Like Lean: An NFL Head Coach Gets Out of His Office, Listens, Learns


Well, I jinxed my Northwestern Wildcats by blogging about them last week, so I will apologize in advance to Carolina Panthers fans.

But, this WSJ article caught my attention: “The Coach Who Won't Leave the Locker Room.” The sub headline is “Why Carolina Panthers' Ron Rivera has become obsessed with integrating himself into his players' personal workspace.”

An NFL coach is at “the gemba” during a game, of course. He's directly observing and involved, just as a “coach” in a Lean transformation effort should be. Leaders in an organization can, of course, play the role of “coach,” in addition to any dedicated “Lean coaches.”

The WSJ article talks about Panthers' head coach Ron Rivera being where the players are during the week in their workplace… at times, that includes the locker room.

What's the norm in the NFL, team culture wise?

“Despite its prominent place in NFL culture, the locker room is a place head coaches usually avoid. Coaches may keep an open-door policy in their offices, encouraging players to come to them with any problems. But usually, head coaches keep their time in the locker room to a minimum.”

Thinking about Lean in a workplace, I'd say that “being in the gemba” versus an open door policy leads to a leader being better connected to the work, employee morale, and departmental team dynamics.

I've seen many healthcare leaders who seem more comfortable “hiding” in their office or in conference rooms. They aren't bad people for doing so… they are a product of a system and they often aren't getting good training or coaching about how to be a leader. Managers and leaders who don't like conflict or don't understand the actual work, for example, tend to hide away from the gemba.

Rivera, unlike some NFL head coaches, actually played in the NFL, so he probably relates to the players in a different way. At General Motors, they were plagued by having “professional supervisors” — often college engineering graduates who were hired and expected to supervise work they had never done. Toyota promotes from the shopfloor or puts professional graduates through the paces, working first on the line (even with a college degree).

Hospitals, in general, have more leaders who have done the actual work of the people they are supervising. This can be good (in that they understand the work) or it can be bad (they micromanage or jump in to do the work instead of leading).

So what does Rivera do differently?

“Rivera used to act like this, too. As an ex-player, he considered the locker room to be the players' domain. That's until he decided that to better understand his football team, he had to start hanging out with them as much as humanly possible.

Like many leaders in a Lean transformation, Rivera had to build new habits and question the way things had always been done.

What prompted him to change his ways?

“…decided to take up residence in the locker room after seeking advice from fighter pilots. To promote honesty among his team, they told the Panthers coach he should “remove rank” when addressing subordinates. This is a strategy that fighter pilots have long adhered to when commanding officers ask pilots for advice.”

Rivera learned from another industry. Just like healthcare organizations learn from manufacturing… and from pilots too. I discuss the idea of learning from pilots in my podcasts with Naida Grunden and in the one with Steve Montague.

Rivera isn't just building superficial or friendly relationships… he's getting feedback (because he asks for it).

“Rivera was so taken with this idea that he took a bunch of players to dinner at Del Frisco's in 2013 and asked them to open up about what they thought of the team. The players didn't hold back. “This guy was an a–, this coach was a jerk,” Rivera remembers the players saying. The coach shot back: “I'm blown away. All of this happened? You guys should have told me!”

Nobody wanted to be “the snitch” by telling their coach what was going on in the locker room, the players told him. So Rivera decided he would just have to find out for himself.”

I see this a lot… managers say “you should have told me!” and employees say “you should have asked!” Managers have to be the ones to break that cycle and invite honest feedback and input. We have to make it safe for people to point out problems.

If we want to change “the way it's always been done around here,” then we have to start with the leaders…

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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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