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Sports Analogies and Standardized Work

Man working in factory

It is popular in the management literature to use sports analogies. An assembly line is regimented like an American football team. An R&D organization is flexible and adaptive like a rugby team. Innovative advanced R&D organizations are even looser, like a jazz quartet. Contrasting different sports provides one way of thinking about different parts of the manufacturing organization and how structured versus free flowing the organization needs to be. It reminds us that there is not one organization structure that fits all circumstances. But I believe there is a much more fundamental point missing in these discussions. That is the importance of developing people through deliberate practice to have high levels of skill and to work effectively with others in teams to achieve clear targets.


There seems to be a surge of articles and books these days about developing talent, perhaps the most notable being Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. They all concede that different people have different native talents, but the ones who excel do it through practice—10,000 hours has become the magic number. They also distinguish between simply “playing” and “deliberate practice.” You can go hit balls at a driving range and be playing, with no noticeable gain in skill level, or you can deliberately practice specific areas of weakness.


The process of deliberate practice to become exceptional is well known by any good coach or teacher of any craft—sports, musical instruments, cooking, or any complex skill. You break down the big task of all the things you need to know into small tasks, prioritize, and do drills over and over constantly checking and correcting. It helps greatly to have someone who helps in the breakdown process, the prioritization, and the critiquing—a coach.


This is exactly what Toyota learned from, you guessed it, Americans. In World War II, Training Within Industries (TWI), was developed to teach civilians to staff the jobs vacated by men going to war.  They taught a method for breaking down a job, identifying key points for excellence at every little step, and systematically teaching it—like a good coach. It worked in America, but Americans quickly lost interest after the war.  Toyota picked it up and integrated it into the Toyota Production System.  It is the way of turning standardized work—the first level of breakdown of the job—into even finer teachable steps that are practiced repeatedly with a coach. Any new ideas for improving how the work is done become “key points” that are taught to all team members. The level of granularity of the individual steps is much finer for highly routine manual jobs than for knowledge work like engineering, but the concept is still the same.


Of course teamwork is absolutely critical in lean manufacturing, and the head of the team is the most important coach—there all the time watching the work, critically evaluating weaknesses compared to standards of excellence, and taking corrective actions which become part of the refined standardized work. This is the process of problem solving, which itself is a complex skill that needs to be taught through a breakdown into teachable steps that are practiced over and over by everyone. Continuous improvement in the work group is really no different that continuous improvement in a sports team—individuals, plans, scripted plays, and teamwork are always being improved. As the great coach Vince Lombardi said:  “You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”


Dr. Jeffrey Liker is professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way.  He leads Liker Lean Advisors, LLC and his latest book (with Gary Convis) is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.

    August 13, 2012

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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