On a recent Sunday round of golf with friends I noticed I was beginning to analyze my golf game as I never had before. I saw a ton of lean thinking at work in a way that surprised me. It wasn’t like I just started applying Lean into my game; I’ve always done it without realizing it.
I’ve been trying to improve my golf game since I was 6. I remember the day my father gave me a curved wooden stick he found on the ground of his golf club, which I used to hit chestnuts. I loved it and was quite good, so soon enough my father decided to buy me my first “set of clubs” (there were probably 3 clubs inside the bag). From that moment on my golf game grew and from age 12 to the end of my college career I played competitively.
Like most competitive sports, I knew I had to approach the game from an angle of “continuous improvement”. And of course since I began working at The Lean Enterprise Institute, I’ve begun to see my game differently.
As John Shook describes in “Book Value: The Mental ABC's of Pitching,” I see two kinds of PDCA cycles in golf. The first is at a higher level, preparing for a tournament. You plan and prepare to the best of your ability by practicing your swing and studying the course. You play, measure your result to your expectation before playing, and finally, if there is a gap between your expectation and result, you analyze your round and try to understand what went wrong (possibly getting to the root cause) and implement countermeasures to change what didn't work during the game.
You also go through a PDCA cycle for each shot you play. You prepare the shot, execute it, and then check whether or not it met your expectations. You try to find a way to prevent yourself from making the same mistake again. At this stage, trying to find the root cause of a bad shot can be very costly, as experimenting live during a tournament can mess up the rest of your round. It’s not unlike having to stop a production line. You want to avoid doing that and quickly tackle the problem. In golf, when something goes wrong, I know I need to put in extra work later when my round is over to identify and address the root cause. And still, without a coach looking closely at your swing, hitting hundreds of balls in the practice range will not ensure you’ll actually improve your game.
Most golfers who play competitively (this applies to most other sports as well), need a coach to continuously improve and sustain their game. Practice creates a kata: a repeatable routine that helps you create habits that become automatic. In golf this is the basis for your shots. But if you practice the wrong pattern, not only is your practice is ineffective, you just develop bad habits. This is why a good coach is so important. He/she will see things you can’t see and help you develop a deeper knowledge of the game. It’s the same with Lean. A good coach or sensei is critical to developing new lean leadership behaviors and laying the groundwork for a sustainable lean transformation.
Applying a standardized routine as a base for improvement totally applies to golf. Many variables affect the results of your shot in addition to your swing: which of the 14 clubs you choose, the weather, the course conditions, the lie of the ball, landing area, luck, and so on. For your game to improve at all, let alone substantially, you first need to get a clear understanding of your shots. You achieve that by playing the game again and again, creating a standardized routine. This helps you decrease the variability of the outcome of your shots and have a better understanding of all of the different processes involved. It’s not too different from kaizen on the shopfloor.
A standardized routine, coach, and regular practice set the foundation for your game. However, these elements do not guarantee success, as you will always encounter high variability in terms of game conditions. It would be no fun if the conditions were always the same, right? So what is perhaps the most critical skill for a golfer?
As Mike Rother says with regard to Toyota Kata thinking, it is “the art of adaptability”, the art of adapting very quickly to rapidly changing, unpredictable conditions that matters most. Rather than striving simply for continuous improvement, an expert golfer needs to continuously adapt to external conditions that change at every moment, knowing each shot will be different from any other. It’s no different than any other job, but this need for frequent adaptation is perhaps more obvious on the golf course than elsewhere in life and work.
This is why, along with very important psychological factors, a golf player very rarely reaches maturity before age 30. A lot of practice and learning-by-doing is needed in developing such incredible adaptability. It’s an endless kata of adaptability!
So where do you start? What’s the most important concept to keep in mind? First, you need to get the fundamentals down (swing kata). Second, you need to develop the skill of adaptability. It’s not just something that happens! It takes practice, and can only be achieved on a golfer’s gemba, the course itself. It’s a matter of always striving toward the weekend amateur player’s vision: the perfect golf round of 72 shots!
For other golfers out there, where do you see Lean in your game?