The Patriots, Coach Belichick, Aspects of Lean Thinking, and Dr. Deming


Earlier this month, for the College Football Playoff championship game, I wrote about “Lessons from the Football Coaching and Leadership Styles of the Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes.” I had found articles about both teams in the name of balance (and because both teams represented Lean-like thinking or new ways of doing things).

I have lived in Boston two different times, but I'm hardly a New England Patriots fan. I realize they have been accused of cheating (the previous “Spygate” controversy where they violated league rules by videotaping the hand signals of opposition defensive coaches and the recent “deflategate” controversy).

For an organization to be truly admirable, integrity has to come first. Integrity is non-negotiable. There are many questions about the Patriots…

But, there were a few things that jumped out at me in a Saturday WSJ article on the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick: “Deflategate Masks the Many Virtues of Belichick.”

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From the article:

“Mr. Belichick doesn't fit our stereotype of a genius coach–someone who combines stirring oratory with strategic epiphanies.”

That doesn't fit the stereotype of the mythical CEO, either.

There's the “Toyota Way” and there's the “Patriot Way” — a culture and a management system that's easier to read about than it is to copy… much as baseball teams struggled to copy the Oakland A's and their “Moneyball” appproach (as I blogged about).

As also written about by the WSJ earlier in the week, many NFL teams have tried to copy the Patriots – and it's harder than it sounds. The same is true with copying an organization like Toyota or ThedaCare. Teams have tried to emulate them and have failed. Is it because they try to just copy bits and pieces or certain tools without adopting the whole system?

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From that article:

A handful of teams have tried to imitate this but have failed. That is because adopting the Belichick model is akin to trying to adopt the Usain Bolt model for running. It takes talent that is really, really hard to acquire.”

The good news, though, about a Lean management system is that organizations like ThedaCare and Toyota don't require incredibly rare physical gifts like Usain Bolt, an Olympic champion sprinter, has. Lean leaders and problem solvers can be developed. And that's what the Pats try to do:

“But the genius of Mr. Belichick is less a matter of strategy than of management, team-building and connecting human longing to higher purpose. Players talk about “buying into” the “Patriot way,” which means the Belichick way. The usual NFL way–the way of the hapless Washington Redskins, say–has been to acquire a “dream team” of stars at the start of season and hope that it holds up. Mr. Belichick sees excellence as a process, not as an acquisition. He constantly sifts for players who are teachable, rather than perfect, and then tries to meld them into a unit.”

Excellence is a process, not something you can buy. Buying a book or hiring a consultant (or a key employee or two) does not make for a great organization. You have to hire talent but also focus on continuous learning and ongoing development.

Lean is about humility and modesty as a core mindset.

“Mr. Belichick is self-effacing. His players don't brag or trash-talk. This is not incidental. Modesty is at the core of the Patriots' enterprise.”

Some would, again, say “cheating is at the core of the Patriots' enterprise.”

Belichick realizes that, as Dr. Deming would have taught, an excellent organization is a system, not just a collection of individually excellent pieces.

‘Those who say that you can't argue with success are wrong. Last week showed that a lot of people can't stand Mr. Belichick and the Patriots. Perhaps that is because the Patriots' success disproves certain treasured clichés. We tend to believe that individual flourishing leads to organizational excellence. Mr. Belichick believes the opposite.”

And the article says:

“As games get more important during the season, teams built around teamwork improve. Teams built around talent wear out.”

Is your workplace team built around teamwork? Or hiring great individuals, throwing them into various departments, and hoping things work themselves out?

If you're a Seattle Seahawks fan who is reading this and you have an article about the Lean-like leadership styles of Pete Carroll and the Seahawks, please leave a comment and let me know.

Edit: I did find a tweet from a year ago where I gave Pete Carroll some credit:

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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.


    • Interesting. I guess they are focused on flow, teamwork, and achieving results.

      Do NFL cost accountants measure the players by “pound per salary $”?? It’s “more efficient” to pay heavier players for the same wage? ;-)


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