Billions of people across the globe were bitten by soccer fever in 2014. It’s a sport that is widely followed and has the highest level of thrill. The other day I was watching a repeat telecast of the Brazil vs Chile match. It was an exciting match that went into extra time and then eventually it was up to a penalty shootout to decide the winner. The post-match comments were interesting and made me realize the seven things that process improvement can learn from soccer.

  1. Play with a team and not with players. Like in soccer, all process improvements are done with a team. It is critical that a process improvement team, like a soccer team, should have one goal – to win. Your process improvement team might have a couple of great players, but the success of a project depends on how you are focusing on the skills of each player rather than just depending on a couple of great players to bring about that improvement.
  2. Have a strategy. We have heard of 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 formations of a soccer team. These are strategies that are made in the dressing room and are practiced multiple times before the actual match. A process improvement manager should ensure that there a strategy to improvement. Roles and responsibilities of each member needs to be clearly defined before you start the project. It cannot be take-as-it-comes. A poor strategy will often decide the fate of a project.
  3. Play to your strengths. There are teams who are great in defending and there are others who are great at attacking. Some teams will goal with free kicks, while others go for corners or set pieces. Often the strategy is built around your strengths. In process improvement it is also advisable to identify your team’s strengths. You do not want to suggest a technology intervention or innovation for improvement unless your team has the capability to bring the change or the organization is willing to spend. Remember, even small interventions can bring improvement.
  4. Revisit strategy. There are times when things do not go according to plan. It is important to revisit your strategy. The advantage process improvement has over soccer is that you need not wait for half time. As soon as you identify that things are not moving as per the plan, it’s time to revisit the strategy.
  5. Avoid yellow and red cards. When you initiate a project you are surrounded by many people who would not want change in their processes. They will question your strategy, your target, improvement recommendations and everything else that they can. As a project manager, you need to find a way out to work around them rather than work through them. Remember your Champion is like a referee and he has to be on both sides. Do not give him a chance to pull you down, especially when you are playing in their half.
  6. Do not play for a draw. The difference between a great team and a good team is that great teams never play for a draw, even if they know that a draw will sail them through to the next round. In process improvement, you should never settle for less, even if you know that less will ensure that your project is closed. There is always a chance that your stakeholder will realize that there is more opportunity to improve and she will ask you to revisit your target when you are looking for the final sign off. This can demotivate the team and also puts a question mark on the ability of the project leader.
  7. Don’t leave it for penalty shootout. You should never leave the result for the last. There should be enough tollgate reviews and rigorous pilot testing to give you confidence that you will succeed. When you reach a penalty shoot-out stage, the probability to win becomes 50 percent, no matter how good a team you have.
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