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deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation, Uncategorized

The Significance of Catchball

“A goal without a method is nonsense!”W. Edwards Deming

A critically important element of business planning that often gets downplayed or completely ignored is the catchball process.  The books and articles I’ve read on the subject of hoshin kanri tend to oversimplify the role of catchball and rarely go into the level of depth the subject deserves.

Catchball is a process whereby leaders and team members discuss objectives and plans to make sure everybody understands and is in agreement with expectations.  The conversations go back and forth between levels to assure that the objectives, as well as the plans to achieve the objectives are clearly communicated.

Catchball is often limited to the discussions at the executive level to sort out high level goals.  By not carrying the process through all levels of the organization, however, leaders are missing an important opportunity to communicate expectations and concerns before problems occur.

The objectives of catchball include:

Clarification:  Clarifying expectations to team members upfront rather than waiting until the performance review to criticize them for not meeting objectives that may never have been understood in the first place.  We tend to spend more time evaluating performance than we do making sure expectations are clear, which makes it appear as if we want people to fail more than we want the organization to succeed.

Consistency: Gaining comfort that a person can meet objectives through methods and behaviors that are consistent with the way the organization operates.  When the only concern is whether or not an objective is met (i.e., the “how” is ignored), we can easily create an Enron-type environment that undermines values, breaks down teamwork, and where improvements are not sustainable.

Coaching:  Providing a vehicle for coaching team members on the methods and behaviors required to be successful.  A critical component of development is to provide team members with objectives that stretch thinking and take them out of their comfort zone. Doing this without adequate coaching and direction, however, can be destructive to the person’s development.

Communication/Dialogue:  Allowing people to communicate concerns to leaders about meeting objectives and asking help that may be needed to be successful.

Alignment:  Assuring that there is clear alignment between lower level plans or A3s and higher level plans and targets.

When implemented correctly, catchball can make up for many of the problems that companies experienced during the MBO-era.   It forces communication between levels and improves a leader’s understanding of the implications that objectives have on the people to which they are assigned.  Like anything in business, however, catchball requires continual improvement to be successful.  It requires patience and a willingness to listen to concerns, as well as a sincere effort by leaders to coach and mentor team members.


About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


4 thoughts on “The Significance of Catchball

  1. Greg – nice post on the importance of catchball. As you noted above “it requires patience and a willingness to listen to concerns, as well as a sincere effort by leaders to coach and mentor team members.” I find that very few leaders possess these traits and that’s why catchball doesn’t get implemented as often as we would like.

    Posted by Vele Galovski | February 10, 2013, 5:06 pm
    • Vele – I agree . . . if we expect leaders to act differently, we need to coach them what that means. Many were promoted into leadership positions for reasons other than what we expect of them today. We owe it to them to give them the opportunity to change – but we can’t wait too long because their role is too important in the transformation.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Posted by Gregg Stocker | February 10, 2013, 10:36 pm
  2. Gregg, it seems that the same truths are discovered and renamed every few years under a different theory or discipline. Russell Ackoff for many years promoted “Interactive Planning” and Socio-Technical System design are both based on a process of what might be called “catchball”, in which there is a back and forth between senior management, lower level design teams who are more “on-the-spot” and customers and suppliers. I’d be interested to hear more detailed examples of how catchball could/should be practiced in a lean environment.

    Posted by lmmiller9 | February 13, 2013, 8:58 am
    • Thanks for the comment, Larry. I agree – a lot of the tools and philosophy today are nothing really new. In fact, I see a lot of Dr. Deming’s teachings in current literature on leadership and lean/TPS. Besides Russell Ackoff, I also believe that catchball process is very close to what Peter Drucker was trying to teach people when he wrote about MBO, but like a lot of effective leadership processes, people wanted shortcuts and eventually killed it. The term “catchball” came as part of a toolkit with Hoshin Kanri, which I’ve seen credited to Karou Ishikawa, Yoji Akao, Peter Drucker, among others.

      I guess I don’t have much of a problem with continually rebranding as long as it helps increase the understanding and use by business leaders.

      Posted by Gregg Stocker | February 13, 2013, 9:29 am

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