Lean Lessons Learned + a Little Football

The 2019 NFL draft is complete and off-season programs are underway. Rookie mini-camps wrapped up last month, organized team activities (OTAs) are going on now, and mandatory mini-camps are right around the corner. As of today, there are 92 days until regular season begins (but who’s counting?). For football fans, this is one of the most exciting times of the year because every team is looking ahead to a new season and the possibility of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on February 2, 2020. General Managers and coaching staffs have had the off-season to reflect on the successes and challenges of last year and are now focusing on how to improve – or for the New England Patriots, how to reach the pinnacle yet again.

This makes me think of what we try to accomplish at Koné Consulting on a daily basis. “Lean” thinking. Continuous improvement. We talk about these things a lot as part of a consulting firm that teaches – and practices - this philosophy[1].


We help organizations consider ways of being more Lean oriented and we apply those principles to our work as well. That’s kind of the easy part. But the more I learn about and practice Lean professionally, the more I want to apply it to my personal life.

I give this a lot of thought, and as a recovering perfectionist, it isn’t easy. It means being willing to look deeply and honestly at yourself and accept your shortcomings, your errors, your failures. It may not be easy for you. But the point is to find the value in your failure because it is a means to learn, grow and improve. 

I’ve had a few foibles in my professional career. Here’s an example. When I first began at Koné Consulting, we were working on a multi-year, high value, grant funded project that involved several states. I was tasked with sending a weekly “digest” of activities to everyone involved – about 200 high ranking government agency staff, national experts in their field, and funders. We were using a platform for these messages that I was unfamiliar with and it was a bit complicated. To make a long story short, my first attempt to send the digest did not go as I intended – if I recall correctly, it went out to everyone as a blank message. Minutes later I received a call from our client – the VP of a think tank in Washington, D.C. – and someone I was intimidated by at the time. I was already feeling my failure deeply and was trying to correct it. She let me know the importance of this project and who was involved. Things I already knew, but she also didn’t know me very well. I apologized, reassured her that I would fix it and it wouldn’t happen again and she reassured me that it wasn’t the end of the world. I spent some time thinking about the problem and how to avoid it in the future. From that day forward I created the digest and sent it to myself as a test before sending it out to the entire group and I didn’t have the problem again.

I learned a few lessons from that experience:

1.     Be honest and patient – with yourself and others. I knew from this point on that this client was going to be open and honest with me when I made a mistake, but she understood that there would be a few growing pains as I became familiar with the project and my role in it and she would be patient with me through them.

2.     Forgiving yourself is a critical step. As bad as I felt that day, I was able to forgive myself and look at it as a learning experience and opportunity for improvement. From that, I created my own process to avoid the same mistake in the future.

3.     Mistakes can be a stepping stone for trust. We are human and fallible. The way you handle a problem – approaching it with integrity, accepting responsibility, and endeavoring not to make the same mistake again - is one way to build trust. While part of me wishes I hadn’t erred to begin with, in looking back I realize that that day was the beginning of a deeper relationship with our client and now we have a mutual respect for one another without my feeling intimidated. We both have a good idea of how the other will respond in both good and challenging times. 

As I grow older, I find that continuous improvement is something that I (and you, too) can apply to everything in life. Imagine what your marriage or significant other partnership might look like if you approach every day as an opportunity to continuously improve, applying the lessons above – honesty, patience, forgiveness and trust. Consider your relationship with your children, your parents, any significant person in your life. Heck, even strangers. How you approach your work, school, life, everything. I try to take a little time each evening to consider my day and ways I can be better the next. None of us are perfect and I guarantee there will be hurdles, failure, maybe some days when you want to give up. Turning these tough times into something positive is, for me, a valuable part of Lean thinking. 

Consider the kind of positive change that could be generated if we all consider and act upon how we can be better, to continually improve. This is how I plan to focus my attention for the remainder of 2019 and beyond. For my fellow football fans out there, I know you’re hoping your team is doing the same.

If you’re interested in learning more about continuous improvement, please check out our webpage: Implementing Lean.

[1] "Lean" is considered a philosophy of continuous improvement. A lean organization focuses on increasing customer value, the elimination of waste and optimizing operations. The key components of Lean can be applied to all types of businesses and processes.

In addition to reducing wastes and improving a specific process, Lean is also about building a culture, one that respects all employees and enables them to pursue opportunities to improve their work and share ideas for continuous improvement.