“One thing that makes Chris [Evert] such a great champion, is that she doesn’t play games or sets, she plays points.” – Billie Jean King
I’ve played tennis most of my life and learned many years ago about the importance of the mental aspect of the game. One thing that particularly impressed me early on was the ability of Chris Evert to maintain an intense level of focus regardless of the score. Whether she was winning handily or losing badly, her expression and focus did not seem to waver. This ability helped her come from behind on many occasions and beat her opponent, even when it appeared that she had no chance of winning. Her focus was never the match, set or game, but the point. Her strategy was based on the idea that points mattered, not the score, and by focusing on winning each point, the matches would take care of themselves.
I didn’t know it at the time but this greatly helped me to understand lean thinking. Keeping the focus on what’s happening right now, whether a machined part, assembly, customer interaction, or drill bit location, helps drive improvement by immediately seeing when something goes wrong. When we become distracted by the overall score – the monthly or annual budget – we miss the little things that happen every day and every hour that add up to poor long-term performance.
At its most basic level, lean involves setting standards and addressing the problems that interfere with meeting the standards. This means that, to make lean work, we must: (1) have standards; and (2) provide an easy way to know when the standards are not met. It is a simple concept but is very difficult to put into practice. Company culture, leadership systems, and human behavior often force people to worry about the big picture and forget that the results consist of many small processes and interactions. As a consequence, people ignore the small problems and fail to see that spending 5 minutes looking for a tool, for example, has an impact on missing a monthly or annual production target.
It Starts with Leaders
For a variety of reasons, leaders tend to focus on the big picture and ignore the small problems. What is often forgotten, however, is that the big picture includes creating an environment where everybody identifies and addresses problems every day. By showing concern only about the big gaps in performance, leaders are telling people that the small things don’t matter. As an example, although missing a bolt to complete a job can be a headache for a person in the factory, a leader may decide that it is not significant enough to spend time helping the person understand the cause and develop a countermeasure for the next job. The message that some problems are important to fix while others are not sends mixed messages about the importance of problem-solving. In effect, the leader is losing points while thinking about the match.
Changing the culture requires helping people understand that every instance where a standard is not met is a problem and needs to be resolved. Doing this requires spending time at gemba to see when it happens, helping people recognize the small problems that happen (or validating that the problems are important enough to address), and coaching people to effectively solve problems. The objective is to get people solving the problems they face every day.
Changing the Daily or Weekly Standup
Another way to help change the way people think about problems is through the daily or weekly standup meetings. A traditional standup meeting reviews how the team performed since the last meeting, e.g., what problems interfered with achieving the plan discussed in the previous day’s meeting. When the discussion is distracted by the annual or monthly budget rather than what happened yesterday, important information is missed. Achieving the budget is obviously important but since meeting standards is the way to achieve the budget, the focus needs to be on what got in the way of meeting standards. When the focus is the budget, the team misses a critical objective of lean: solving problems and performing better every day. In tennis, the standards include things like the stroke, footwork, and ball placement. It is these things that enable a player to win points through an intense focus on doing them correctly and making adjustments when problems happen rather than looking at the score. In work, the standards and associated instructions are the stroke, footwork, and ball placement.
When a company’s culture suffers from an attention deficit disorder (a common condition in many organizations) its inability to see the small problems interferes with the daily problem-solving required to continually improve and create a system capable of meeting the budget. By allowing this to continue – i.e., worrying more about the score than the point or the shot – the gap to the budget will continue to grow because the problems are not being addressed. It is also far easier to address the small problems every day than to attempt to take on the entire gap between actual performance and the annual budget.
Focus on the Points
University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban once said, “the process is really what you have to do day in and day out to be successful.” In lean terms, he’s referring to understanding and continually focusing on the standards. When the focus is results rather than the work that produces the results, standards become meaningless, problems become too big to address, and the gap continues to grow. Besides the fact that it is far easier to identify and correct gaps to meeting a standard than missing a monthly production target, the more people address problems – regardless of how small – the better they get at problem-solving. I’ve learned the hard way many years ago that my chances of coming back from a 5-1 deficit are much better when I focus on the next point than worrying about winning the next six games.