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Lessons in Lean Leadership: The Breakthrough Tennis Ball Challenge

Nov. 9, 2023
This simple exercise helps ground teams in breakthrough thinking and engage them on the need for overall process improvements.

Editor's Note: Hear more from Eric Lussier at the IndustryWeek Operations Leadership Summit, June 26-28, 2024, where he will co-present "Building a Business Excellence System from the Ground Up - An MEC Case Study."

This time of year, I work closely with clients on the strategy deployment process, also known as hoshin kanri. My first exposure to this process occurred in 2003, and I have been using and applying the thinking behind it to drive breakthrough improvements for many years.  Simply put, I have found no better process tool that drives discipline, rigor, and accountability for breakthrough priorities, and I would not want to run a business without this process in place.

In many of these sessions, I kick off with a quick and simple “tennis ball” exercise, which helps ground the team in breakthrough thinking and engage them up front on the need for overall process improvements.

Here’s how it goes:

  • Team members pass a tennis ball until all have received it. The ball is then returned to the first team member who had it. From this point, we’ve defined a process sequence where all the team members touch the ball. 
  • Next, I tell the team to repeat and time the process. The timing becomes a simple proxy for lead time through the overall process.
  • We start the clock, and the team passes the ball in the same sequence. Some simple quality data can be collected including dropped passes or handoffs, but the main performance indicator is the time of the sequence.
  • Once the first timed round is collected, the facilitator asks the team if they think they can improve their process time. From a learning curve perspective and simple practice, the time generally improves incrementally from the first trial. 
  • A follow-on trial typically yields some smaller, incremental improvement that is more based on the skill and practice of the team. 

Typically, someone on the team will ask if they can make changes to the process or order, often involving rearranging the sequence of people into the correct process order or moving people closer to each other. This “on the fly” brainstorming and experimentation is encouraged and allows the team to make more dramatic improvements, as the process itself is now being changed.

After a couple of iterations, I usually interject that the team has learned that a competitor can complete the sequence in 3 seconds or less.  At this point, things tend to get interesting, and the competitive nature of the team kicks into overdrive—where they start really examining the constraints of the problem to solve as well as brainstorming different “breakthrough” solutions.

Lessons Learned

What are some key lessons that the team learns from this exercise? 

1. We can improve simply by practice. The learning curve of repetition allows us to improve skill.  However, the gains show diminishing returns over time unless the process itself is changed.

2. Defects and quality issues occur at the handoffs between team members. This simple learning is why we use swim-lane charts in process mapping to show the flow of information in transactional processes. The failure mode exists when the ball transitions from one person to another. This problem is exacerbated where there is physical distance and space between team members.  This separation causes communication gaps, and as the team iterates on solutions, the physical distance between team members is reduced, which ties back into the basic lean thinking and waste of walking and transportation. 

3. While we can make internal improvements to change the process, introducing a lofty stretch goal that is a breakthrough always spurs the team onto new thinking and ideas. The belief that a competitor has figured out how to solve the problem in three seconds or less creates a compelling challenge where the team must think through what they can change, in a breakthrough way, to accomplish the seemingly impossible just moments before. This catalyst of information is one of the hallmarks of the strategy deployment process, and why we focus on building breakthrough capability to challenge the team to think differently. 

At the conclusion of the exercise, we debrief with the team and reflect on the learnings.  One of the key elements we focus on is the talent and skill-level piece.

On the surface, if we were simply trying to optimize the passing and catching of the ball, we would go out and hire better pitchers and catchers with that specific skillset. Interestingly though, the breakthrough comes through process change and tapping into the ingenuity and skillset of the people involved working to make the process better by using brainstorming and kaizen. 

This lesson learned goes back to the basic principle of respect for people, which should be at the foundation of any lean deployment where the focus is on building capability and developing the capability of the team members to improve their own processes.  The thinking behind this simple exercise and lessons learned reinforce the need to change the process to change the results.   

Eric Lussier is a principal at Next Level Partners. He has over 25 years of experience implementing continuous improvement practices in all aspects of operating companies.    

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