Articles: Hockey Winners Think Lean

Life Lessons… from Hockey & Lean

Few will forget the Canadian Juniors win over Russia in the 2015 Gold Medal Game.  But fewer understand the infrastructure required to develop such talent in North America.  Here’s a peek at Lean’s contribution. 

Just could not hold off sharing this timely – and powerful – example of inspiration and transformation.  It’s one that’s filled with clues about the practical elements of leadership, Lean thinking, discipline, standard work, and… plain old purpose-driven hard work one can apply anywhere.  It shows the impact a single person can have – when they choose to make a difference that matters.  Throughout this, you may pick up some of Jim Collins’ philosophy which applies when Disciplined People with a Vision, apply Disciplined Thinking to deliver Disciplined Action.  Action that results in a winning result.

For me, my new world is a great small town of 40,000 people.  It has four hockey rinks (with talk of a 5th) with the largest seating 8,000 rabid Hockey or Rock fans. It’s Penticton, BC  – home of the first Canadian Ironman and a town of filled with athletes and NHL scouts who frequent the hockey school here.  At the moment, Penticton has the top Senior A hockey team in the entire 132-team Canadian Jr. A Hockey league.   I find a disproportionate awareness of Penticton among older people everywhere who remember the Sr. “Penticton Vees” because of their fabled defeat of the USSR in 1955 which brought the World Ice Hockey Championship to Canada.

But this article is not about the Junior A Vees, or the historic Senior Vees at all.  I mentioned them because of the similar approaches and passion I see in the current Jr. Vees Coach, Fred Harbinson.  This story is about coach Wayne Verge’s approach with his much younger AA Bantams in Markham Ontario – who were also very much aspiring to be in the NHL.

This article is about a proven formula for developing life skills that enable one to win in an increasingly competitive and challenging world.   It’s also about the commitment to understand, build, and execute a dream that succeeded.  It’s about the one-year transformation of 17 13-year-old’s from a bottom-of-the-league team to the league’s champion.  And it all began with one person’s dissatisfaction with the coaching style that had dropped this team to its bottom position.  And the more he watched the more he understood what needed to be done to make such a transformation possible.  This is based on a Lean manufacturing Facilitator’s knowledge of hockey – and the Lean concepts he knew so well from applying Lean thinking that accelerated the improvement of Steelcase processes.

He knew it was going to mean total commitment and his direct involvement.  Wayne Verge was ready for it.  By day he was a Lean leader/facilitator at Steelcase Canada in Markham.  The company was a member company of the HPM Lean Consortium where many other companies were undergoing their own Lean transformations.

In this case, he could see how Lean Thinking could help transform the Toro’s which was Markham’s AA Bantam hockey team and coach them toward their vision of becoming next year’s league champion.  At least, that was his vision for the team at the beginning.  And he began preparing himself, and every one of his 17 young men to fully commit to it.  And he started with Vince Lombardy’s quote “Inches Create a Champion”- which certainly resonates in hockey or football.

Wayne was a hockey fan with many years of experience playing Junior A hockey with the Ottawa Generals and, a career tryout with the Los Angeles Kings farm team where he suffered an injury that dampened his dream of playing in the NHL. The sequence that followed saw Wayne starting a family in Ontario and joining Steelcase where he learned Lean and the power it can have of welding teams into winners that he proved through its application daily while at Steelcase Canada in Markham – and, then with the Toros to change the future of their team.

His love of the game caused him to volunteer as an assistant coach to get initial experience. While he watched and learned, he could see what was needing at the Toros one only 4 games out of the 40 regular series games they played that season.

After implementing his approach the team  won all four of their first four games this season.  You can imagine the excitement this is generated – especially since that equaled their entire previous year’s output – and they still have 36 more games to go.

The Approach

In his preparation, Wayne applied not only Lean Thinking – but also the sage thinking of author and researcher Jim Collins who expressed in his book “Good to Great” ( some of the simple philosophies that excited Wayne. One message learned was to work hard to get the right people on the bus… and then, work even harder to get them into the right seats. Aspiring hockey players who want to play at the AA Bantam level must try out to earn a berth on a team, and from them, the Coach gets to select his talent. In Wayne’s case, he selected his team of 17 bright eyed aspirants during the late summer. But as the team started to come together he found he had to replace 9 of them to get ‘The right folks on the bus.’ The criteria he applied were not based on skill but rather on attitude. “Many of those who replaced the original 9 were not as good as my fist choices – but their attitudes gave us a much better chance to come together as a team.”

