Lean Thinker Challenge #3

By Ron Pereira Published on October 15th, 2013

Welcome to this week’s Lean Thinker Challenge!

The Situation

first down pokayokeYour cousin, Shane, works for the NCAA and has been tasked with improving a critical aspect of the college football experience.

Specifically, Shane has been asked to find a way to error proof the spotting of the football ensuring first downs are, in fact, first downs and that touchdowns are, in fact, touchdowns.

Today, referees are allowed to use television instant replay in order to help them spot the football and determine whether the football indeed crossed the goal line.

The problem is the referees are at the mercy of TV camera angles and there are certain situations where the available camera angles simply don’t help.

With all of this said, Shane knows you’re a lean thinker… he’s always been fascinated with how you continuously improve processes and systems at your work and even in your home.

Shane has also heard you talk about the concept of Pokayoke, or mistake proofing, and has come to you in order to get your thoughts on how the NCAA can mistake proof this critical aspect of the college football game.

Lastly, Shane also mentioned the solutions you come up with may also be used by the NFL and FIFA in order to verify the soccer ball has actually crossed the goal.

One last bit of info… due to the critical nature of this situation Shane mentioned that money isn’t really an issue. The NCAA is willing to invest millions if needed.

The Challenge

Now to the challenge. What ideas do you have to error proof this process?

In other words, how will you go about it? Will you use technology? Will you focus on the referees? How will you test your ideas?

  1. Billy Evans

    October 15, 2013 - 8:19 am

    Just brainstorming here but I think there needs to be something added to the actual football that will track where it is. Even this isn’t perfect though since you need to know when the player is down in addition to where the ball is. So perhaps a combination of additional cameras and some sort of tracking mechanism inside the football?

    • Ron Pereira

      October 15, 2013 - 8:40 am

      Thanks for the comment, Billy. The interaction of when the player is down versus ball placement is definitely the most challenging aspect of this situation.

  2. Willie

    October 15, 2013 - 10:01 am

    If money is not a challenge, technology would be the best approach avoiding human error. My out of the box thinking says that in order to determine who touched the ball, and whether the ball made contact in the goal area, you will need three points of reference namely the player, the ball and the goal area.
    So, we will need to equip the players with special gloves containing electronic “thread” which register with a sensor in the ball. The goal area should close the loop being cover with an electronic “net” which reads which player has the ball and whether the player had the ball in hand when it made contact with the goal area.
    This will also determine which hand touched the ball first, and point out if it was the opposing or defending player who touched down the ball.
    Blue sky thinking maybe, but not impossible….

  3. Brian Lawson

    October 15, 2013 - 10:03 am

    Yes, a chip in the football that tracks exactly where the ball is at all times. Then, laser technology across the field–shot from above–to indicate to the ref exactly where the ball should be placed before the next down.

    The issue with this would be that, many times, a player will continue to slide or roll once the elbow, knee, or other bodily appendage may be considered “down.” With this, the NCAA would need to be able to bounce off of instant replay to relay historical ball location data at that exact time for perfect ball placement. This would remove any and all doubt pertaining to aging referee eyes and/or additional human error.

    Thinking into it too much? ;o)

  4. Joe

    October 15, 2013 - 10:16 am

    Like Billy above, just thinking out loud, but I would think some sort of sensors on the knee and elbow pads and then again something in both noses of the football. I would also think you would also need some sort of sensors buried in the field as well, yard markers, out of bunds and goal lines. Sounds high Tech! TV already has first down lines put on for the viewers, so why not some sort of lazer beam and having the ball break the beam some how in conjuction with the sensors in the knee and elbow.

  5. Andreas J. Klemm

    October 15, 2013 - 11:00 am

    Technology is the way to go. How about placing a grid of receivers in the field, which each individually can read the signal from the two (!) ID chips in the ball (one in each end) and the ID chip in the palyer’s gloves. The reading only takes place in close vicinity to the grid sensors, thus the ball needs to actually be very close to the ground to start the reading. On his final inches, the ball and the player’s hand can together be tracked accurately and a triasngulation between the reading from several receivers in the ground will deliver exact results on the location, orientation, speed, direction of the ball and maybe even pressure inside the ball and other data.

