#Lean Thoughts While Watching Football


I've blogged about football before – I should say “American football,” since I have many international readers.

I should say I've blogged about events on the football field and the approaches of football coaches that remind me of Lean thinking.

Here are a few of those thoughts from last weekend.

Is “Lack of Urgency” Really the Problem?

As a graduate of Northwestern University and a huge Northwestern football fan, I really admire our head coach, Pat Fitzgerald (a fellow alum of NU… he was a player on the field when I was a marching band member). See some previous posts that mention him.

Northwestern was a big underdog against Wisconsin, playing up in Madison, last Saturday. We fell behind, staged a big comeback and fell short. We might be physically overmatched against Wisconsin in some ways, but our team always plays hard.

There were a few key plays early in the game where NU had “third and one” situations. We tried running the ball up the middle with plays that were pretty telegraphed and predictable. We didn't make the first downs. NU isn't the type of team that can just line up and overpower Wisconsin.

In post game comments, Coach Fitzgerald said:

“No excuse…I mean it's embarrassing quite frankly. It's embarrassing. Third-and-1 and you get your lips knocked off,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously our sense of urgency in those times wasn't good enough.”

I've never understood the sports narrative of “that team wanted it more.” Both teams want to win. Our players realize it's important to get a first down… they are Northwestern students, after all. They're smart and they're motivated.

Maybe it was more accurate that the offense “got [their] lips knocked off” on those plays. Was it really a “lack of urgency???”

If there was a lack of urgency, is that the coach's fault or the players' fault? It's unclear that he means.

The word “urgency” triggers me because it makes me think of the bad old days at GM in 1995 (the year NU and Fitzgerald, as an All-American linebacker and national defensive player of the year, made it to the Rose Bowl).

Our GM plant was a bad performer in quality, productivity, etc. As I wrote about in this blog post, the plant's second in command would often chew us out for a “lack of urgency.” Those verbal beatings didn't help. From that post:

Bob always had the same pronouncement for our problems: we weren't trying hard enough. And apparently, more yelling from Bob was what we needed to motivate us. But, that never worked.

“Not trying hard enough” fell into two categories: 1) urgency and 2) intensity. We didn't have a sense of urgency. We didn't have the proper intensity. Like a shorter approximation of Mike Ditka (with a signature bad toupee rather than a signature mustache), Bob would yell and scream and spit would fly. Sometimes we got “we need urgent intensity” or “we need intense urgency,” if things were really bad. All of the yelling and screaming, all of the fear, all of the fudging of the numbers got in the way of true process improvement and true problem solving.

I chalk up “we need a better sense of urgency” as the sort of empty “try harder” talk that's worthless management speak. If you have a bad system, trying harder doesn't work. That system, in the context of football, includes things like:

  • the way the coaches prepare the players (physically and mentally)
  • the way coaches recruit and select players
  • the play calling

Those are system problems and they are owned by upper management (or the head coach).

Final thought –  it always bugs me when I hear an executive complain about having lousy employees. If they are lousy, why did you hire them?? Isn't that the executives responsibility??

Not My Job!

Jay Cutler is currently the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. He had retired at the end of last season but was lured away from his broadcasting job with the Dolphins' starter Ryan Tannehill was lost for the season due to a knee injury during training camp.

Cutler is known for the “don't care” incident with a fan who tried talking to Cutler in the bathroom of a restaurant (that's bad form, talking to any stranger who's urinating):

Fan: “Hey, Jay I also went to Vanderbilt, we might know some of the same people…”

Jay cuts him off mid-sentence with: “DOOOONNNNTTTTTT CAAAAAARRRREEEEEE.”

I share that story because of the caption for this video from last week's game.

The Dolphins decided to run a play from the “wildcat formation,” which means a running back takes the snap directly and the quarterback is out wide (at the bottom of the screen) as a “wide receiver” — that's normally where a receiver would be… it's meant to be a rather ineffective decoy spot. It's a place to park the QB for a play he doesn't get hurt.

But, the video shows Cutler with hands on hips as if to say “doooooonn't caaaaare” and when the ball is snapped, he doesn't flinch a muscle. He wasn't expect to block on the play, but it's a funny look (a bad look) for a player who has been accused of not caring much on the field.

Update: Cutler was instructed by his coach to not move:

So why is this related to the workplace?