Getting the Right Thinking Started

Wayne began a year-long conversation with open discussions on what Lean is all about, and about the logic of finding and eliminating all wastes associated with a hockey team if they had a hope of being a winning team. He tapped their interest. He talked to them about vision; about bottlenecks about wasted motion, and; about wasted human potential if individuals were not aligned.  Sound familiar?  To get the right thinking in place Wayne began with a different approach. He got them actively involved in extensive classroom (locker room) discussions. “The din was pretty exhilarating,” Wayne chuckled.

Wayne made no apologies for the homework he assigned to his 13 year olds – which had to be done if they wished to play. Some of the homework required them to research the definition of such concepts as ‘discipline’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘character’ – and come prepared to stand up and explain just what they mean. The discussions during practice nights lasted about an hour without a minute’s letup. All this was a significant part of getting young minds to think and to align with each other in order to be able to play together. Wayne was excited by the ‘dressing room buzz’ these simple approaches generated.

Once the thinking began to take root, the discussions quickly turned to finding root causes and using a quick Kaizen process to eliminate wastes. As more solutions came from the team members themselves so did the energy to solve more problems begin to flow. This began to show in these young men with feelings of “Ownership” about their team’s destiny – and with indications that they were beginning to believe in themselves and feel good about themselves and each other.

Wayne would quickly say that developing a winning team is no different than developing a winning shop floor or office team – “It sure does not happen by accident”, he would add. And, it takes Vison to provide the direction; Planning to map the strategy; and Discipline to make it happen.  But it is the coaching that brings it all together and provides the necessary spirit upon which to build.

An old HPM mantra was always, “Change does not take place by edicts on the wall – but through conversations among people every day.” Wayne keeps the conversations filled with references to the Vision which includes ‘what appropriate professional behavior looks like’.

Specific Applications

There is a designated dress code, and it was non-negotiable. It consists of black dress pants, a blue shirt with the Toros logo, and a necktie. It is the beginning of 5-S thinking and Standard Work of which many examples exist. Everyone knows that any violation of any of them has immediate consequences – such as not being allowed to play. One of the team sponsors was so impressed ‘with the class the team showed’ that they purchased identical hockey bags for every team member. When the Toros entered any arena in Ontario with their air of ‘respect for others’, there are nods of interest and respect from the bystanders who had yet to meet the players. “It is all about self-confidence and taking pride in yourself”, Wayne emphasized.

Wayne talks about the time he had the opportunity to take his young men to the practice site for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It would give them a glimpse of what it means to be a professional… and what the ‘future desired state’ might be for them as professional hockey players. They were indelibly influenced by what a professional workplace (the Leaf dressing room) looked like with not a piece of equipment out of place. The impact was lasting – and made real – when who should walk in but the Maple Leaf coach Pat Quinn to talk with them. That visual image was the beginning of their drive to replicate the professionalism of the ‘NHL workplace’ they saw. Visual management now became a big part of their life.

Is our pursuit of 5S in our workplaces much different? Should it be? At any rate, it went a long way to getting these young individuals to begin to think of themselves as young professionals. Wayne reiterates this as he says “It’s all about learning life skills, it’s about helping young men to appreciate what’s involved in adopting sustainable attitudes that will serve them well in the future – whether in the workplace or on the ice.”

As team builders are well aware, the environment in which a team functions must be an extension of the team. For the Toros this meant putting a large bold logo on the door of the dressing room with the Toros name boldly displayed with the quotation below it reading:  “If you are willing to sacrifice to win — come in. If not, go home.” A bit of tough love, perhaps, but it sure got the point across.

Every member had their name on their own magnetic strip. And prior to every game or practice, the magnetic strips were attached to the steel dressing room door by the designated parent. When the players arrived they picked up their magnetic strip and brought it into the dressing room where they placed it above their seating location. At a quick glance, the Coach or Trainer could instantly see who is there, and who was yet to come. It did not matter where they were playing or practising – the seating was always identical.

