Parallels Between Philadelphia Eagles’ Coach Chip Kelly & A Lean Leader


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The Philadelphia Eagles are playing in an NFL playoff matchup tonight against the New Orleans Saints. I'd admired Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and his somewhat unlikely rise through the coaching ranks. He's well known from his successful stint at the University of Oregon, but before that he was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, a school in the lower “FCS” tier that managed to upset my beloved Northwestern Wildcats in 2006 (please hold your jokes about NU being “lower tier”).

When the Eagles hired Kelly, many thought that he would directly transplant his wild, fast-paced offensive game to the NFL. That strategy has failed for other college coaches who made the leap to the NFL.  That, with the poor track record of other college coaches in the NFL, the odds might have been against Kelly. But, he's in the playoffs… and he's sort of like a “Lean leader.”

The Wall St. Journal had an interesting article ($$) on Kelly: “Why the Eagles Aren't Ducks – Chip Kelly Defies Expectations That He Would Import Oregon's Offense to Philadelphia.” You might be able to find a free version via this Google search.

Some Lean-related highlights (or ideas that make me think of the Lean style of leadership):

“Because he had so much success at Oregon, the perception is that what he did at Oregon is the exact same thing he was going to do here,” said Roseman.

Added Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie : “It was never ‘Here's the playbook, here's what we did at Oregon.' “

I think a good Lean leader comes into an organization and adapts his strategy and approach to the needs of the organization. I saw this at GM, when we got a new plant manager in 1996 who had great experience at the famed NUMMI plant in California (read more about this here).

When Ford hired Alan Mulally away from Boeing to be CEO, Mulally was thrown into a new industry and a company in very different financial circumstances. I'm sure he had to adapt. He probably came in with a game plan and some ideas, but he probably had to adjust.

Let's say Boeing hired a leader away from  Toyota… they might have to make a very similar adjustment and adaptation to the new environment. The same would be true if a very successful Lean healthcare CEO moved to a new hospital… the game plan that made them successful someplace else might not work exactly in the new environment.

That transplanted leader might keep certain core principles and values (including basic Lean principles), but they might adapt in the details — as Chip Kelly has done. Kelly doesn't run the exact same collge offense in the NFL, but he's brought elements that would remind you this is a Chip Kelly team.

The article talks about Kelly asking questions in his Eagles' interview (a good Lean leader asks lots of questions):

Kelly, however, answered almost all the questions with questions of his own: Why worry about a perfect run-pass balance? Why try possessing the ball for long periods of time when the goal is to score more points? Why should the kicking of an extra point be automatic? Why punt automatically? Why align the tackles in a balanced way? Why practice Wednesday, Thursday, Friday? Where's the science behind that?

“There was obviously a philosophy of being inquisitive,” said Lurie, calling Kelly “someone who challenged the obvious.”

In the interview process, Roseman and Lurie said Kelly argued that strategy ought to be shaped to fit personnel, not to fit a coach's philosophical beliefs or mirror his previously successful schemes.

Those are all great points. I love how Kelly asks, “Where's the science behind” a certain strategy. Being inquisitive and challenging the obvious, shaping strategy to personnel are familiar themes to me in the Lean world.

I've seen transplanted leaders get into trouble when they tried to copy directly what worked for them someplace else. When I worked at Dell Computer in 1999-2000, I saw leaders come in from other computer companies and they wanted to immediately start changing some core parts of the factory's approach… this often led to a lot of whipping back and forth based on who the new leader was.

I love how Kelly challenges the “way it's always been” (another good Lean leader trait), such as moving the usual “off day” from Tuesday to Monday. Why not? Let's make a change and see what works in the PDSA model (Plan-Do-Study-Adjust). The stakes are high in the NFL… and making changes that go against the conventional wisdom are seen as risky and can garner more criticism than just going with the flow.

Isn't the same true in healthcare and other industries?

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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. On the other hand…two different teams, different results…a quote from my lean book on how Scott Pioli took the anti-Kelly approach when he went from the New England Patriots to the Kansas City Chiefs:

    “By his second season, Pioli had guided the Chiefs to their first playoff win in years, and it looked like The Patriot Way was indeed transferable. But the Chiefs declined precipitously over the next two seasons on the field. And off the field more than half the pre-Pioli staff had resigned, and the fan base—once known for its rabid loyalty—turned against the team and took to wearing black arm bands to home games. The Patriot Way had not taken in Kansas City, and Pioli was suddenly out of his job.”

    • I think there are two different bodies of knowledge:

      1) What Lean/TPS is
      2) How to transform an organization

      It’s easier to write about what the Lean principles are (and how Toyota operates today)… it’s far more difficult to take an organization from being a complete mess to being very Lean, with high quality, high productivity, and a better workplace environment.

      I don’t know as much about the KC Chiefs story, but it sounds like possibly Pioli was inflexible in his “Way.” As I was saying above, if leaders are too inflexible and try to force (here’s exactly how we did it at our last organization), they might likely fail in the new situation.

      Chip Kelly started the season with what looked like more of a direct copy of his Oregon offense — trying to go super fast. It seems like he adjusted as the season went on…

      So, I think we are making the same point… blindly following a playbook or transformation plan (even if it worked someplace else before) isn’t guaranteed to succeed in a different industry or setting.

  2. Love the article, and while I’m certainly not a fan of the Eagles I do admire the work Chip Kelly is doing. With such a small sample size each season (16 games), it takes some courage to test new ideas. By the time you get to the S step of PDSA, you might have already been fired! The challenges of experimenting in the NFL.

    Did you see how the Eagles relay play calls to the offense? Apparently, instead of a single playcaller sending a single play into the QB, each position coach sends in the portion of the play relevant to that position to their position on the field. Pretty interesting.

  3. Oops… so maybe Chip Kelly wasn’t really that effective, as he got fired. It wasn’t just his losing record this past season, but allegations of racism and generally being hated by his players… and eventually being hated by the team owner.


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