Football, Holistic Systems, and Challenging the Way It’s Always Been Done


Many of you might not care, but it's football season. Major college football starts tomorrow night and the NFL kicks off their season next Thursday. On that note, if you'd like to “kick off” a Kaizen approach to continuous improvement in your organization, I'd like to help.

By the way, 20 years ago today, I was sitting in the stands at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend watching my Northwestern Wildcats, a 28-point underdog, upset the Fighting Irish. What a day!

Anyhoo… a couple of articles caught my eye this past week. They're from the Wall St. Journal, which has a paywall, but hopefully you can find the article for free via Google.

The first article is: “The NFL's Best Practice: No Wasted Time.”

I think you can read it for free as a non-subscriber or try the link in this tweet:

The article starts:

In order to win in the NFL, you still need a quarterback and a solid defense. But this season you'll also have to tackle the same problem facing every office in the world: a solid time-management plan.

Ah, time management. How well is the time used in practice? Are players practicing and learning or just standing around? What's the ratio of time in meetings that we hold at work?

Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman identified a problem with NFL practices: “In my experience, there's a lot of standing around.”

Players don't learn by standing around… should they be busy or “100% utilized” all of the time? Probably not 100% busy, as they need to rest and talk about what they're doing. But can you find a better way to run practice?

One thing the Bills have done is to break practice up into two separate groups that are practicing in parallel.

“In this business, for some reason, smart and efficient are bad words,” said Bills general manager Doug Whaley.

Why is that? Are teams stuck in “the way we've always done it?”

One benefit to running practices a new way is that players who are trying to make the team get 25 active plays per practice instead of just 10. This probably means better player development and it's easier for coaches to evaluate talent.

Another thing the Bills have done is to maximize the amount of time spent moving and running plays on the field. Practice time is limited, but time in meeting rooms is not, apparently.

They have also found another simple way to ensure their fast-moving practices move even faster: They don't correct mistakes on the field. They simply want to run as many plays in practice as possible, then they will address any mistakes to players in the film room later.

“We are not going to call a timeout and stop the practice on the field to tell a receiver he needs to take a two-yard split inside the numbers,” Roman said. “The quickest way to get better at football is to play football. Not watch football and not talk about football. It gives players the opportunities to make mistakes.”

Woods, the Bills' receiver, said the no-mistake-correction philosophy has an added benefit for players because it allows a player to practice “stress-free” without walking on eggshells, afraid of offending their coach with a wrong route. That will come after practice.

That's really interesting to me, on many levels, including the Bills reconfiguring what they do and when. That's part of the discussion we often have when coming up with “standardized work” within a team.

The Bills are, as they basically say in the article, “working smarter not harder.”

It will be interesting to see if that pays off on the field. I'm sure these new approaches are really intended to help reach their True North goals, if they had them, which would certainly include winning.

The Bills learned or borrowed many of these “best practices” for practice from other teams. Organizations try to learn from each other all the time. GM tried to learn from Toyota. Health systems try to learn from ThedaCare or Virginia Mason or others.

Listen to Mark read this article (as part of this podcast series):

The second article is about copying the practices that led to success somewhere else: If You Can't Hire Urban Meyer, Can You Clone Him?

Hiring the head coach is sort of like hiring a plant manager or CEO away from another organization. You can't replace your entire workforce, but you can replace a leader. Replacing the players or employees might not be the right approach anyway, if you can drive more change by improving the system they are a part of.

Many factories and hospitals struggle with Lean because they aren't adopting a SYSTEM… they are picking and choosing pieces here and there. I wrote about how MIT Professor Zeynep Ton emphasized how The Good Jobs Strategy (listen to a podcast with her) is a SYSTEM that must be adopted holistically.

The University of Houston and their head coach Tom Herman is trying to do that, without copying every single insignificant detail. Herman most recently worked for Urban Meyer at Ohio State.

“People can say that I'm just copying Urban Meyer,” Herman said. “You're damn right I'm copying Urban Meyer!”… He has systematically pilfered, pirated and repackaged nearly every element of Meyer's Ohio State program…. “they've got a pretty good way of doing things up there and an unbelievable track record. I'm damn sure not going to mess with the formula.”

Herman has added some of his own tweaks along the way, of course. He says he has taken ideas from every head coach he has worked under but also admits that he's tried not to veer too far from Meyer's blueprint. While newcomers at Ohio State must wear a black stripe on their helmets, for instance, Herman decided that the stripe on Houston's helmets would be blue.

“I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” said Herman. “There are times it's kind of funny but I've seen this [approach] work and I'm not going to mess with that.”

There are leaders who have, for example, left ThedaCare to lead other health systems. I wonder how they strike the balance between bringing an approach that works… or at least it worked somewhere else… versus adapting and improving the approach for the new or different environment.

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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.


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