Make March Madness—Year Round

I think there are valuable lessons for manufacturers to learn from the consistency of these elite basketball programs. Two key ingredients that I believe help these programs excel over time are attitude and flexibility, and these characteristics relate to precision machined parts makers.

By the time you receive this issue, it will probably be early April and the NCAA basketball finals either will have concluded or will be just about to. This annual celebration of team competition, skill and lots of basketball is among my favorite times of the year.

As I write this column in early March, the tournament has not yet started, so at this point all of my hunches and picks have equal chances at the Final Four. It’s a clean slate, and I plan to celebrate my bracket-choosing genius right up until the first round begins and the reality of how poor my picks actually are gets slam dunked home.

Through many years of watching the NCAA tournament, it’s interesting how certain programs do better than others on a consistent basis. I think of Duke, Connecticut, North Carolina and yes, even Kentucky as a few examples of programs that field teams that deliver results year in and year out. What is it that gets transferred from each class that provides these teams with such long-term continuity?

I think there are valuable lessons for manufacturers to learn from the consistency of these elite basketball programs. Two key ingredients that I believe help these programs excel over time are attitude and flexibility, and these characteristics relate to precision machined parts makers.

Like a weave play for the team or a jump shot for an individual, it takes practice to learn the art of winning. This winning attitude is inherited at many of the top basketball schools, passed from veteran to rookie. It becomes a powerful motivation for these kids to a point of transcending simply playing the sport.

As for flexibility, it never ceases to amaze me how really good coaches can change their approach to the game of basketball to accommodate new recruits. They can vary how they teach their offense and defense to take advantage of a particular team’s talents. It’s a matter of adapting to the players rather than vice versa. Some coaches are successful sticking with a specific style and molding the players to it, but for me, I enjoy seeing a team built around its players.

Many manufacturing companies organize themselves into working teams, which operate similarly to college basketball teams. Managers become, in effect, shopfloor coaches calling the plays, substituting from the bench, adjusting the lineup for injuries or absences and arguing calls of various kinds from the front office.

Similarly, a shop’s offense is designed to deliver internal and external innovation focusing on process improvements, throughput cycle compression, agility and continuous productivity gains. Defensively, it’s about anticipating what the customer will need rather than what he does need by looking at market trends, new materials and technologies that are ready and in place at game time.
Smart basketball coaches know their players inside and out. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of each player as an individual and as a teammate. A good coach knows, for example, which players will tend to pull up on a fast break to shoot the 10-foot jumper and which ones will look for the dish underneath. A smart coach knows how to use the team’s talent. While one lineup gets it done in a half-court game plan, another will run the legs off an opponent.

Both sports and business are dynamic. Flexibility and rapid response to changing situations is paramount to success in either endeavor. It’s a pretty poor coach who stubbornly sticks to a game plan that isn’t working. The elite coaches have game plan B, C and D ready to roll when needed.

Shop coaches need to be adroit. When the shop’s “game plan” goes south, which operator can work the overtime to get a hot job out the door? Who is your go-to lathe person to get a job run and to spec when the game is on the line? Will your Swiss machine operator ask for help if he or she gets into trouble, or will he try to go it alone?