“Like Lean” – NY Jets Coach Rex Ryan


I heard a story on NPR last week profiling New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, “In Football And Life, Ryan Plays Like He Means It.” I was reminded of some Lean leadership concepts right away during the interview.

From the piece:

“My dad taught me early in my coaching career that football is an easy game, made complicated by coaches,” Ryan tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

One could draw a parallel that business is relatively easy, often made complicated by managers and senior leaders.

Ryan talks about his defensive coaching style and how he makes sure everybody on the defense knows the entire system:

“And so what we do … with our defense, we'll actually have the entire defense in a meeting and we'll teach the entire defense to everybody.”

Ryan talks about, basically, breaking down the silos between positions so everybody knows what everybody is doing, rather than each position just knowing their own role:

On another team, the meetings may be divided by position. But Ryan believes that his method encourages each player to know what everybody else is doing, rather than just the coaches. And that split-second advantage makes a difference.

“Everybody is in the same room, and there's accountability because you all know each other's jobs,” he says. “You teach the whole defense to everybody and it may sound complicated [but] it's not.”

In Lean environments, we break down silos between departments and between roles so everybody can work more effectively for the sake of a shared mission and vision. In healthcare, breaking down these silos means doctors, nurses, and other roles can work together better for the sake of the patient. Last Friday, I spent time observing with a Dallas cosmetic surgeon, Dr. John Tebbetts, who has applied Lean and Toyota practices to his own work. Everybody in that operating room knows their own role and how everything fits together – just like the Jets defense.

The great Dr. W. Edwards Deming wrote and talked about psychology being the most important thing in leadership and business. Deming said, “supervisors need to find ways to translate the constancy of purpose to the individual employee,” emphasizing that managers can't treat all employees like identical cogs in some machine – we are all unique individuals.

Back to Coach Ryan:

In his book, Ryan writes about the benefits of treating different players differently according to their temperaments. He says some respond to profanities or insults, while others are likely to take such treatment personally.

“You gotta know what button to push on a guy,” Ryan says. “Bart Scott is one of the toughest guys I've ever been around. He's a mean kid, and you can cuss Bart Scott up and down the field, and sometimes that's the best thing to do to Bart, because he can handle it. Every single person is different, and they're all motivated differently.”

That's a coach, a manager, who understands their individual players in a very individual way.

You can read or listen to the story here.

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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. Hi Mark,

    Never thought that I would appreciate anything Rex Ryan has said (Pats fan pain showing here). But, it appears that he understands the power of his entire defense seeing and understanding how value flows (and keeping the opponent’s offense from flowing).

    Silos don’t play football. Teams play football.


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