Alabama Coach Nick Saban & “The Process”: National Champion & Lean Thinker?


I guess that, considering last year's blog post, this Lean thinker couldn't really root for Notre Dame and Coach Brian Kelly Monday night in the BCS National Championship Game.

Just before kickoff, ESPN's Tom Rinaldi asked Saban,

“Coach, you love to talk about process… but this game is all about results. What do you need to do to win tonight's game?”

I think I literally stopped and made this Scooby Doo sound after hearing “process”:

Process? You're talking about process? Wow.

The results were good for Alabama (a 42-14 drubbing of Notre Dame)… so the process must have been good?

There's a serious point in the discussion of process and results.

I've been taught (and seen firsthand) that traditional management mindsets would say, “All I care about is the results. If the results are good, then everything must be good.”

Lean thinkers realize that “the right process brings the right results.” Results do matter, but we focus on process to get there, rather than just looking at the score at the end of the game (or the financial results at the end of a year).

In the Lean mindset:

  • Good results, bad process = Bad… we must have gotten lucky or we still need to improve
  • Bad results, bad process = Yup, we have to fix the process
  • Bad results, good process = Hmmm, maybe we don't have the right process afterall
  • Good results, good process = The ideal situation

I did a search and found this New York Times article about Saban and process:

Saban Is Keen to Explain ‘Process'.”

The Times writer described how Saban normally doesn't love talking with the media, but:

Saban loves his process, loves talking about his process, loves explaining his process. One answer he provided at media day on Saturday went nearly 200 words – and that was just on what the process means, what the process is.

Saban described “the process” as “what you have to do day in and day out to be successful.”

He elaborated:

“We try to define the standard that we want everybody to sort of work toward, adhere to, and do it on a consistent basis. And the things that I talked about before, being responsible for your own self-determination, having a positive attitude, having great work ethic, having discipline to be able to execute on a consistent basis, whatever it is you're trying to do, those are the things that we try to focus on, and we don't try to focus as much on the outcomes as we do on being all that you can be.

  • Having standards.
  • Being responsible.
  • Having a positive attitude.
  • Working hard.

Those are all core Lean principles, we could argue.

Now, I don't think Saban was referring to “5S” when he said:

“Eliminate the clutter and all the things that are going on outside and focus on the things that you can control with how you sort of go about and take care of your business. That's something that's ongoing, and it can never change.”

By “clutter,” I am guessing that Saban is referring, really, to what we'd call “waste” in the Lean methodology. Stop doing the things that don't add value to your customers or stop doing those things that interfere with providing value.

It's a core Kaizen principle to focus on what you can control, rather than blaming other departments or other organizations.

Like a good lean thinker, Saban can't possibly change that mindset… it's just the way he does things and the way he thinks, as opposed to being a program.

Now, Saban doesn't always follow the NCAA rules  (also see here). He's been known to suddenly quit a job or two, leaving his employer (in college or the NFL) in the lurch.  

I don't think he's an exemplary football coach or that he's perfect. But, it's interesting to hear about his “process.”

My friend Dan Markovitz noticed something similar a while back (see his blog post).

There's a contrarian view via (warning: the S word) that calls Saban's drive “has no logical end” and that he never has any “joy in winning” and that he appears to be “consumed” by football. Lean and the Toyota Production System are about the continuous pursuit of perfection.

That said, we shouldn't be miserable because we aren't performing perfectly. As the Deadspin writer summarizes:”

“Saban is like a corporation that long ago ceased to be a mom-and-pop operation and became an international conglomerate, focused solely on acquiring assets and driving its stock price higher and higher and higher, with no clear ceiling in mind. Nothing but an endless demand for annual growth that won't cease until something catastrophic happens.”


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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. Saban’s process has always been fascinating to me. It is extremely similar to everything I have read about John Wooden. Wooden rarely discussed winning and losing, but always coached to consistent excellence and continuous improvement. He also claimed (hard to believe) that they never game planned for an opponent. They just focused on reaching their own perfection. Saban’s process certainly works with the caliber of athletes he gets, but I think it is a good approach in college athletics. Great life leasons to be applied in other professions. I do believe his personality simply does not convey his joy outwardly. Maybe he just needs to go Bobby Bowden or Jimmy Johnson on the media.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for the post, I always enjoy reading and listing about how lean, process or continuous improvement is applied in a sports setting.

    Some of your readers maybe interested in this article which talks about the philosophy underpinning the sucess of the British Cycling Team.

    In summary, they have a belief that if you look at every aspect of your cycling programme and improve it by 1%, when you add them back together this amounts to a significant improvement overall. This principle is known as “Marginal Gains”. There are some other observations readers may observe as being “lean” like…

  3. Hi Mark

    Saban realizes something any really good coach realizes that you can only deal with what your team does, and how ready they are to execute the game they are capable of. If you let the opposition dictate how you play, you are not doing what you are best at, but instead playing to what they are best at. In my high school we had a senior coach that for most of the year we played our game regardless of who we played. Yet every year come the playoffs he changed the game plan to suit the opposition, and we failed to ever win a title. Another coach played from the start to the final playoff game, by following the game plan that best suited his current players, not surprising he won several titles during the time I was there.

    Businesses make the same mistake by spending too much effort worrying about the competition and what they are doing, while smart businesses focus on their operations and their customers, and only passively keep and eye on the competition. Not surprising that companies that do that are usually industry and market leaders, while those focusing on them are always trying to catch up.

    • Thanks for sharing the link.

      Yes, Lean leaders are not “dictators” (as Saban was accused of being in that article) and they certainly don’t have a policy of “don’t speak to me unless spoken to.”

      That said, effective leaders who are changing the culture are bound to make enemies, so stories of disgruntled employees sometimes need to be taken with a grain of salt.

      I know he’s not perfect, but he might not be as bad as reported, either. I bet the truth lies somewhere in the middle.


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