How Kaizen is the Key to Northwestern’s Stellar Defense


Friday, I'm traveling to my home state of Michigan for the weekend. I'll be attending the game Saturday as my Northwestern Wildcats play the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

Many of you don't care about football, but you might find it interesting, as I did, to learn that Northwestern's defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is apparently a fan of Kaizen.

From this article written by a former Northwestern linebacker, Nate Williams:

“Hankwitz is a prideful, prideful man and coach, maybe the most I've played for in 17 years of football. He is not satisfied, and that should be very encouraging for any fan to read. He preaches the values of “Kaizen,” the Japanese practice of continual improvement and will have this defense more and more prepared as it goes against better offenses.”

I tend to think more of humility and Lean leadership, not pride, but this is football, so I guess pride goes with the territory. I hope they are humble coming into Saturday's game. I expect that they are prepared rather than being overconfident.

There's one other reference to the team and Kaizen, from the 2013 Gator Bowl program (PDF), where a coach talks about a player:

“[Assistant Coach Marty] Long says [player Tyler] Scott embraces Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of constant, continuous improvement, which [head coach Pat] Fitzgerald introduced at Northwestern several years ago. That may be true, but Scott links his approach a little closer to home — to his parents, Bette and Rodney, both of whom played sports in high school. “A big family value is to be humble,” Scott said. “My mom always tells me it's not about you as a person, it's about how the team does. The goal is winning that week. If you played well, it's because your teammates helped you get there.”

There we have it… humility. That's not just a Tyler Scott family value, it's a Toyota company value, as I blogged about here.

Embed from Getty Images

Digging a little further online, I found another article that talks about our head coach and Kaizen:

“College football coaches are now utilizing Kaizen as a way to improve the performance of their players and training regimens. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald is largely credited with starting the trend back in 2009. He believes the Western philosophy of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” can be largely unproductive compared with a mindset of continuous improvement. In competitive sports, teams need to always improve every facet of their performance, because if they don't, they'll be passed up by their rivals.

Northwestern's team, the Wildcats, wanted to be better prepared to compete with Big Ten teams. The Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement is expected to help the team perfect aspects of the game it already excels at and bolster those that are currently lackluster.”

Pat Fitzgerald, as a player, in 1995

Fitz as coach in 2020:

Embed from Getty Images

Hear Mark read this post (subscribe to the podcast):

It's a bit unclear if the Kaizen focus started with Fitzgerald or Hankwitz. I traded emails with Nate Williams and he said:

“It's certainly been something that started coming around since Hankwitz came in. I'm 100% positive it was Hankwitz that first introduced it to the defense as a whole. I can't speak for if it was Fitz who brought it up to the coaches first, though.

Hank harped on it routinely on a daily basis the first couple years he was there [starting in 2008]. We went from a bottom third defense to the top half pretty quickly under his tutelage. He made sure it was spread around the staff as well… so not only are the players buying into the philosophy, but the coaches as well.

The concept was routinely used in our off season training, but also during the season during day-to-day and week-to-week practice throughout the season, finding areas to improve on after every game/experience on and off the field.”

Embed from Getty Images

Another reference to Kaizen comes from these NU practice notes:

“Coach Fitzgerald talks about constantly improving — he uses the word ‘Kaizen,' a Japanese word for constantly improving,” said Long. “That's what we're looking at. We have competition in the room and that brings out the best in our guys.

Northwestern's defense, through the first five games of the 2015 season, is ranked #1 in the country in scoring defense, giving up only 7.0 points per game. Michigan is ranked #2. If you think points and yards allowed are “waste,” then you'll enjoy watching Saturday's game on TV :-)

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 6.53.52 AM

There must be something to this Kaizen business, after all :-)

Go ‘Cats!

Grumpy Cat is a fan, apparently:


I don't think we'll be grumpy ‘Cats after the Wildcats beat Michigan on Saturday.

Post-game update: That didn't go well… very grumpy.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articlePodcast #232 – Remembering Dr. Michel Tétrault
Next articleGoing Cheap Vs. Leading and Being Lean
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.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.