Standardized, but Not Identical – College Basketballs


As the main days of the men's NCAA basketball tourney (“March Madness”) start Thursday, here's a topic that might make for fun Lean discussion at work or something that you might possibly bore people with at a tourney watching party or your local sports bar (hello, Cliff Clavin). ;-) As a sad aside, my Northwestern Wildcats didn't make the tourney (it would have been their first-ever appearance).

This New York Times story (“Home-Court Edge Begins With Ball“) reveals a surprising detail about the balls used in the college game — they are not identical at each Division I school. This lack of standardization can provide a real edge to the home team, as the visitors might be thrown off by this.

From the article:

The N.C.A.A. does not require the use of a specific brand of basketball during the regular season. The home team plays with its preferred type, whether it is Nike or Spalding or Adidas. The choice is often tied to the team's equipment contract. Because each brand has a distinct feel, it is just another reason it is hard to play on the road in college basketball.

“It is funny that we don't use the same ball everywhere we go,” said Scott Garson, an assistant at U.C.L.A. “You've got enough things to fight on the road; the last thing you need to fight is the ball.”

This is an interesting case where we have “standards” but the level of “standardization” does not reach the level of being identical. I raise this as an issue because people (particularly in healthcare) cringe (or worse) when they hear of the Lean concept of “standardized work” because they leap to the conclusion that “standardized” means “identical” as in inflexible, robotic, etc.

Toyota uses the term “standardized work.” It's an extra syllable, but there's some nuance about that term compared to “standard work.” I have interpreted standardized work to mean a spectrum… ranging from zero standardization to being completely absolutely identical in every way.

Instead of being dogmatic that standardization is always good, we need to look for the grey area. Life's not black and white – standardized or not standardized. The sweet spot is in the middle, depending on the process and what's critical to safety, quality, outcomes, and cost.

When I make pizza dough, I follow a recipe. I have standard flour that I use. But, each batch of dough is unique because there's some judgment required in how I make the dough. Depending on the temperature, the humidity, the condition of that bag of flour, I might add a bit more water or less water. But I'd say I have “standardized work” for making dough that includes that the Training Within Industry approach would call having a “knack” for the work (the feel and look of the dough). Pizza dough can't be made robotically and each batch can't be identical — not if you want good results.

The purpose is great dough, which leads to great pizza. The purpose is not standardization for the sake of standardization.

Back to basketballs. While the NBA uses identical balls (well, with whatever natural variation occurs), the NCAA has standards, including (from the NCAA rule book)

For example, Section 15, Article 1 says, “the ball shall be spherical.” A ball must have a “deeply pebbled leather or composite cover” and “the traditionally shaped eight panels.” The rule book also specifies the three colors a ball can be (Orange 151, Red-Orange 173 or Brown 1535), and contains a detailed explanation about air pressure. The finer points state that basketballs used in men's games can be a maximum 30 inches and a minimum 29 ½ inches in circumference, and they cannot weigh less than 20 ounces or more than 22 ounces.

But each brand of ball is a bit different in its material and texture. Again, from the Times:

But the difference in basketballs from brand to brand is not insignificant. Finicky shooters and ball-handling point guards might complain if they think certain brands are too slick or too rough, or that a certain basketball's grooves are too deep or too shallow.

“It's definitely a difference, and I think that's something that goes under the radar sometimes,” Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs said. “It affects a little bit of everything: the handle, the gripping of it and the shooting of the ball. You just have to get used to it.”

Some players don't notice the difference. Some do, as illustrated in this story where Illinois (also not in the tourney) players complained about the balls being weird when they played a game at Oakland (MI) University. It turned out they were mistakenly using a women's basketball, which is smaller.

Interestingly, Wisconsin is the only school that uses an obscure brand called Sterling, while most schools use Spalding, Wilson, Nike, Macgregor, etc. Is that an extra advantage for Wisconsin in their home games? Or does that make it harder for them to adjust when going to another school?

The lack of standardization, as in many settings, increases costs as NCAA schools must keep an inventory of different brand balls on hand to help prepare for games at other schools.

But coming back to purpose — why would we want to standardize the NCAA ball (or make it “more standard” in that spectrum)? Is the purpose to have fair play and fair competition? Or is the purpose of the home team to win more games for their fans (an argument for less standardization).

Does this remind you of any issues or questions about standards and standardization in the workplace? We could talk about standards and standardization in other sports (playing dimensions, equipment, etc), but I wanted to keep this post short and basketball focused… but feel free to comment.

By the way, the tournament uses a consistent Wilson brand ball, if anyone asks.

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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 found your illustration of the Standardized spectrum to be very enlightening. I’ve struggled with those “fuzzy” terms of standardized and standardization, and your spectrum definitely helped clarify things for me. Thanks! -m

  2. As a big golf fan, I am not that keen on standardization in sport. Golf has a few standardized rules around ball size and club head size just as an example but its the natural elements of grass, wind, trees and water which make it so intriguing and difficult to master. Also the make up and physicallity of the human body either enables success or helps in failure. As for basketball players whinging about how a ball feels i say get on with it, you have way less variables in basketball than some other sports, or maybe find out what ball a team uses and practice with it the week before. Like the standardization visual, very useful. Thanks

  3. Mark,
    What concerns me most about this post is your comment “As a sad aside, my Northwestern Wildcats didn’t make the tourney (it would have been their first-ever appearance).”

    They did make the tournament and they beat Vandy in the First Round…lost to Gonzaga in the second round.

    I think there were more shots of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in the stands than the game itself (her son is on the team).

    Too bad you missed it.


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