  6. LD

    October 15, 2013 - 11:46 am

    Technology *could* be used, but even technology is prone to problems; and I would think that the abuse the footballs are put through would make it especially challenging. What if, mid-game, the sensors fail? Even current cameras are not doing the trick. If we have to use technology, then perhaps we should outfit the goal areas with those 360-degree matrix camera arrays they use to show a scene from all angles, but those cameras will have to have clear line of sight and be out of harms reach.

    If we don’t care about split-second results–in my opinion we probably shouldn’t since this is a human game not a technology game–perhaps we should look elsewhere. What if we ask the players to come up with ideas of how to detect sure-fire first downs and touchdowns? Perhaps it would require some rule changes to the game itself. Perhaps it would require some form of consensus decision that require a certain number of referees or observers (similar to the matrix camera array except human) to make their best judgment on what the majority saw, and we decide to let that stick, regardless of technicality? In other words, perhaps there’s a mindset change that’s needed.

    Personally, I like the idea of changing the rules to be “leaner” or taking the simplest approach, and if that is not enough, involve people. Then, if all that fails, we reach for technology.

    Of course, that all been said, I do realize that there’s a lot of money and pride at stake. So perhaps it’s not as simple as this.

    Full disclosure: I know very little about football. 🙂

  7. Chris

    October 15, 2013 - 1:45 pm

    Add an official that’s only responsibility is spotting the ball or remove some responsibilities from current official in charge of spotting. My experience with the NCAA and especially NFL is that the judgement calls these guys make in real time are amazingly accurate assuming they can be in the proper position. More responsibility allows for less chance of being in good position.

  8. Lucas Grohn

    October 15, 2013 - 2:48 pm

    I believe that utilizing a RFID tracking in the football and in/around/above the field would be an easy enough implementation. Forward motion in football means that the ball gets brought to the forward most position prior to the whistle.
    The crawling and rolling forward can be mitigated by connecting a piece of technology within the ref’s whistle that allows a snapshot of the balls location to be made. The then placement of the ball could be assisted by off field tracking personal.
    Also, RFID can be lighter than a feather and enclosed in adhesive, so player would never be able to notice a difference in play.
    Billy, great idea!

    • Heath

      October 15, 2013 - 7:52 pm

      My A3 is going down the same path as LD. My 5 why suggests that a significant part of the problem resides in the point of measurement (nose of the football) and how it is often obscured from view with bodies. Perhaps there is another point that is obscured with much less frequency. Perhaps the feet should mark the progress of the play. This might even create standardization with the existing rule of ” both feet inbounds on a catch” where the ball may technically be out of bounds. Some other rules might be affected, but if this was agreeable to the players and the Refs………….
      Like LD, I am not invested in Football. October is Baseball Month!

  9. Joe Crumzs

    October 15, 2013 - 8:33 pm

    I like Andreas J. Klemm idea, except that I would add some sort of radar system to be able to track the players and the ball in 3D space instead of a sensor array.

  10. David Huber

    October 16, 2013 - 6:56 am

    Answer: Like Lucas Grohn says, RF transmitter inside the ball with RF receivers throughout the field on the sidelines. The receivers perpendicular to the ball will receive the RF signals first. Linesmen use a small handheld device to signal to the sensors when to spot the ball. Replay used, if necessary, to double-check the officials correctly determined when to stop the play.

    Too much contact and the ball changes hands too many times to put sensors on players. Officials still needed, at present, to determine when play has stopped.

    • John says

      October 16, 2013 - 1:29 pm

      I agree with the RF signals providing a GPS type triangulation of position (most likely within 0.5 inches). The triangulation position could be triggered by the sound of the referees whistle stopping the play. Incomplete passes would revert back to the line of scrimmage. The handheld device could track the line of scrimmage and the 1st down line. Placing the ball could be done by a “tone” on the device matching the ball to the downed line.

  11. Mark H. Davis

    October 16, 2013 - 7:38 am

    Haven’t we all jumped the gun a little? These are all great ideas … but all potentially ineffective because we failed to do what we tell others to do:

    -Involve the people who do the work of ball placement … players, referees, etc.
    -Gather VOC from the stakeholders, particularly the “customers” of this process (I’m sure a few fans wouldn’t mind contributing).
    -Study the process of spotting the ball.
    -Go to the place where the work is done and see it for ourselves … particularly since some of us admittedly know very little about the game of football.
    -Measure the problem to understand its magnitude and frequency, and justify the allocation of resources. (I’m betting the NFL wouldn’t mind saving a few million if given the chance.)
    -Engage the team in identifying and addressing the root causes of inaccurate ball placements.

