July 2015

Lean in Action: How Golf Made My Transition to Lean a Hole-in-One

My name is Brian DeVries and I am a Continuous Improvement Champion with Haworth Inc. working with our corporate Haworth Management System team in Holland, MI.  I have a fun and unique role with this company; however, it wasn’t that long ago that I was putting my new steel toe boots on and taking my first step onto the hard concrete manufacturing floor.  The concept of Lean manufacturing was as foreign as some of its very foundations, or so I thought.  After all, I had spent most of my life on the golf course.  The last 9 years I was a part of the golf course maintenance industry and had served as an Assistant Golf Course Superintendent in places like Williamsburg, VA, Las Vegas, NV, Chicago, IL and Grand Rapids, MI.  I was responsible for coordinating the activities of the course to ensure our crew would meet the growing expectations of the memberships we served.  When relating the atmosphere of that industry to that of a manufacturing plant, it was quite different.  Sure we had heavy machinery, but the overall environment was pretty quiet when contrasted with that of a manufacturing facility.   I was hired into a large office furniture corporation as a Zone Leader.  I would be placed in a ‘development pool’ and, when ready, I would be placed into an area on the floor.  During my time in this ‘pool’ I was to work with several groups, one of which was our Lean manufacturing team.  The original premise of this was to spend 60 days with this team to learn the concepts and applications of Lean within a manufacturing setting and gain a better understanding of its practical applications.  It was a natural fit for me, but why?  And so the story begins…

Growing up, I was an avid golfer.  Okay, I was an addict.  I would play 54 holes or more a day since my dad would drop me off at the course on his way to work and pick me up on his way home.  During my time developing in the game of golf, I watched my scores go from high 90’s for 18 holes to the upper 70’s, but things really stagnated for me at this point. 

Pareto & Root Cause
I knew I needed to improve my game, but which parts?  My lean journey had actually started many years before I ever had a title that reflected it.  In an effort to improve my game, I devised a spreadsheet that logged my scores; however this one was different than just a way to track my average.  This one not only held my scores for the round, it also kept track of putts per green, fairways hit, greens in regulation, sand saves or misses, and penalty shots taken.  I didn’t stop there, I wanted to be able to really drill down and find the true causes of why my scores weren’t coming down, and what I needed to be improving.  I decided to include sub categories of each of the above items.  I found that my putts per green statistic typically had a correlation to my proximity to the hole that ultimately related to my hitting the green in regulation and directly affected my score.   Just in one stat I was able to create drills to improve my chipping and iron accuracy to help me get the ball closer to the hole.  Each statistic brought with it more information and highlighted where I needed to improve.  Though I didn’t know it yet, I was already developing Pareto charts, metrics, and driving down to find root cause.  When I took my first lean job, it didn’t take long before I was teaching classes on the development of meaningful pareto charts that helped drive to root cause.  As far as the golf game goes at this point, I started to see improvement, but really needed to make more improvements, but how?

Standard Work
My scores were dropping and I was starting to work on the right things according to my data, but why wasn’t I consistent in my scores when I left the comfy confines of my home course?  As I thought about it, and looked at the data, I kept coming back to one conclusion, I just didn’t know the golf course, and furthermore, didn’t know my distances.  On a golf course I played on a daily basis I had built up an incredible amount of tribal knowledge.  So much in fact, that I really didn’t have to think about what club I had to hit from where, I ‘just knew.’  I found this approach was successful at my home course, but when I ventured out abroad, I was a bit lost.  Another A-Ha! Moment came to me and I decided to really understand how far my clubs went and what ball flight (slight left draw, small fade right, etc.) to expect.  By setting the standard and knowing that from distances of 125 yards to 133 yards I hit my pitching wedge, I knew on other courses what my plan of attack was.  When I first began to write standard work I understood its importance, its use for documenting the current best standard and using it for a base to improve.  I could relate to the comfort of having tribal knowledge and the common response of ‘I know what I’m doing, I don’t need to write it down,’ but also understood the ‘why’ behind the tool itself.  All-in-all I really began to improve, but still, I felt like I was fire fighting at the new courses, so how could I improve that feeling?

Proactive vs. Reactive
It wasn’t too long after setting the standards that I began to look at how I help myself fell more comfortable on the golf course.  I found the other reason I was so comfortable on my own course is that I knew how to play it.  I knew the shots required to make it around the course effectively.  I knew that I needed to be able to bring that same comfort and knowledge to these foreign golf courses. Instead of just playing the golf course based on what I came upon, I studied the golf courses I was going to play in the future.  I devised a game plan based on my standards (distances & flight patterns) and designed it to fit my game and allow me to hit clubs I was comfortable with.  I played the holes backwards in my mind.  I knew if I wanted a 150 yard shot into a 550 yard Par 5, I could hit two 200 yard 6-irons then be set up for my 150 yard shot into the green leaving myself with two putts to make par.  I found this plan to really help in deciding what clubs to put into my bag (extra fairway wood or extra wedge) and made me feel more comfortable when I stepped on the first tee.  When I began working with lean, the importance of proactive vs. reactive was already deeply engrained into the fiber of my being, thus making that transition to finding leading metrics and supplement those with lagging metrics much smoother. 

I could go on and on about how my golf game was a key factor in my successful transition to lean, but this is a great sampling.  I think we all had great experience with lean before taking our current roles, but may not have realized it.  I was co-leading an external event recently and the event featured folks who had little to no lean knowledge.  At the end of the event, I had a person come up to me and say “I feel so much smarter now!”  It was a really rewarding experience to make the point that this person wasn’t any smarter than they were to begin the week; rather they now had the tools to realize how smart they really were!  I think that is the essence of what lean is.  Giving people the tools to utilize human potential in such a way that maximizes their opportunities to see opportunities for and implement change is our job, and I feel blessed everyday for the chance to do exactly that!

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