Run Faster, Team

There’s a great day-after-Thanksgiving Day piece on Joe Ely’s Learning About Lean blog. I missed the sports action over the weekend but Joe caught an American football coach’s half-time strategy for doing better in the second half: “We just have to run faster.”
This is funny, and it is sad. Joe makes the connection of businesses saying “get more sales” or “boost productivity” without giving specific improvement tactics. It’s a laughing matter when it’s a sporting event on TV. It’s not when it’s people, careers and jobs.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with running faster or working harder, provided this is to achieve a studied, documented and supported standard. Whenever people are unable to achieve this standard, we do kaizen. To rephrase Taiichi Ohno, where there is not standard there can be no improvement.
Arbitrarily pushing the system harder to achieve performance in the short term too often results in lower performance in the long-term, as you put strains on processes and people. If you see evidence that your organization is operating the “run faster” model successfully you should be very concerned as this is a sign of a culture of heroic fire-fighting and slack day-to-day operations, at a high cost.
One of my favorite Chinese proverbs says “He who strikes the first blow admits that he has run out of ideas”. In other words, when you declare war, punch someone in the face or tell people to “run faster” you are admitting defeat as a leader, manager or problem solver. You have run out of ideas.
Basketball coach Phil Jackson famously got his team to meditate and do yoga as a way to focus their minds and bodies and improve performance. I remember reading about (but can’t recall the name of) a baseball team whose young owner made extensive use of statistics and six sigma-like experiments to improve player performance. There have been news mentions of sports teams adopting the kaizen philosophy recently.
So why didn’t this football team use Lean manufacturing tools such as time and motion studies on the football field to cut out waste rather than tell the boys to run faster? They have video from many angles, dozens of people on the staff available during the game to replay every move, run simulations, cut out waste and radio these instructions to the players rather than just tell the team to “run faster”.
Maybe they already did all of these things, and this coach’s comments was a result of coming to the conclusion that no further improvement was possible and that all options were exhausted except to “run faster”. If my experience in industry is any guide, I doubt this is the case. By and large the same thinking that pervades the coaching of sport teams does so in corporate management.
The tools of Lean manufacturing are well documented. Knowing how to apply Lean principles in real-time every day against live competition is what most teams struggle with. To succeed, you need to practice the fundamentals over and over, and over again. You need good coaches. You need to build a mindset of stopping to see what’s not working, and making small improvements. In sports or in business, this is the kaizen culture.