    Isn’t this what lean Six Sigma practitioners do?

    Of course, it will be fun to brainstorm out-of-the-box ideas … RFID, sensors, lasers, etc. … but quite often, poka yoke can be achieved not with new technology, but with a simple change to the existing system, developed by a cross-functional team with knowledge of the existing process.

    Perhaps the solution will be dazzling in its simplicity, and undoubtedly more effective due to the natural buy-in created by the inclusive strategy.

    • Willie

      October 16, 2013 - 9:39 am

      Hi Mark,

      I think most of us are either fans or ex players (hopefully no referee’s)..Out of the box thinking is the start of a design theory. It is all good advice, but I am a firm believer in imagination, and letting yourself go. Imagine we were the ones to come up with a combustion engine in the day of horses?
      In order to progress, I support the forum’s imagination. Not only because I am also a blue sky thinker, but because it is fun, and I have found that letting yourself go with new opportunities, helps with the solution design.

      There is nothing wrong with talking to your stakeholders, but having a few proposals in mind can only help the conversation.

  12. Mike Hahn says

    October 16, 2013 - 2:30 pm

    Is this issue a real problem or a nerd problem? Football is a rough and tumble sport played on a field, measured in yards not millimeters. It requires no more accuracy than a one eyed referee can give. No other metrics in the game support this wanna be problem.

    • Lucas Grohn

      October 17, 2013 - 10:57 am

      I don’t know about it being a game of yards. The inches matter. Nowhere is this more evident than spot placement of the ball. Also, this lean thinker challenge gives the context of this problem being important to the football establishment.

      Finally, if you don’t believe me, believe Al (be warned he uses explicit language in this clip):


    • Mike Hahn

      October 17, 2013 - 11:21 am

      Lucas stated his rebuttal well. The Al clip is about inspiring effort to gain an inch not being able to measure it. Peace.

  13. Adam

    October 26, 2013 - 2:00 am

    Most of these post go straight to solve. Surely we need to define the problem, first. I suggest using a SIPOC diagram to work out the supplier, inputs, process, outputs and customer. Once you have that defined you may find you have many different customers and processes. Then you need to measure the current data to see if the process is out of control. So look at data from a minimum of 40 samples (probably more). Analyze the data, propose 2-3 root causes, modify root causes individually and re test. Then implement control measures (change the rule book).

  14. Anonymous

    October 26, 2013 - 2:13 am

    Aren’t we missing the point of LSS with the above comments.

    Surely we need to define the problem first? I suggest a process flow diagram of the current state, then a SIPOC diagram. This will identify the customers of the process and the inputs. From here we move into measure, let’s measure 40+samples of our problem (let’s say its Incorrect ball spot on all downs). Measure data, collect results. Now we analyse using statistical modelling and notice that the process is out of control and it’s because referees get tired at the end of games(example). Here is our root cause. We re test our root cause using two sets of referees, a second set of refs comes out after half time, and the process is now in control, improvement has been. P value > 0.5, we can say the process has been improved. Now we need to control the situation, so we change the rule book and the change is made.

  15. Renaud

    October 31, 2013 - 8:07 am

    How about just simplifying the rules, to remove the tricky situations that cause 80%+ of the problems?
    Think of something, run it by many stakeholders, refine and take comments into account, run it by them again, and maybe everyone can agree on something…
    Then spend all the money they are ready to spend, to communicate how the sport will get more dynamic, less wasted time, and so on!

  16. Jeff Hajek

    November 5, 2013 - 8:01 am

    A few points come to mind. The first is not a true poka yoke, but the color of the ball makes it hard to see. A bright yellow neon ball would be much easier to see and hence to spot.
    The second is that we have to define the failure mode. Why is the ball spotted wrong? Out of place refs? Ball hidden from view? Favortism? Point shaving? The poka yoke would need to match how the spotting process broke.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.