In Lean, the concepts of “Respect for People” means that we want people, especially in healthcare, working up to their skill, education, and licensure level. Often, in hospitals, we REGULARLY see things like:

  • Nurses doing work that could done by techs, CNAs, or housekeeping
  • Doctors doing work that could be done by RNs or MAs
  • Pharmacists doing work that could be done by pharmacy techs

Why is that a problem? Well, I'd say it's a problem if they're working below their level quite often. For example, if nurses are ALWAYS doing tech work because the hospital's tech staffing levels are too low, the hospital might be saving a bit of money on staffing, but might be losing more due to diminished patient care or patient satisfaction.

If a nurse is ALWAYS having to drag heavy bags of dirty linens down the hallway because of bad housekeeping procedures or system design, that's not a good use of nurse time and it's not respectful, one could argue.

That said, there's a time and place to be a “team player.” We don't want medical professionals to get snooty about their hierarchy and saw “that's not my job” and NEVER help somebody.

In all things balance… just the way Jay Cutler could have at least given the impression of caring just a bit? Maybe that's a bad analogy…

Process and Results

It's become fashionable for football coaches to talk about “the process.”

Alabama head football coach Nick Saban might have started it, or at least he's the most famous user of the phrase:

The Process is simply Saban's core belief that the willingness to prepare in a methodical, daily basis is the key to success. Saban believes those who focus on the result and not the consistent preparation that is necessary to achieve the result are doomed to be disappointed.

“It's about committing yourself to being the best you can be on that particular day,” said Saban. “Improvement is a steady march and you have to be committed to it.”

Saban seems to believe in the idea of “the right process brings the right results,” as we talk about in Lean. If the right process brings the right results, I'd add that the same process will sometimes bring slightly different results, as there is variation in everything (something we learn about in the Red Bead Game that we use in my workshop and I'll be doing at Lean Startup Week).

Too many organizations and leaders demand better results, but they don't have an answer to Dr. Deming's famous question, “By what method?” Saban seems to have a method.

Other coaches talk about process, but I think it sometimes gets confused.

Indianapolis Colts' coach Chuck Pagano has said:

If we focus on the results, and not the process, we'll get screwed up. The process has no fear.”

That's the Saban line of thought. Focus on the process and you'll get results.

But, this past week Pagano said:

“It's very simple, it's one play at a time. You stay on process and you don't worry about results. You have to keep your composure and you have to stay poised and we didn't do that and it steamrolled on us.”

I hear people sometimes say that Toyota or Lean organizations “don't care about results.” I think that's far from the truth. They care about results. They have measures. They identify gaps when current performance is not the same as our target… but they focus on the process (and the method for improvement) that will get them results.

Maybe I'm parsing words. Pagano might have meant, “You stay on process and you don't have to worry about results because they will come.”

That is…. if you have a good process.

I'll end this post the way Coach Fitzgerald ends every interview or press conference… Go ‘Cats.

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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. Comment from LinkedIn:

    Paul Critchley
    I too am turned off every time I hear someone refer to a “sense of urgency”. In our employee engagement class, I advise folks to drop it from their vernacular. It’s an overused way of saying “Everything needs to get done”. Having a sense of urgency doesn’t mean everything is urgent, just like having a sense of humor doesn’t mean everything is funny…

  2. I’ve been re-visiting the “7 Habits” and the Urgent/Important matrix, which reinforces the message. If everything is urgent or important then nothing is. Filtering out the right priorities continues to be a challenge in the whirlwind. A mantra of “stay the course” and “trust the process” has a tendency to keep us moving forward in a way that will produce consistent and positive results. Although having 3 strings of 5 star recruits, the proof would seem to be in the pudding for Saban. Great post and perspective!

  3. Another LinkedIn comment from a former college football player I know:

    Jim Cooper
    Great article, Mark. I couldn’t agree more in terms of “the process”. Having played college football these last 5 seasons I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard a coach reference “the process” in a meeting. A lot of it has to do with confidence too. Many people want to focus on the process and not the results, but they lack the confidence to be completely bought in (focusing on the process only if it is working at that exact second). People sometimes claim they focus on a process that has been proven to work but the second things don’t go perfectly as planned they start pulling out and losing faith. Look forward to more articles!


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