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Lean Six Sigma Tennis

Only 10,000 Hours Required!

July 02, 2009 - Earlier this year I decided to learn how to play the game of tennis properly. With a couple of kids involved in the sport for some time now, our casual excursions to the courts had become quite one-sided – no need for any statistical analysis to determine who has been kicking whose butt. As I completed a tennis lesson last night, I was struck by two observations, neither of which is particularly insightful, but possibly useful in the context of Lean Six Sigma training: 1) tennis lessons are dramatically different than typical Lean Six Sigma training because the lessons are almost entirely practice-based, and 2) tennis takes a whole lot of practice to master.

You might think that tennis, or any sport, is really not a comparable activity to leading a Lean Six Sigma project, because tennis is a physical rather than a conceptual activity. But the physical strokes of hitting the ball are only part of the equation. Almost equally difficult are the quick decisions which must be made in rapid succession. As my coach says: “you can win a lot more points knowing what to do than how to do it.” In other words, the mental part of the game – the decision making – is a lot more important than the stroke-making (although it appears to be really helpful to have at least a basic facility to hit balls over the net and inside the lines). You can think of this as the D-M-A part of the tennis process: defining where your competitor is likely to hit the ball, measuring distances and relative court position, and analyzing the shot that is coming toward you (direction, pace, spin) to formulate a response. Executing the actual stroke, with appropriate follow-through and repositioning to respond the competitor’s likely response are more like the improve and control phases of the DMAIC process.

The physical drills of hitting balls sometime obscure the real activity taking place. Tennis practice is about processing information and making quick and proper decisions. This can’t be taught via a PowerPoint presentation - it requires practice – repetitions of an exchange between teacher and student: showing – doing – doing – doing – correction – doing – doing – doing. Skills are built through a rapid succession of trial and error, with less errors over time as the student learns what works and what doesn’t work.

Returning to the Lean Six Sigma training comparison, I’m struck by the typical weighting toward Telling and away from Doing – as if students can learn to process complex information without lots of practice. My tennis coach hasn’t spent much time teaching me complex and difficult strokes before I’ve mastered actually performing the basic strokes. That makes sense to me. But ask yourself how many times you’ve seen a Lean Six Sigma training curriculum jam in a blur of PowerPoint slides because “we just need to cover these complex topics” – even though there is no reasonable hope that the students will be able to master the more complex methods without a lot of practice. When you see this PowerPoint-driven suspension of reality occur, it’s time to turn back to the tennis lessons model: basic strokes, less telling, more practice – then a move to advanced skills in a practice-based approach after actually mastering the basics.

Recall that my second observation was that it takes a whole lot of practice to develop reasonable proficiency at tennis. I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Outliers”1, which examines the reasons behind exceptional performance. It’s a well-written and very interesting book – essentially an investigation into the Y=f(X) of mastery levels that are more than 3 standard deviations above the mean. Gladwell posits that there is a common denominator: 10,000 hours of practice. He quotes from research conducted on exceptional performance by Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer: “… the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. The work much, much harder. The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”2

Gladwell also highlights the research of Daniel Levitin, who stated: “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.”

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again…it seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”3

The implications are pretty clear. If we intend to build deep Lean Six Sigma capability, the training process must include a lot more practice. A quick trip through slides, either in a classroom or online, is not sufficient – the Doing variable has to be increased. And if I intend to become a proficient tennis player I need to plan on spending more time on the courts. Watching Wimbledon on TV is not going to do the trick!

1. Gladwell, Malcolm, ‘Outliers: The Story of Success” (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
2. K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,“ Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363-406.
3. Daniel J. Levitin, “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” (New York: Dutton, 2006), p. 197.

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