Click here if you missed Part 1 – The Five Whys and NFL Front Office Management
The Lean Startup – How today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses, by Eric Ries (Crown Publishing), should probably be required reading for any would be NFL owner, aspiring head coach, or up and coming GM candidate. Ries does a great job in laying out the principles of building an organization through a continuous Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop, and one that masters the process of the Five Whys.
“By asking and answering ‘why’ five times, we can get to the real cause of the problem, which is often hidden behind more obvious symptoms.”
The Five Blames
Too often the NFL (clubs, media, fans and followers) slips into the alter ego of the Five Whys, its evil twin the Five Blames. It seems to me that 9.5 out of 10 critiques of any NFL club is pointed towards personnel and very rarely the process. After all, people ultimately formulate and are in charge of the processes that guide an organization both on and off the field. It’s a rare occurrence to find someone willing enough to stand up and take responsibility for implementing poor procedural processes. And even if they do, they’re not going to fire themselves as a remedy, but rather look for others that might not be properly following their guidance.
Ries attributes a lot of recurring problems to “working too fast, trading quality for time in a way that causes sloppy mistakes.” Using a similar thought process to that of a Startup business, NFL clubs should venture through the Five Whys process whenever they encounter any kind of failure, to include execution flaws, failures in on the field performance, personnel decision making, or unexpected changes in player behavior.
“It’s football, why bother?”
The reason I’m personally drawn to this process as it relates to an NFL organization is that it requires, as Ries puts it, building an environment/culture of “mutual trust and empowerment.” It takes advantage of all your resources and gets directly to the source of your weaknesses.
Ries asks teams to adopt these simple rules.
- Be tolerant of all mistakes the first time.
- Never allow the same mistake to be made twice.
It’s the second rule that catches my attention and forces the team to make “proportional investments in prevention.” Most NFL front office management teams will excise the problem (frequently players) before discovering the root of the dilemma.
Ries warns that the Five Why process will uncover some unpleasant facts about your team. My experience in the NFL also saw teams under pressure not wanting to waste time finding the root cause of their failures. Frequently things turned towards the Five Blames and spread like flames through the organization. “Building an adaptive organization, in other words, requires executive leadership to sponsor and support the process.” Most new head coaches and general managers lack the experience, and ownership is often too unwilling to get involved. The result is frequently “final say” authority making a unilateral decision that ripples off in many directions.
So it’ll be necessary to ensure that “buy-in” comes from the top when tackling the Five Whys process. Ries also feels it imperative for EVERYONE “affected by the problem is in the room for the analysis of the root cause.” This is counter-intuitive for most coaches or executives, after all it’s why they’re paid the BIG BUCKS to solve the BIG PROBLEMS.
Finding a MASTER
By default you might think the head coach or GM would be the Five Whys Master, and you’re probably correct. This point person must be the primary change agent, one capable of assessing how the meeting is proceeding and whether “prevention investments that are being made are paying off.”
This is a radical way of looking to solve what otherwise have been defined as complex problems for NFL clubs in the past, but really what do some organizations have to lose, other than more games? Teams will also be enticed to pull their endemic “baggage issues” through the process, something Ries warns against in any scenario.
Three important points to consider;
- Hold Five Whys sessions as new problems come up.
- Everyone connected to the problem should attend.
- Take a few minutes to explain what the process is for and how it works (benefitting new personnel).
Solid implementation of the Five Whys will build a team culture that cultivates decisions that lead to success.
An actual NFL problem through the Five Whys
The Denver Broncos finished the 2005 regular season as the AFC West Division Champs (13-3), went on to defeat New England in the Divisional round, only to eventually succumb to the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in a disappointing home loss. Denver lost its then offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to the Houston Texans (head coach) and surprisingly drafted QB Jay Cutler (Vanderbilt) with their first round selection.
The following season was a tumultuous drama surrounding the ascension of Cutler over veteran signal caller Jake Plummer, and the eventual tailspin to a 9-7 record after starting 7-2. The Broncos would miss the playoffs for the first time in 3 seasons, and shakeups were inevitable with the current head coach calling the shots as Executive VP of Football Operations.
Defensive Coordinator Larry Coyer would be fired for the slide, replaced by Jim Bates. Bates came in with a hybrid 3-4 defensive system that Denver seemingly lacked the personnel for. Before the season, Bates was replaced by Bob Slowik and given the title, Assistant Head Coach – Defense. With all the supposed “positive changes” made to shore up a defense that was ranked 8th in points allowed over Coyer’s last season as DC;
- The Broncos fell from 9-7 (’06) to 7-9 (’07). Why?
- The Broncos gave up more points in ’07 (409) than ’06 (305), while scoring remained virtually the same (320 v. 319). Why?
- The Broncos defense crashed; 8th to 28th. Why?
- Poor passing defense as measured by expected points contributed (EXP), a -85.93 drop, 5th largest in NFL. Why?
- Complete overhaul on defense; DL & DB’s. Why?
A unilateral decision (Exec VP/HC) to change the defensive coordinator as a result of what was deemed poor performance in ’06, which effected philosophy and personnel across the board.
Going back to the ’05 – ’06 transition, it was the offense that actually dropped a whopping -126.11 in expected points contributed (EXP), while the defense fell by only -7.44. But Coyer took the fall for a -4 swing in W-L. The new defensive regime that saw an overall negative shift in EXP by -99.5 in ’07, would see additional -57.49 point drop to a low of -156.99 (31st in ’08). This ultimately cost EVERYONE their job, and a resulting shift in the overall culture of the Denver franchise for years to come.
Would the Five Whys been a better method to analyze and evaluate coming out of ’06? There’s a lot that goes into building an NFL franchise, but I’d have been willing to test it for the overall success of the club.
This process is worth exploring in football.