The MLC Pastime
By Brian DeVries,
Treasurer, BOD - Michigan Lean Consortium & Corporate Continuous Improvement Manager at Zeeland Farm Services, INC.
As the Major League Baseball season is winding down, (And as a loyal Tigers fan, it has been winding down since mid-June), I thought I’d try to relate continuous improvement to ‘America’s Pastime.’ In doing so, I thought back to my days as an Assistant Varsity Baseball Coach and an interaction I had with our leadoff hitter. Just before he walked to the plate I asked him, "What is your primary job as the leadoff hitter?" His response was simple: "Get a hit." While he did not specify what type of hit -- single, double, triple or home run -- I can almost assure you he was referring to a single.
A couple of things came to mind: first, why only a single? Doesn’t every player dream of hitting a home run? It’s the most exciting happening in baseball!
But he was onto something. Home runs are hard to hit. Furthermore, hitting a homer without anyone on base doesn’t pack the same punch as a multi-run long ball. What I tried to teach each of my players is that a sustaining rally in baseball begins with walks, singles, errors, or any other way you can simply get on base.
We get excited by those intermittent homeruns, but they’re always most effective when they’re preceded by getting players in position to score with bloops and walks and errors.
If you need to score three runs, back-to-back-to-back solo homeruns might feel more exciting, but an error followed by three singles and then a double is easier to accomplish -– it gets you the runs you need.
So, what is the connection between baseball and a continuous improvement program? Simple. To put the “continuous” in continuous improvement, we to put a few hits together, eventually leading to a few wins, and then incrementally more wins. That path enables sustainable improvement, and a winning record.
In continuous improvement and baseball, there is the time and place for home runs, and they will occur. That’s the best thing about just playing the game. But, there are a lot more singles out there that can have real impact. I once heard from a CEO: "I’m not so concerned about the big hits [the home runs]. It’s all these singles we’re getting that are making a difference."
I would suggest that, at times, our continuous improvement programs have lost sight as to the importance of the walks and singles. To me, that poses a problem. Continuous Improvement programs can be too focused on hitting the home run. We need to get back to the basics.
So, going back to the story I started with; my leadoff hitter’s primary job was not to get a hit, but to get on base. His job is to start the rally by any means necessary.
Keep in mind that starting a rally is one thing, but sustaining a rally is something completely different. Quite often in baseball you see a rally that brings with it several runs. That’s great. However, sustained rallies often have more affect than just a few runs. Typically your team scores more runs, you may cycle through a pitcher or two, and most importantly, you gain momentum! You gain the type of momentum that sustains over a period of time. It’s difficult to do, but when you do it, wow, look at the results!
To do this, you have to be trained and be able to execute the fundamentals. You have to practice. You have to drill the fundamentals: hit and run, stolen bases, hitting to the opposite field, maybe even a bunt and a sacrifice fly. You have to be able to execute so that when you are faced with the opportunity, you react correctly to continue the rally.
To be successful in our continuous improvement applications, you also have to sustain rallies by executing the basics -- such as following standard work, implementing 5S practices, critically thinking through root causes, hosting kaizen events, and driving problem solving down to the level of the organization where the work is actually getting done.
Oftentimes in today’s world, we tend to become so focused on the “home runs,” that we have forgotten many of the basics and “rally starting” events of the past. We need to get back to the basics, get things like our standard work and 5S practices polished off. Furthermore, we need to appropriately train and coach our teams in critical thinking so they react appropriately when required, and implement preventative actions to help us in the future.
Continuous improvements without routines and fundamentals under control can create isolated rallies, but conversely, continuous improvements built upon standards and routines can and will create sustained rallies.
A few things for you and your teams to think about:
1. What is your job in your continuous improvement journey?
2. Do you have your routines/standards under control? Are they well documented? Moreover, do you audit them on a regular basis so that you are able to produce sustained rallies?
3. Do your coaches and assistants have the tools they need, and do they know how to extend a rally into a multiple game winning streak?
You can contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his site spreadtheleanlove.com