Unlocking the Power of Continuous Improvement

By Ron Pereira Updated on July 6th, 2018

The more I come to understand the idea of scientific thinking the more I see it hidden inside other sound systems including Nick Saban’s famous “Process” that’s lead to him building one of college football’s great programs at Alabama.

During an interview Saban explained the moment his famous “Process” was born while he was coaching at Michigan State. Unfortunately, for Ohio State Buckeye fans like me it’s a game many of us would like to forget since Saban’s rag tag 4 win / 5 loss Michigan State Spartans rolled into Columbus to take on the undefeated, #1 ranked, Buckeyes. Saban knew his team wasn’t as gifted so he challenged them in a different way.

We decided to use the approach that we’re not going to focus on the outcome,” Saban said. “We were just going to focus on the process of what it took to play the best football you could play, which was to focus on that particular play as if it had a history and life of its own.

Don’t look at the scoreboard, don’t look at any external factors, just all your focus and all your concentration, all your effort, all your toughness, all your discipline to execute went into that particular play. Regardless of what happened on that play, success or failure, you would move on to the next play and have the same focus to do that on the next play, and you’d then do that for 60 minutes in a game and then you’d be able to live with the results regardless of what those results were.”

As sports fans likely know, Michigan State pulled off the stunning upset (ugh, I still remember the pain!) and Saban’s “Process” was born.

Now, the thing I love most about this “Process” is the fact that they no longer focus on the outcome of a game or a play or anything they are involved in.  Instead, they’re laser focused on the process of playing the game or running the play or, again, whatever it is they’re working on.

As it turns out, Saban’s process is very similar to what we lean thinkers refer to as Scientific Thinking.  Done correctly, we set a long term challenge.  We then assess where we currently are.

Once this current state is deeply understood we set a short term target condition that we believe can be achieved in a few weeks.  We then identify any obstacle standing between us and this target condition before choosing one obstacle to attack.  We then focus (like Saban and his team) all our concentration, all our effort, all our toughness, all our discipline into overcoming this single obstacle.

In other words, like Saban and his Process, we aren’t obsessed about the long term challenge… instead, we’re only focused on that single obstacle standing between us and our short term target condition.  And this, my friends, is when the power of continuous improvement truly unlocks itself.

  1. Owen Berkeley-Hill

    July 7, 2018 - 1:41 pm

    Hi Ron,
    Thanks for the post, which was interesting.

    Where I have a problem, is who specifically is the target for such posts. Is it the leader: Nick Saban is obviously one. However, I get the impression that these posts are aimed at, not the CEO and top tier, but some enthusiastic person two or three lays down.

    Lean has been around for over three decades but the progress it has made, could best be described as poor. Part of the problem is the approach of the vast army of Lean educators because we initially thought of Lean as the Toyota toolbox, or the 1/10 that was visible above sea level. We then moved (slowly) thinking it was an improvement methodology competing with BPR, Six Sigma, TOC, TRIX, TQM, ZQC and a host of other TLAs, not forgetting that strange amalgam Lean Sigma.

    As long as we take this approach, the vast majority of business leaders will regard Lean as something that does not concern them, leaving it to some technical wing-man or woman in the organisation. When the “initiative” fails it reinforces the leaders’ prejudices against embracing Lean.

    But that is just part of the problem. Bob Emiliani has just published a book, The Triumph of Classical Management over Lean Management. In it, he suggests that the principles of Lean go completely against the grain for anyone who has climbed to the pinnacle of an organisation. (Apparently, Fred W Taylor and the Scientific Management movement had a similar problem.) The more examples and data you show them of how effective Lean is, the more this class (or is it caste) rejects Lean.

    Using the example of Nick Laban and the small number of leadership “outliers” who are thinking in an Lean way, isn’t it time that we explain to current business leaders (and the future millions being churned out by the B-schools) that Lean is, perhaps, the most significant advance in our understanding of how a good leader, thinks, believes, acts and behaves?

    • Chuck

      August 29, 2018 - 5:35 pm

      Owen, I don’t think it’s about class or caste; rather, the focus of B School grads will only change when they can look beyond a Wall Street driven quarter by quarter profit/loss statement. LEAN, as practiced by Toyota, and as I understand it, is predicated upon long term thinking. Toyota is a master of this, and those who wish to succeed at LEAN must adopt it as well. I doubt that quarterly P&L thinking can ever succeed at LEAN, though perhaps a long term LEAN practitioner could comment on whether or not this is the case (as I am not a long term practitioner).

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