-city Detroit, with high poverty levels. You think the test results are mostly the result of my mom's ability and effort? Ha.

Now the USA Today had an article, “Merit pay study: Teacher bonuses don't raise student test scores.”  Even if you believe merit pay is a good idea, this study and evidence suggests otherwise. From the article:

Offering middle-school math teachers bonuses up to $15,000 did not produce gains in student test scores,  Vanderbilt University researchers reported Tuesday in what they said was the first scientifically rigorous test of merit pay.

The  results (pdf) could amount to a cautionary flag about paying teachers for the performance of their students, a reform strategy the Obama administration and many states and school districts have favored despite lukewarm support or outright opposition from teachers' unions.

I'm shocked that I agree with the teachers' unions!

In any PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle, you need to look at feedback (“check”) before deciding to continue moving ahead or going back to try something different. If we have “evidence-based government” (similar to the phrase “evidence-based management,” that I first heard from author Daniel Pink, author of the outstanding Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us), we'd do well to not be stubborn about what we previously tried (what I call a PDRJ cycle or Plan-Do-Rationaize-Justify).

The Obama administration seems unfazed (it is only one study, I guess):

The study did not shake the faith of U.S. Secretary of Education  Arne Duncan in merit pay.

“While this is a good study, it only looked at the narrow question of whether more pay motivates teachers to try harder,” said Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for Duncan. It did not address the Obama administration's push to “change the culture of teaching by giving all educators the feedback they need to get better.”

“Feedback to get better” is a better motivation for merit pay than would be firing the bottom 10% of teachers each year…

This is, like lean healthcare, a pretty non-partisan issue as you have those on the right who believe in merit pay as well, from the article:

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the  American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., said he does not believe the study says much of value and worries it will only confuse the issue.

“The fact that that teachers don't respond to cash bonuses like rats do to food-pellets does nothing to diminish my confidence that it's good for schooling if teacher pay better reflects the contributions that teachers make,” Hess said. “Serious proponents of merit pay believe the point is not any kind of short-term test-score bump but making the profession more attractive to talented candidates.”

I don't understand his point at all. He's right that teachers aren't rats (nor are they donkeys responding to a carrot), but he draws a surprising conclusion that merit pay is OK, even though it doesn't work? How does “merit pay” attract better teachers? Just paying people a higher flat paycheck would have the same effect, so I think Mr. Hess is even more confused than the others (and don't confuse the American Enterprise Institute with the Lean Enterprise Institute!).

What do you think?

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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. Mark,

    I still have to say I disagree with you on the topic of merit based pay. I could go back to the NFL discussion on contracts in one of your posts a while ago, but I think this time, I’ll ask about three things.

    1. Do you think all new hires in the same job should get paid the same?
    2. Do you think that all sales commissions should be eliminated?
    3. Do you think manager bonuses should be eliminated?

    I’ll agree that money is not the top motivator (relationships and trust are both bigger), but it is not insignificant. It cannot be the only factor in creating an effective, satisfied workforce, nor will it work in every situation, but it is a tool in a leader’s bag of tricks.

    P.S. I think the teachers’ case might be a case of M.A.M.E. (Merit-Pay As Misguidedly Executed).


    • Jeff – I think we’re maybe working off of different operational definitions of merit pay. I mean “incentive” pay or variable pay above and beyond salaries when we’re having these discussions.

      So to answer your questions:
      1) No, of course not.
      2) Yes
      3) Maybe not, if they are company or team incentives

      I like the philosophy of CEOs like Eric Christiansen (podcast: https://www.leanblog.org/18) who realize individual incentives create more dysfunction than they are worth. Pay people a high enough salary (probably “above average”) to attract good people and you don’t need the “carrot and stick” approach if you lead them properly (they aren’t donkeys).

      I think team-based or company incentives make more sense if they get people working together toward a common goal and not competing with each other.

      Please don’t misunderstand my argument as one that says “everyone should be paid the same.” That’s not what I’m saying. Quarterbacks and punters shouldn’t be paid the same. The market determines your paycheck and having better skills, higher education, or more seniority should count. But I’m wary of a “bag of tricks” to “bribe” (Dr. Deming’s words) people to work harder or produce better quality.


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