March Means Spring, Basketball and Lessons for Us All

Winners find ways to win: It's not a matter of luck, but rather a matter of method.


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You should be receiving this issue of PM around the first of March. All of your NCAA brackets are currently perfect. Sleep well, my friends. Soon, as we who follow the game know, when the conference championships are finished, the “Madness” will begin, and the tears on our bracket sheet will flow. On the up side, we are only three weeks from the first day of spring and ever closer to spring training.

Watching the NCAA tournament for many years, I must say this year’s edition has a slightly different feel. Of course, North Carolina is in the No. 1 or 2 spot (as of this writing), which is perennial. But many of the historic stalwarts are way down in ranking, and some may not even make the show.  

It’s a safe bet that one of those seeding gaps will be filled by my alma mater, Xavier University. They play in the tough Big East and as I’m writing this, are ranked No. 5 or 6 nationally, depending on the poll. Needless to say, I am stoked for this year’s tournament. I have a dog that can hunt this year.

Watching a team as consistently elite as North Carolina makes me think that there are valuable and relevant lessons that manufacturers can take from how this basketball program maintains its high level performance over time. Unlike manufacturers, the coach must deal with a new crop of “employees” every year as the seniors graduate.

So how does North Carolina and other consistent elite basketball programs maintain their elite status year after year? I think there are two ingredients that go into the mix that keeps these programs strong over time. Those ingredients seem to be attitude and flexibility, both of which relate directly to the manufacture of precision machined parts.

Attitude is a part of the team’s culture, and for these elite programs, it is handed down from veteran players to rookies. Once winning is established, it becomes unacceptable to do anything less. There are seasons that are not as good as others, but over time, these programs stand out for consistency.

Basketball programs are not monolithic. It’s amazing to me how the coaches of these elite programs shift gears in their approach to the game to accommodate the new talent coming in each fall. They are flexible in their approach to build performance that reflects the team’s strengths and weaknesses as the seniors leave and freshmen take their places. These coaches vary how they design their offensive and defensive approach to take advantage of each year’s team talents. The successful programs have built the team around its players rather than demanding the players fit into the fixed style of play.

Many shop floors are arranged into working teams that have similarities to a basketball team. Some of the workers will go straight to the rim to get the job done. Others will distribute the work to others, passing on their experience to younger players in an effort to help them grow. This is how a shop’s winning culture carries on.

The shop manager, acting as the shopfloor coach, needs both types of players. They know the players and call the plays. The shop manager substitutes from the bench as the production needs the best player to get the job done correctly and on time. He also has to adjust the lineup to cover injuries or absences and argue calls of various kinds from the front office acting on behalf of his players. This instills team loyalty. 

In the game of manufacturing, a shop’s offense is designed to come up with new plays that move the business forward. Internal and external innovation focuses on improving on the game plan by continuously finding ways to compress cycle times, productivity gains and maintaining productivity gains.

On the defensive side, it’s about enabling the shop’s players to improvise by anticipating a customer’s needs rather than simply following the router. Knowing or at least having access to market trends, information on new materials and new technologies should all be part of the team’s meetings.

In sports and manufacturing, sometimes the game plan simply isn’t working. The shop manager, or “coach,” needs to be able to make halftime adjustments that can get the job back on track. That means having a plan B, C or D in the back pocket and players who can step up and implement the new game plan.

There are many ways to win in the manufacturing game, but looking at how these perennial elite programs work over time might help you raise the shop to such status. Winners find ways to win: It’s not a matter of luck, but rather a matter of method.