Do Good Coaches Brush Off Feedback from the Team as Whining?


I got a question via Twitter yesterday from somebody who asked how to help production operators make the case to supervisors that their kaizen ideas should be implemented. My response was that the supervisors are the ones you need to work on – why aren't they accepting employee ideas or at least working with them to implement the ideas?

It's said that Toyota implements more than 90% of employee suggestions – either what was initially suggested or some other countermeasure that came as a result of discussions after that initial suggestion.

Anyway, that discussion reminded me of a story I found back in December, of the University of Illinois men's basketball coach not listening to his team…

At the beginning of the game against Oakland (MI) University, the Illinois men could barely make a shot, starting 3 for 13, falling behind by 11 points.

As the article says:

Normally when shooters blame the ball for their poor performances, they are just seeking an outlet for frustration.

Ah, blame. It's such a natural human instinct. When things are going well, we point fingers and make excuses and blame. It's pretty easy to do…

How did coach Bruce Weber react?

“Our kids said something right away, but I said ‘You guys are just missing shots, shut up and play,' ” Weber said

Coach Weber wasn't listening. I guess coaches quit listening when their team members are always whining and complaining?

Weber should have “gone to the gemba” – in this case the basketball floor, not the shopfloor.]

If he had gone and checked out the problem first hand, instead of just talking with (or yelling at) his players, Weber would have discovered the problem. Again, from the article:

That's because for more than seven minutes, the two teams played using a women's ball, which is smaller in circumference and lighter than a regulation-size men's ball.

“I never had that happen before,” senior guard Demetri McCamey said. “I don't even know what to say about that. It felt like a Nerf ball.”

McCamey said he felt the difference after his first shot and other players complained until the officials took a look at the ball and decided to switch it. During a break in the action, official Mike Sanzere finally took the women's ball out of play with 13 minutes 38 seconds remaining in the first half.

Now Illinois was the home team, so when looking for some sort of root cause, they couldn't blame the visitors.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber did his best Robert Stack impression to explain the unsolved mystery and said the ball was on a game-ball rack from a recent women's game at Assembly Hall. Somebody grabbed it off the rack.

That's not really a root cause there — we could ask why the ball was on the rack? Men's and women's teams typically use the same practice facilities and the same arena for games.

How could Illinois error proof this for future games? What can they do that's better than adding three separate sequential inspection steps before the game?

So Coach Weber didn't listen to his players. Supervisors and managers often don't listen to their players. I heard that complaint early in my career at GM, where the UAW guys said management didn't listen. I hear the same complaints from nurses in hospitals. What's the root cause of that?

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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. Sometimes I don’t listen because I am too focused on the end result. I don’t see the need for “collecting sensory information about the environment and the events unfolding within it.”

    It can be tough to change direction (and our culture does not actively ‘reward’ this: curiosity, awareness and introspection). ??

  2. Mark – Thanks for making the point. If you (as the supervisor) can’t imagine that something is wrong you would never think of, you clearly get upset when your people show difficulty on the playground/ shopfloor. Letting go of the believe is in tough times not easy, and often the only thing to get the ball really rolling ;-)

    Cheers, Ralf

  3. Mark,
    Just a thought–while I agree with the principle about going to gemba, I disagree that the ball was the cause of the team falling behind. Unless Oakland was switching the ball between posessions, wouldn’t they have had the same problem? Both teams should have been shooting egually miserably.

  4. Mark, You are giving a good point. Especially when something seems theoretically equal, human beings and their behavior often change so quickly the human dynamics that a disequilibrium turns out quicker than one can see. This all to often can happen in work team on various occasions. Being on the Gemba, as worker, coach, trainer, a lot of these things have happened (quite subtle in the beginning – and could be avoided before the big bang appeared mostly).

    I am happy do dig deeper into this issue if you interested.

    Cheers, Ralf

  5. Why do we not listen? Great question
    Why could the players not say immediately the ball was not the right one (identifying default)?

  6. Mark, Nice to read more on the subject; getting ideas implemented. As you said on Twitter, get the supervisors on board! Now this post helps me better understand why. It’s a good case to share with them.

    – Jos de Jong
    Process / Quality Engineer

    Twitter: Jos_de_Jong


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