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leadership, lean thinking

Using Catchball to Bring Down the Silos

What we need to do is learn to work in the system, by which I mean that everybody, every team, every platform, every division, every component is there not for competitive profit or recognition, but for contribution to the system as a whole on a win-win basis.” – W. Edwards Deming

One of the most important aspects of lean thinking that is often underemphasized or ignored altogether is the catchball process.  Catchball is critical for calibrating the focus and efforts of everyone to assure that people don’t lose sight of what the organization is trying to achieve and how they contribute to its success.

Without catchball objectives tend to become fuzzy, the focus of people and teams turn inward, and teamwork breaks down.  Although not necessarily an easy process, the benefits associated with effective catchball are significant.  The discussions that occur throughout the process become the magnet that pulls the team together and focused on achieving the organization’s vision.

Vertical Communication

The most common application of catchball is a series of discussions that take place between leaders at different levels of the organization to assure objectives are understood, aligned, and achievable.

During catchball meetings, the leader assures that annual objectives are understood and accepted by those on his or her team.  In many cases, an objective will be a stretch for the person involved in the discussion, with the dual purpose of moving the organization forward and developing the person’s problem-solving abilities.  Particularly for a stretch objective, it is made clear that the leader will provide coaching throughout the effort.  This helps assure that the objective becomes the responsibility of the person to whom it is assigned as well as the leader doing the assigning.

The discussion is also an opportunity for the team member to express concerns about the objective, given other priorities for the team.  The leader must be ready to discuss priorities and resources during the conversation.

Openly and sincerely discussing the specifics of an objective with the people and teams is vital to assure that those involved buy into the intention of the objective rather than approaching it as a check the box exercise.

Horizontal Communication

One of the less common applications of catchball is the discussion that takes place between functions to assure support and alignment of objectives is clear.  It is all too common for support functions to set objectives and determine priorities in a vacuum, and focus on what they consider to be important rather than what their internal customers need.  Given the fact that people want to do a good job and consider what they do to be important, this is perfectly understandable.  Establishing horizontal catchball discussions is vital way to assure that the energy and expertise of everyone, especially those in support functions, is directed toward the organization’s highest priorities.

When the company’s purpose is clear, it is easy to determine which areas support others.  In a company that manufactures products, for example, everyone’s work should be oriented toward production – meaning that the factory is the focus.  Even those developing new products need to understand the problems in the factory to assure that new designs are producible.  In an oil and gas operation, the focus is the producing asset; and in a service operation, it’s the point where the service is delivered to the customer.  The key to assuring that everyone is focused on the same priorities is being absolutely clear about the company’s purpose.  This helps people understand who they support and who supports them.

Horizontal catchball discussions focus on assuring that objectives are clear and that the needs between areas and functions are understood.  Although it is the responsibility of a support area to remain abreast of advancements within its area of expertise, efforts should be oriented toward meeting needs of those the area serves rather than forcing new and exciting developments on them.  With that said, however, as with external customers, internal customers don’t always know what is possible or what will help them improve, so the catchball discussions should include explaining new developments and understanding whether or not they can help address problems in the short- or long-term.

Assuring Catchball Success

Like much of lean thinking, catchball is simple but not easy.  The formal effort should take place over 2-3 months but, in reality, includes discussions that occur throughout the year.

The process runs counter to traditional management in that it puts just as much, if not more, of the responsibility for success on leaders.  Leaders must be closely connected to gemba to know the capabilities of the team, including the extent of stretch that they are able to accept.  It also requires the ability to coach effectively and continually help people understand the connection between the work of the team and the company’s long-term objectives.

By defining, standardizing, and continually improving the process, catchball can become an extremely valuable element of the annual planning effort.  The better the organization becomes at catchball, the more the energy and efforts of people becomes redirected from working against each other to actually uniting toward a common purpose that results in a win for everyone.

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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.

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