I recently finished a great book by Eric Ries entitled The Lean Startup – How today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses (Crown Publishing). As I normally do, I read with a keen sense of how to take the specifics lessons Ries was trying to convey and then attribute them to a football specific purpose.
Chapter 11 focused on building an adaptive organization, or “one that automatically adjusts its process and performance to current conditions.” Sounds a lot like NFL front office management in the midst of current crisis in the middle of a regular season, doesn’t it? Ries goes further in describing the dilemma of staying on track with relatively timely purpose, and taking the time to Build-Measure-Learn in a continual feedback loop. Most NFL teams get caught in the “hamster wheel” of spinning on to the next opponent without truly taking time to analyze the current situation.
The Wisdom of Five Whys
He talks about the need for creating a natural feedback loop, and that speed in the process can cause more problems down the road. Truly adaptive organizations slow down and invest in prevention.
“The alternative is to use a system called the Five Whys to make incremental investments and evolve… The core idea of Five Whys is to tie investments directly to the prevention of the most problematic symptoms. The system takes its name from the investigative method of asking the question “Why?” five times to understand what has happened (the root cause).”
Too often (in my own experience and observations) an NFL front office management team will jump to immediate conclusions without having investigated “the root cause.” Whether it’s firing a coach, cutting a player, or changing a lineup, professional sports (in particular football) can be a knee jerk, emotionally reactive industry. Ever wonder why so many of the same organizations continue to make the very same mistakes regardless of who’s in charge?
Ownerships and Executives could quickly help uncover the cause of an issue and correct it by repeating “why” five times.
The technique was developed as a systematic-problem solving tool by Toiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System. Eric Ries altered it a bit for advising startup companies and the NFL could do the same for its clubs.
Here’s an example, suppose a machine stopped running properly;
- Why did the machine stop? (There was an overload and the fuse blew.)
- Why was there an overload? (The bearing was not sufficiently lubricated.)
- Why was it not lubricated sufficiently? (The lubrication pump was not pumping sufficiently.)
- Why was it not pumping sufficiently? (The shaft of the pump was worn and rattling.)
- Why was the shaft worn out? (There was no strainer attached and metal scrap got in.)
Ries also emphasizes the importance of consistently using what he calls “proportional investment” in each of the five levels. The investment should be smaller when the symptom is minor and larger when the symptom is more painful. Adaptive organizations understand this and thus work their way away from emotional knee jerks.
The Curse of the Five Blames
I’ve seen this up close and personal. As Ries puts it, “Instead of asking why repeatedly in an attempt to understand what went wrong, frustrated teammates start pointing fingers at each other, trying to decide who is at fault.”
I’ve been part of teams that unknowingly used a year-end analysis process to steer blame towards anyone but the responsible parties. The organization used the process to vent frustration and call out personnel for systematic failures. “Our problems are on the other side of the ball, our player’s don’t know what they’re doing, this team has no work ethic and lacks character.”
The goal of the Five Whys is to help teams see the “objective truth” that most chronic problems aren’t necessarily caused by bad players, but rather by bad processes, and then remedy them accordingly.
This exercise is inherently tougher than it looks. Try taking a common problem and running it through the Five Whys process in a similar manner to the above example.
In our next post, we’ll attempt to do the same with a real world scenario that might face an NFL front office management team.