Change Point Management, Accountability and the Seahawk’s Defense

In a few short years, the Seattle Seahawks’ defense has gone from being historically great to the worst ever in terms of yards allowed, through the first half of the 2020 season. Fans are agonizing over this, calling for the heads of one coach or another, blaming injuries, predictable play calling and so forth. These are all contributing factors, no doubt. However, if we put on our lean management glasses we can see some systemic and process-oriented issues which require their own approach.

What is Change Point Management?

Change points are the inputs to a process that are variable and can affect the outcome. A common expression is the 4M for the four elements of manpower, machine, material, and method. Changes to personnel, equipment, materials or methods often result in changes to quality, output or lead time. Based on the type of work we can add product mix, environmental conditions, regulations, measurement systems, or others to the list of change points.

Change point management is the practice of setting standards for the 4M+ elements and checking regularly that we are meeting these standards. Often the control points or checklists are visualized at the workplace. Leaders verify them in person during the day, and they take countermeasures when there are deviations. Process confirmation is another term associated with the practice of change point management.

Change Point Control: Recovery Time

Where can we see change point control, or the lack thereof, in evidence in the Seahawks’ 2020 season? One example is the unintended consequence of the Seahawks’ dynamic offense that scores early and often, mainly through the air. In past years, Seahawks would take off seven or eight minutes by running the ball more. This kept their defense on the sidelines to rest and recover. With fewer extended drives powered by clock-eating runs, the defense finds itself back on the field with less time on the sideline to rest and recover.

Change Point Control: Opposing Team’s Run-Pass Balance

The Seahawks’ offense puts up more points than in past years. The opposing team is often forced to pass more, attempting big plays to catch up. This puts more pressure on the Seahawks pass defense, exposing one of their known weakness further. This negative feedback loop is not unknown to football, but it appears the Seahawks didn’t plan for it.

Change Point Management: Officiating

Every year the National Football League office changes the rules. Sometimes this is openly, through the competition committee to improve safety, increase scoring or resolve other balance issues. There are obvious though not openly-admitted changes to how penalties are called.

This year, the League appears to have told its officials to call fewer holding penalties on the offense. As a result, offenses are having an easier time, scores are higher, and viewers enjoy a more dynamic game. A better entertainment product results in higher ratings and increased advertising revenue.

Teams didn’t plan for this change. It was only obvious after a few weeks of gameplay and officiating. It is a regulatory change that all defenses are adjusting to now.

Change Point Management: Crowd Noise

Crowd noise affects the offense’s ability to communicate pre-snap, making adjustments based on how the defense is lining up. When the defense is playing a home game, the fans in the stadium roar in an attempt to disadvantage the visiting offense. Due to COVID-19 restrictions the stadiums are empty or near empty. The League has set artificial crowd noise at a standard 70 decibels to keep it fair to all teams. This puts defenses accustomed to playing in loud stadiums at a disadvantage. The Seahawks fans routinely exceed 70 decibels, setting a world record at 137.6 dB on one occasion.

Change Point Management: Personnel

Every team experiences some degree of change to their personnel every season. Rookies must learn to play against new opponents, in a new system at a faster speed. Injuries require adapting the plan. Sometimes when dynamic new players are added on defense, it changes how other parts of the defense function, for better and for worse. It’s the job of the management, scouts and coaching staff to find and fit new talent into their scheme. It’s the job of the coaches and players to make sure they are developing as a high performance team. People are the most important element since it’s up to people to set control points, check them and hold each other accountable.

Daily Accountability Process

An essential element of sustaining operational excellence in any business, including sports, is following a daily accountability process. In the case of American football this cadence may be daily for practice and weekly for retrospectives on their matches. Even during a win, the Seahawks defense has at times looked lost on the field. This makes one wonder what lessons they are learning by watching their own tape.

After perhaps their best performance of the season on Week 11, the Seattle Times article reported that a factor in the Seahawks defense’s turnaround was ‘a meeting of accountability’ among players. The defensive coach organized a meeting so that each player had the chance to speak up. They were asked to detail their responsibility in the base defense and their understanding of the play calls.

We don’t know exactly what the players said, but we do have an eyewitness account, from head coach Pete Carroll who reminded the team, “To make sure that they realized what had just happened, because it was a big statement about everybody knows exactly what they need to do, and also that they’re willing to go do it and how they’re going to do it. And all of that’s such important stuff.”

Appreciation of a System

In their victory on Week 11, it also helped that the Seahawks played the Cardinals for the second time in five weeks. There’s no doubt the addition and return of several key defensive players helped the unit’s performance. The Cardinal’s quarterback had a strained shoulder. The Seahawks defense can’t count on any of these one-time advantages in the future.

All of the above is a reminder that there is something that any team, in sports or in business, needs to have in order to remain competitive. This is, in Dr. Deming’s words, an appreciation of a system. The team composition, the approach to each football match, and even the ebb and flow of a season must be viewed as an integrated system. There are interrelated connections and interactions between them. The offense, defense, special teams are not discrete and independent units that can be sub-optimized or directed with independent chains of command. Only when a team understands the connections and interactions between its parts, identifies key processes, and manages the control points can it win forever.

