Coach Vince Lombardi on Striving for Perfection


I apologize to those of you who aren't fans of American football… but in keeping with the Super Bowl theme, I found this Vince Lombardi quote on my hotel key when I checked into a hotel (in Seattle, not Green Bay) last night:

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

Was Coach Lombardi an early Lean thinker? We are still having this discussion in healthcare today – is it worth striving for “zero defects?” Aiming for zero – zero patient falls, zero medication errors, zero hospital acquired infections — zero patient harm might be unattainable, but that's the only goal worth chasing, I say. And so says Lombardi. So says Paul O'Neill, if you check out this previous post of mine.

Critics of aiming for zero say we run the risk of discouraging people by setting unattainable goals?

What say you?

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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. The risk of ciscouraging people is there only if we haven’t put the concept of zero defects in proper perspective. Lombardi sure had the proper perspective.

    I was a kid during the Lombardi Green Bay years and have been a Packer fan ever since, so Go Pack this Sunday!

  2. Here’s what I know – 100% of the time when I push improvement teams to set even more aggressive improvement goals than they initially have, they not only meet them, they surpass them. That level of success creates the psychological high that fuels ongoing improvement. Henry Ford said: “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” I say bravo for zero defects goals. Keeps people motivated and creates a sense of urgency.

  3. I agree with Mark and Karen. You have to push for perfection. I had an engineer tell me once that is was part of a process to start an injection molding press with the first few shots being scrap. I asked about the process and pushed him to start the press with no scrap for one particular tool. A month later he came back he had 5 start ups of the tool with no scrap. He said he would not use the phrase, “It is part of the process” again. Just like Vince, excellence was achieved in striving for perfection.

  4. I think an important part of the picture is not to make “zero defects” an empty slogan without the right leadership and management support.

    ZD can be a great goal if leadership acts consistently that quality is important and if people are working together to meet that goal.

    ZD can be really frustrating if management says, implicitly or explicitly, that “making the numbers” in a quantity perspective is the only thing that matters or if employees are blamed for any non-zero level of errors.

  5. One of my fav sayings is to stop competing with you competition… instead, compete against perfection. So, yeah, I love the Lombardi saying!

    I am going to quickly press submit now lest my North Texas power goes off so Jerry’s World continues to glow strong during the rolling blackouts… but I’m not bitter. Ha!

  6. Ron, there is a book called Tribal Leadership that came out a few years ago that describes the progressive stages organizations can move toward. The “tribes” that that are most successful eventually stop competing against their competition, as you mentioned above, and are driven by a higher purpose – very Toyota-like, although Toyota isn’t mentioned in the book. It’s a good read if you ever have or want to take the time.

  7. Mark, this is one of my favorite discussions with people – whether it’s zero defects in manufacturing, or zero denials or infections in healthcare, the goal is to establish a process the will drive your results towards zero. One of my most significant ah-ha moments was the realization that whether you set your expectations high, or set them low, people will strive to meet them…so it is always better to set high expectations. I’d rather fall a little short of a high expectation of perfection and achieve excellence, than consistently meet lower expectations and maintain mediocrity. Zero defects is not a number to be attained, it is a mindset that says we can always get better.

  8. I actually wrote about this quote in what might have been my first or second print article, now a long time ago. I love the quote, and it sums up the value of working towards an ideal state.

    I think people confuse the idea of the target condition or the ideal state, with goals. A goal of zero may be discouraging. But an ideal state certainly should pursue perfection.

  9. Hi
    1st time on lean blog. Need any advice concerning reducing hospital falls using Lean. Trying to implement Lean concerning this area of the hospital and I need alll the help I can get. Any suggestions, goals…anything would be helpful as I am a beginner at this.

  10. Hi Joanne – Great that you’re tackling the important and surprisingly common problem re: patient falls. Following PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) is simple method for introducing your organization to scientific problem-solving.

    1. Gather relevant data: quantity, type, severity, location, time of day, anything you can get your hands on– to establish your baseline from which to measure improvement. I’d get anecdotal data as well from nursing & other relevant parties. I’d also go to the gemba and observe.

    2. Analyze data: look for trends, segment into types, etc.

    3. Set your target condition(s). Obviously you want zero falls but, while we’re always seeking perfection, zero isn’t realistic — especially on an initial round of improvement.

    4. Determine the root cause(s) – You’ll likely have different root causes for different types of falls. Make sure you uncover the REAL root cause, not the superficial one.

    5. Plan & implement countermeasures.

    6. Now the tough part – habituating/institutionalizing the changes you’ve made to reduce falls. You’ll need to get leadership support as well as every single nurse, HUC, provider, transporter, ancillary staff, etc. on board. Processes need to be documented and you’ll need to train people on the new process(es). I recommend one person be charged with monitoring results for an extended period of time.

    7. Measure results – gather hard data, anecdotal data, and observe. Adjust as needed, continue to measure and improve.

    8. And most importantly, buy Mark’s book if you haven’t already. :-)
    It’s very, very good.

    I hope this helps a bit – there’s more to improvement than this, but I hope this gets you pointed in the correct direction.

    All the best,


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