Yogi Berra: Lean Management Guru

By on March 20, 2018
Yogi Berra: Lean Management Guru

“I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault that I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?”

Recently I opened a 5S team meeting I was facilitating with this quote from the great American baseball player and philosopher, Yogi Berra. I read it to them and asked, “How does what Yogi is saying apply to a company like yours that’s implementing Lean manufacturing?

Most of the 5S team members were silent with quizzical looks on their faces. I suspected they were thinking that what I was asking them was crazy.

I waited for a response. Finally, Jack, one of the team members said, “I think it has to do with not blaming people for production problems but, instead, focusing on improving work processes.

I asked Jack why focusing on processes rather than people was important. He responded, “Because if you just focus on people you’ll never fix the problem. We’ve fired employees who had problems with their work and when we hired new people to take their place, guess what happened. They had the same problems. And we fired them also.

Yogi knew that if he wanted to improve his hitting he had to move far beyond blaming himself. He had to carefully analyze, with the help of coaches, all aspects of his work process, hitting a baseball. This would involve thinking about changing the bat he used, modifying his swing, changing his stance at the plate. It would involve literally going through all of the nuances of motion involved in what he did at the plate. And, of course, the fact that Yogi’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame suggests that he and his coaches did a masterful job of fine-tuning his work processes.

Jack recognized the importance of what Yogi said. He had experienced first-hand the futility of trying to solve production problems by nailing people rather than critiquing work processes. He knew that doing nothing more than just “nailing” people was a dead-end street. Jack realized that the only way to attack problems individual employees were having with their work was to carefully analyze all of the processes that impacted this work. For example:

  • Was there a weakness in the company’s recruitment processes? Was the company recruiting employees who were ill-suited for the work they were being hired to do?
  • Were there weaknesses in the process used to interview new employees? Should employees struggling to do their jobs have been hired?
  • Were new employees told “we’re hiring you for two reasons, to work and to think and, of the two, thinking is the most important?” Was the work environment new employees entered one in which respect, trust, and candor were the defining characteristics?
  • Were systems in place that would allow new employees to share their thoughts about ways of improving their work processes? Was getting new employees engaged in thinking about how they did their work rather than simply going through the motions a prime goal of supervisors?
  • Were there problems in the way new employees were trained? Were employees provided with effective training on how to perform their jobs?
  • Was the supervision new employees got adequate? Did supervisors provide effective coaching as employees were learning how to do their jobs?
  • Did the company have standardized work documents that were current and were all employees expected to follow them exactly as written? Were standardized work documents carefully reviewed with new employees, their questions answered, their work observed, and coaching provided?

Yogi knew that improving his hitting could have involved the bat he was using, it could have involved his stance at the plate, his swing, or any one of many other hitting process issues. The logic of Yogi’s refusal to blame himself but rather to carefully evaluate all elements of the hitting process is indisputable. Given this fact, why do so many organizations see the solution to performance problems being “Let’s fire Yogi”?

They do it for two primary reasons. It’s quick and it’s easy. “Get rid of that guy and let’s get someone in here who can do the job!

And what’s the all-too-common result of this simplistic thinking? Many of the new guys are just like the old guys. They can’t do the job and they’re fired. And the beat goes on. The process problems at the heart of the matter aren’t fixed because they’re never addressed.

Yogi knew that he was okay but that the process he used to hit the ball needed to be fixed. “How could I get mad at myself?” he said as he confidently walked to the plate and hit another one of the 358 home runs that helped get him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Far too many organizations fire their Yogis rather than helping them fix their work process problems. And it doesn’t have to happen if they’d remember this simple fact: It’s all about processes, not about people.

Jack needs to spread his insights to others in his company. By doing so he’ll be making an incredibly important contribution to his personal future and to the future of his company. Jack needs to tell others in his company’s management team that if the Yankees had just fired Yogi when he had hitting problems, their many championship seasons just wouldn’t have happened.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Development Group has a wide variety of high quality and very cost effective training and coaching resources. We’re ready to put them to work for you as you create a work environment in which the minor leaguers you hire can move steadily to major league status, helping you build a championship team. And when that happens, Yogi would be very proud of what you did. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s discuss. I think you’ll find it time very well spent.

Image: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in a 1956 issue of Baseball Digest, now public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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