Learning Not to Blame: Spring Training Baseball Edition


Lean thinkers do their best to avoid blaming individuals for systemic problems. This lesson comes also from W. Edwards Deming who was deeply influential on Toyota.

It's easier said than done. Old habits die hard. We all sometimes find ourselves thinking blaming thoughts instead of thinking about the system and how that contributes to the problem or scenario.

A few years back, I had to remind myself of this when I was starting to blame a bartender for poor service instead of thinking about the system he works in:

The other day, I saw a sports article that caught my eye, an item about Josh Donaldson of the Toronto Blue Jays, pictured above.

See this article from Yahoo Sports:

Josh Donaldson had good reason for not running out spring home run

Here is the original tweet and video that prompted the controversy. Donaldson was appearing in a minor league game because he is recovering from an injury. He hit a home run and, instead of running the bases, went right back to the dugout.

Frederic seems to be accusing Donaldson of “big leaguing” it and being too important to run the bases in a meaningless game.

It turns out that was a bad assumption.

Think about errors in the workplace. It's really easy to attribute an error to laziness, carelessness, or the like. It's easy to blame the bad mood of a front desk employee at a hospital on being a “jerk.” But, there are often systemic factors that lead to the behavior or results that we see.

It was true here in the baseball scenario.

From the article… even though these minor league spring training games are “relaxed:”

“…that didn't stop some, including Sean Allen, an assistant baseball coach at the University of Texas, from criticizing Donaldson's actions without knowing the context.

Allen's tweet has since been deleted. According to CBS Sports it read as follows.

This might be the worst video I have ever seen. So much disrespect to the game of baseball. Baseball gods will handle this.

Donaldson responded via Twitter, basically telling Allen to mind his own business, explaining that he's not allowed to run due to an injury:

The comment about bunting sort of relates to the current “Moneyball” approach in baseball that suggests the old strategy of bunting to advice a runner is actually bad strategy, since you're giving up an out (hence the name “sacrifice”). Bunting used to be “the way we've always done things around here.” See my past blog posts that reference Moneyball.

If Frederic or Sean Allen were jumping to conclusions about Donaldson, Donaldson is sort of guilty of doing the same.

Jumping to conclusions is not a good habit either and it's something that Lean practitioners should avoid (or we try our best to not do this).

The Yahoo Sports article makes a point that sounds like good Lean thinking to me:

“It's a reminder that knowing and understanding the context is essential before a judgment can be made. We're all guilty of jumping the gun from time to time, and we're all eligible to be put in our place.”

That's why we emphasize, in the Lean approach, ideas like:

  • Go and see (genchi genbutsu in Japanese) situations first hand
  • Ask “why?” and be inquisitive instead of jumping to conclusions
  • Assume first that the problem is the system, unless the cause of the problem is proven to be something a person did intentionally (the “just culture” methodology is a good framework to use)

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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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