What the World’s Best Organizations (in Business or Sports) Do…


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I don't just listen to other podcasts about Lean. I enjoy listening to the Dan Le Batard Show on ESPN Radio (although I normally listen to their “Best Of” podcast). It's not your typical sports show where two guys argue about which quarterback is better or if Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame.

They often veer way off track from sports to talk about society, pop culture, and other issues. It's a weird show, as they would admit. It's also often a very smart show.

Before Christmas, I was listening and their guest for the day was former NFL player Domonique Foxworth, pictured at left. Foxworth earned an MBA from Harvard Business School after his playing days. He's the perfect participant in a smart show about sports and whatever.

During one segment, they all talked about NFL offensive and defensive coordinators and how they often fail when promoted to a head coach position.

You can listen to Foxworth below, in this 90-second clip, but I'm also including the text below…


Foxworth begins:

“You're walking me right to a theory of mine that I've had for several years. I think there are competitive advantages to be gained in the way that organizations are run.”

This is true in sports, when people are willing to buck convention alwisdom and “the way we’ve always done it” (see “Moneyball” for a great example of that). How many hospitals are run just like every other? How many have the same strategy? How many promote good individual contributors and then learn they often make lousy managers?

ThedaCare and Virginia Mason Medical Center are two organizations that have gone Lean and have tried a different way than most organizations.

Foxworth continues, about NFL coordinators and head coach hiring practices:

“I think the idea that now we go and look for whoever the hot coordinator is and, then, make them the head coach when, actuality, the skills that are required to be a good coordinator are far different from the skills that are required to be a good head coach, and I don't understand why we don't just pay good coordinators.”

Sometimes, the only way to make more money is to get a promotion. That’s true in many types of organizations. How many engineers or nurses become a manager because they want or need the higher pay? What if their heart really isn’t in it to lead?

The assumption in the NFL is that head coaches are more important and should get paid more than coordinators. There’s also some supply and demand at work there, right? But what if an amazing coordinator is worth more to a team than a head coach? In college, there are some assistants (like Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin) who make more than some head coaches. In fact, Kiffin just took a pay cut to become a head coach again at a smaller school.

Foxworth continues:

Andy Reid is a perfect example, in my mind. They should pay Andy Reid $10 million a year to be the offensive coordinator and, then, bring someone else in to do all the emotional, EQ management of the team and to stay on top of those things.

We don't do it in football. We don't say, “[Cornerback] Richard Sherman is a tremendous football player, so why don't we make him a quarterback?” because we think that that's the most important position.”

Andy Reid might not have the full skill set to be really successful as a head coach. So, Foxworth suggests a team could have a competitive advantage by paying him more to do a smaller job. Could a head coach (and their ego) accept an “assistant” who is paid more?

Again, Foxworth:

“I think that there are competitive advantages to be gained, there. I also think that the organizational structure within football is kind of antiquated. It's kind of a hierarchy where we believe that we need a military‑style general when the rest of the world, professionally, are moving away from that. The most successful companies in the world give the employees more responsibility, and I think that will work in football.”

Now I really love this train of thought. Even the military is moving away from that style of top-down hierarchy, which you know if you’ve read the book Team of Teams by retired General Stanley McChrystal.

Factories and manufacturing companies have moved away from that antiquated “do this because I said so” style of leadership. So are leading hospitals like ThedaCare and Virginia Mason.

You might imagine how that could work in a business, but how could it work in football?

Foxworth, again a former player, said:

“I played for a coach, John Harbaugh, and one of the things that I was most impressed with him was his maturation from his early years and to where he got very comfortable and confident. He got comfortable and confident enough to hand over some of the game planning responsibility to the players.”

I’ve written before about how a Lean leader needs to be humble and confident in order to create a culture of continuous improvement. A Lean organization, like Toyota, has standardized work that’s written by the people who do the work. That’s very surprising and counterintuitive to many. Lean organizations create a culture of continuous improvement by engaging everybody in improvement, everywhere, and every day. Leaders need to give up control and be coaches, not dictators.

Foxworth wrapped up his thoughts:

“Once we believed in it, we created it, we believed in it, we knew it better, we executed it better.”

As the Meg Wheatley says, people support what they create.

I mentioned and quoted her on this in a KaiNexus webinar last year.

What are your thoughts about any of this? Post a comment and join the discussion…

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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. I enjoyed Foxworth’s comments especially that he has come to the realization that performance is driven by giving employees more autonomy to manage and improve their work.

    Yes, the improvement teams I’ve worked with that I viewed as being most successful were given this autonomy and responsibility to change their work in the sake of continuous improvement.

    However, this only worked because their leaders were coached to change their behaviors toward managing. I feel strongly that you can’t manage people. You lead people and manage process. However, very few hold to this ideology.

    Even now, working as a consultant within the DoD there is a strong sense of command and control leadership style. It’s unfortunate, but this has caused fear toward making any change. I too have read Team of Teams, and can say this team based, collaborative, servant based style of leadership is becoming more and more popular in the special operations community within the military, in some healthcare settings within the military and in other pockets, but overall I would say it’s very traditional military-style command and control, top-down approach to leadership.

    However, when the light is shown on leading differently and the type of results this produces some are more prone to change.

    Take Care Mark!

    • Thanks for the comment, Sam.

      It’s interesting to hear about the gap between special forces and the rest of the military in terms of leadership styles. I wonder if there’s intent to spread that leadership style, but there’s resistance? I can imagine the rest of the military saying “that might work for special forces, but we’re different” sort of like different organizations will say “Lean might work for them… but we’re different?”


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