With National Football League (NFL) training camps open at last in the United States, let’s compare a manufacturing system (e.g., Lean, Six Sigma, etc.) — which prepares employees to collaboratively design, produce, and market goods — with an NFL coaching system, which prepares players to collaboratively play offense or defense.
Across the NFL, new coaches are installing “their systems” to replace those used by previous (typically unsuccessful, losing) coaches. These new systems require players to adapt — or find themselves traded or released. Most players, though, quickly learn a new coach’s approach; often the players discover that the “new” system is similar to others they’ve experienced, with variations in terminology or emphasis. The change often proves inspiring or refreshing, especially if a culture of fear or negativity has prevailed. After a few weeks, players typically perform as well (or better) than ever. They run, they catch, they kick, they tackle; if the new system works, they win more games. It’s still football, after all.
In manufacturing, most companies have embraced “their systems” of doing business. And make no mistake, it’s good to have a system (any system, really), since a standardized approach will always outperform “no system” (incredibly enough, 15% of manufacturing plants have “no system” at all1). Yet too often manufacturing firms stick with the same systems even as they post losing season after losing season, while the coaches (i.e., senior executives) grumble about how badly the players (i.e., employees and managers) perform. How different would these firms' cultures (and bottom lines) be if they simply found new (maybe better) coaches with new (maybe better) systems? It’s not as crazy as you might think:
- Business systems can change more easily than executives will admit: Managers and employees are typically far more talented, flexible, and willing to change than their senior executive “coaches” give them credit for. For example, 24% of plant manufacturers already report that they have three or more different manufacturing methods2. Managers and employees can do much more — if you let them.
- The game hasn’t changed: Most of today’s manufacturing techniques have been around since Henry Ford and the Model T. Even Toyota Production System (TPS) advocates use tools and techniques from an array of management thinkers, including Ford, Frederic Taylor, and W. Edwards Deming. It’s still manufacturing, after all.
- Winning the game — in football or in manufacturing — is a combination of system and talent: You can’t win without talent, but talent is useless without a good system to coordinate its efforts. Before you blame your next losing season on your players, why not try a new system?
 2010 MPI Manufacturing Study, The MPI Group, 2010. Plants with no improvement methodology or approach in place.
 2010 MPI Manufacturing Study, The MPI Group, 2010.
By John R. Brandt, CEO, The MPI Group