Will “Kaizen” Get the Buffalo Bills to Next Year’s Super Bowl?


I'm not a Buffalo Bills fan (a.k.a. “The Bills Mafia”), but I did attend one game at what was then called Rich Stadium in 1998 when I was a grad school intern at Kodak.

Even without being a fan, I wish I could have written a headline for this post that said “Buffalo Bills Kaizen Their Way to a Super Bowl.” Readers of this blog, of course, know that “Kaizen” is a Japanese word meaning “good change” and it's framed as an approach to engaging everybody in small improvements to the way they do their work.

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So what does this have to do with football? Football is a workplace, even if it's college. I blogged about my alma mater, Northwestern University, using the word “Kaizen” (and the mindset) within their football program.

This article about the Bills isn't new, but I recently discovered it on Twitter:

Sean McDermott, Bills use ‘Kaizen' strategy to stress constant improvement

From the article:

Near the end of a 30-second video clip the Bills posted on Twitter, Williams, in the middle of a circle of players and coaches to lead a breakdown in the postgame locker room after remarks by McDermott, is heard saying: “When you stick together and believe in each other, good things happen, men. Keep battling, keep working. Let's keep …” He pauses, looks at McDermott and says, “Kaizen? Did I pronounce it right?” McDermott, who is part of the circle, nods.

Williams then offers a variation of the word's meaning when he urges his teammates to “keep getting better every day,” before the scene ends with a collective, “One, two, three, Bills!”

Here is that clip:

Are they just using the word? There seems to be more to it than that. Wow, this is very corporate if they're using PowerPoint with imagery:

“We always talk about some form of Kaizen,” McDermott said. “We (use PowerPoint to) put up a chart, basically, that (shows) there's some teams that are going to do this (moving his hand up and down like a wave), some individuals are going to do this, and they're going to ride the wave. And then other teams are going to do a little bit more tick-tacking back and forth, but with more of a gradual type of improvement. So we want them to see the visual behind it.”

Consistency is key. Leaders can't just talk about Kaizen once and expect that it's going to happen. Leaders have to talk about it constantly — to continually encourage their employees (and managers) to participate in the process and to exhibit the right behaviors. This is part of what they do at Franciscan St. Francis Health in Indiana… creating that culture takes effort, as we've written about in our Healthcare Kaizen books.

Many executives and coaches in sports talk about “the process” referring to the methodical way they are building a team or the approach they use in practice. Lean practitoners and leaders realize that the right process brings the right results. In sports, especially in sports radio, people are often just judging the results… if you went for it on 4th down and converted — good decision! Well, sometimes you make the right decision or have the right process and it still doesn't work out. You have to look at both process and results.

“The gist of it is continual improvement, no matter if you get the results you're looking for,” Williams said. “Sometimes you play good, but you don't get the results you're looking for. Sometimes you play bad, and you get the results that you want, right? So it's all about mastery of self and continual improvement as a player and as a team. It's really relevant to this game, and especially this league, because there's so much parity. It really is about a weekly improvement and weekly performance. It's been good for us.”

Is Kaizen a word (or an approach) that's just used by the coaches? It seems to be embraced more broadly:

How much have players bought into it? Consider this take from rookie defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: “For me individually, the D-line as a unit, the defense as a unit, the Buffalo Bills as a team, for us to go where we want to go, in summary of one word, it should just be, ‘Kaizen.' “

The article quotes a professor who gives background that my readers here might already know:

“Nallan Suresh, a strategy professor in the University at Buffalo School of Management, said “Kaizen” actually got its roots in America in the early 1950s from a program called “Small Step Improvement,” which was part of a larger initiative known as Training Within Industry. He explained that it migrated across the Pacific Ocean when America was actively working to bring Japan back to its feet after World War II.

“There was a lot of industrial training in Japan, and the Small Step Improvement program was introduced within Japanese industry,” Suresh said. “The Japanese took it to another level and it came back to America as a Japanese innovation with a Japanese name on it. Kaizen has been implemented very widely in Japan, particularly in the auto industry. Companies like Toyota were pioneers in the continuous improvement program, and it has worked very well.

“It is a very democratic, grassroots way of improvement. That means everybody in the company has to participate in the program, right from the CEO to the janitor. And the rules of the game are, everybody has to come up with new ideas about their own job every single day.”

Why is Kaizen important to Coach McDermott?