8 Comments

  1. Stefan Diarbi

    November 25, 2020 - 5:24 pm
    Reply

    Hi Jon, this is a great post and I like all the points you make regarding change point management for the Seahawks. I could make similar comparisons for the Patriots, my favorite and home team, however I believe many other teams are going through the same situation due to COVID. If Seattle hired somebody who knew how to work with lean, maybe then their defense could make some improvements. Maybe they could simply start off with asking the 5 whys. Addressing the Seattle defense, why are they the worst? Why are they allowing so many yards? Why can’t the defense make the right reads? Why are there no call outs? Why is the defensive staff not making the right adjustments or roster moves? Questions as simple as these could prove to lead a change.

    • Jon Miller

      November 26, 2020 - 5:22 pm
      Reply

      Thanks for your comment Stefan. It will also be interesting in a few years to see how many American football coaches and GMs successfully marry their traditional philosophies and practices with data analytics and system dynamics.

      • Chris Freitas

        December 9, 2020 - 6:32 pm
        Reply

        Hello Stefan and Jon, In regards to the topic you’re talking about I agree with the questions you asked but you also need to ask what pieces you still need. The Seahawks defense was so powerful because they had many great players like richard sherman and earl thomas. Who are no longer on the team. If you take a key piece out of any assembly process you’re going to have issues and I believe the Seahawks are witnessing this. You need to be able to use lean thinking and figure out what positions are the most efficient and how you can fix them.

        • Jon Miller

          December 9, 2020 - 8:06 pm
          Reply

          Hi Chris. You’re right of course. But the first 10 games of 2020 it was not a question of “Why isn’t this defense as great as the 2013-2015 teams?” It was “Why is this defense so historically BAD?” The players they have aren’t bad. They were playing far below their talent level. The total performance was LESS than the sum of its parts. That’s why I view it as a system issue rather than a problem with pieces.

  2. Sharon

    December 4, 2020 - 4:13 pm
    Reply

    You’re missing a word in this sentence:

    Change points are the inputs to a process that are variable and can the outcome.

    Maybe need “affect” after “can”?

    • Jon Miller

      December 4, 2020 - 4:42 pm
      Reply

      “Affect”, yes. Corrected. Thanks!

  3. Jared Akins

    January 5, 2021 - 2:41 pm
    Reply

    Hi Jon,

    I love this post! Combining Lean thinking and the Seahawks? Brilliant! Can you tell I’m a Hawk fan?

    Now that we are about a month since your post we can see several of the Change Points were in fact factors in the play of the Seahawks. Your first point concerning time on the field for the Defense with a quick strike type of offense has definitely shifted. This shift feeds right into offensive direction changing from predominantly pass to more of a balanced approach. (With all fairness Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny were both out earlier in the year.) By having a balanced offense the Hawks are generally eating up more of the game clock, thus allowing the defense to have more rest. Great insight and it seems to proving true.

    Looking at the people side there are several factors that have proven to be very beneficial to the Defense. Jamaal Adams and Stefan Diggs are key performers back on the field. One great addition was Carlos Dunlap at the edge and DJ Reed coming in to play corner back. Ken Norton, Jr. has done a great job with the team making adjustments based on game play feedback, which is a real sports feedback loop for improvement.

    I have found it fascinating to learn what I can about how Coach Carroll leads his teams. He has a specific philosophy, a system, and process that he uses to compete for a Superbowl. We’ve seen it work beautifully and we’ve experienced the frustrations of plans going awry. That’s life.

    Thank you for your insightful post, which has proven to be spot-on!

    • Jon Miller

      January 5, 2021 - 5:04 pm
      Reply

      Thanks for your comment Jared.

      It’s a fascinating sport because it really does require all 11 people doing their job for a play to succeed, especially on defense. What the Seahawks’ defensive turnaround has show me is that addition of talent is not enough, the individuals must be integrated into a system. Earlier in the year, Jamal Adams made me really nervous because he appeared to be a “high risk, high reward” player. He got sacks, yes, but he at times appeared to be a liability in pass coverage, or to over-commit to the blitz and get out of position. As the other players and coaches learned this and adjusted their system and team play, his positives have outweighed. Bobby and KJ may have another year in them, but if we can find a strong safety who excels in coverage, I’d vote to have Jamal take his place at LB.

      Carlos Dunlap has been really solid. Having a credible edge rush on both sides has given the everyone on the D line a chance to be better than average, to win one-one-one in key moments. DJ Reed just wants it more than the guy across from him. Qandre Diggs has a knack for being where errant balls sail.

      Pete Carroll has figured something out in terms of the mental side of the game for his players. It may be as simple as respecting and wanting what’s best for each of them as individuals. I do think his belief in the upside of people causes him to be a half-step slower in facing the facts and making tough decisions, to cut losses on players who should not have been picked so high or who clearly aren’t hungry to contribute. He and John Schneider had some early wins betting on “growth stocks” in the draft, and this has caused them to be too clever by 1/2, ignoring the best available player on many occasions to the frustration of fans. Easy to say in hindsight, but this is also why you hire analytics guys who are cold-eyed and can make the case based data and not hormones.

      Hopefully the defense hold sand the offense figures it out during the playoffs!

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