“The common application of “Kaizen” is within organizations seeking turnarounds. It's why it made so much sense to McDermott to utilize it with the Bills, who had gone 17 years without a playoff appearance before his arrival and have mostly struggled this season on the way to a 4-7 record.

“We're paying for some sins of the past and it's going to take some time,” McDermott said. “We've got to build this thing the right way and if we all embrace, simply put, doing our job better — whether it's Sean McDermott as a head coach or Joe Smith in marketing, ticketing — this place is going to be lifted up collectively. There's just different ways to get across, ‘Hey, let's just all be about embracing continuous improvement and continuous development.' “

It's fascinating that Kaizen seems to be spreading around the professional sports world:

McDermott chose “Kaizen” after learning that a coach in a different sport, Brad Stevens, was using it with the Boston Celtics. Bills Assistant General Manager Joe Schoen is a longtime friend of Stevens' and arranged for McDermott to speak with him on the phone.

“We were just talking shop,” McDermott said. “When I see someone that's good at their job, I want to find out what makes them good. He's certainly at the top of what he does. I had heard of it before, and it's like anything, it just reinforces things.

“It makes a whole lot of sense to me in terms of, I'm not a finished product, myself, or our football team, in this case. And if I take that growth mindset of continuous improvement every day, that's a positive outlook and I think that's a healthy and hungry approach.”

Kaizen means you can celebrate some improvement or some success… but you can't get too satisfied:

Williams felt it was particularly important to mention “Kaizen” after the Bills beat the Jaguars because there was a reasonable chance that the two-game winning streak could cause some players to become a bit full of themselves.

“I think more than anything in this league, if you have success, the biggest thing that you have to fight is complacency and feeling accomplished, no matter your record,” Williams said. “You can get really happy with yourself real quick, whether you're 10-1 or 9-1 or 4-7 and you're trying to figure out who you are as a football team with a lot of young players. Complacency can get in there. Then the next week, your preparation isn't as good, your performance isn't as good and it comes over on Sunday, and then you lose and you're starting all over.”

We can all be inspired by this, sports fans or not. How do we create a culture of continuous improvement in our workplace?

“So, it's just trying to re-emphasize (to) the guys that, ‘How did we get here?' Continual work, trying to get better every day.”

In a word, “Kaizen.”

Good luck next year! This year, you made it to the AFC Championship Game. Next year, Super Bowl?

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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. Hey Mark,

    I am Senior Supply Chain Management major. Big football fan so its interesting to see the use of lean terminology in a nontraditional Business setting. Do you think that teams will see the success of the Bill rebuild and also begin to use Kaizen in some for. Also do you think that do to this success other NFL organizations will begin to implement lean techniques like Fishbone diagrams to understand why the get more penalties then other team or use GEMBA to explain the issues right on the field instead of in the locker room.

    I’m interred in hearing you thoughts.

    • Good question, Josh. It seems that NFL teams tend to emulate or copy the more successful teams, especially if the success is sustained. Maybe more teams will use the Kaizen language (and the mindset, which is more important than the word). I don’t know if they’ll embrace other Lean problem solving methods, like Fishbone Diagrams or A3s… but there is plenty of room for innovation!

  2. Great article! As a student who sees this word on a daily basis it is different to see it being used in a sports setting. However it does make perfect sense, their objectives are to get better every single day and improve on their process/goals and a perfect word for that is Kaizen. I personally think it is only a matter of time until sports teams start using lean language in their profession. Also as a huge Celtics and Brad Stevens fan it is very cool to see he is one of the pioneers with using lean language in sports. Great read really appreciate it!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Phil. I’m sure many (if not most) athletes and teams try to get better every day. But I do find it really fascinating that some teams actually use the word “Kaizen.”

      Instead of just having an aim for improvement, are they trying many small ideas that could come from anybody, not just the head coach? If so, that’s one thing that would really illustrate the Kaizen mindset instead of just using the word.

  3. I love how lean is making its way to sports. “Continual work, trying to get better every day”, that quote is something that ties into kaizen just like you said. My professor told me “10% each day” meaning if you put in 10% more effort every day, that extra little percent will help you improve yourself little by little, day by day. That’s something that was talked about in this post. I wonder in the future if sports teams will try using other Lean strategies to eliminate wastes within their games and facilities. Great post Mark. Thank you!


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