Each seating location in the dressing room was fitted with three hooks. The dress clothes were always on the left hook; on the centre standard hook was the player’s sweater with the number facing out and the open side of the hanger hook always facing to the left. In this way, the sweater wardrobe parent could quickly pickup all the sweaters – one after the other – without breaking stride or ever having to shuffle them. The right hook contains their towel.

The arrangement of all other pieces of equipment and sticks are organized accordingly, and never left to chance or disarray. This is very similar to a Steelcase approach. Everyone knows they are accountable for following the “20-Point Inspection” which defines their work area (their dressing room) plus their roles and responsibilities. It is broken into 4 major components that deal with:  1) Ergonomics   2) Promptness  3) Proper Dress,  and  4) Dressing Room Housekeeping. The latter deals with maintaining an impeccable decorum in the dressing room that everyone can be proud of. Some commented that the Toros were every bit as professional as the Leafs…

Applying Lean Tools & Standard Work 

The application of Kaizen tools has contributed to an impressive process flow with little waste. Players now understand process thinking, and how Value Stream thinking leads to the elimination of waste everywhere.

A simple example:  The arrangement of the sticks. Because seating in the dressing room is fixed, it did not take them long to see how placing the sticks right at the door with each stick perfectly in sequence, according to the seating order, could streamline their flow from the room. Now the players grabbed their sticks as they flow out of the room in sequence – at a brisk walk with never any fumbling for sticks. This precision flow does not end until they stride onto the ice.

Bottleneck Elimination

Another novel flow solution came from the team’s use of Kaizen thinking to crack a plaguing bottleneck problem. The issue was time lost in line changes. You want them as fast as a NASCAR tire change and not lose a second if players bunch up. One root cause of long line changes was due simply to the different heights of the players. Some could easily hop over the boards and get into the action – others had difficulty. Those lost split-seconds were resulting in giving their rivals breakaways.

By applying some good old ‘Steelcase root cause analysis,’ they solved the bottleneck with a couple of precisely sized crates and a plank! Lean thinking at its best! Those crates and the plank became part of the ‘Team furniture’ they take wherever they go. Now, when a line change occurs – all players wash over the boards and exit through the doors instantly like a single wave.

This simple process improvement opened up opportunities for the Toros to add to a lead. It’s also confounded competitors who have no idea how Lean thinking has put them at a disadvantage due to the speed with which Toros can get to the action.

Many things such as the above, make the saying “Inches make a Champion” come alive. “And believe me, we use this reference all the time – the players jab each other with it which is neat – it has a cool positive skill-building impact,” chuckled Wayne.

Wayne’s constant attention to Disciplined Thinking uses the “Inches make a Champion” phrase (and others) as a way to help build character. Such a focus gets his charges to concentrate on the small points – and by celebrating them – it inspires everyone to look for more. The thinking certainly supports the Lean concept that “It is better to make 1000 things 1% better — than to make 1 thing a thousand % better.”  They not only recognize details they would have missed, it helps ensure they attempt to put them all to use as well – and that’s great for the team! was Wayne’s observation.

One begins to sense a genuine connection between the application of processes such as these – and the fact that the Toros remained unbeaten.

Management Insights

You will see many examples of Disciplined Action as you watch this team. They arrive exactly one hour before practice with all the right equipment. Those that do not understand they may miss a shift, or not play. When asked about the reactions of parents to his style – Wayne chuckled and commented that expectations are everything. He explains that parents are very much a part of his team which is why he took the time to explain how he intended to manage the team before he even started.

He had unanimous parent support.  To illustrate this, he recalled a situation where all members of the team were required to bring their practice sweaters. In this case, his best player came without his sweater and was told he would not be practicing that night. His father approached Wayne about the situation and when Wayne explained the process, the parent nodded and said, “Wayne, I fully understand.” He then turned to his son and said – “Let’s go home.”  He was back with his sweater the next night and there has never been a situation since then. As in all fine companies – there are consequences for inappropriate behavior and everyone knows what they are.

Getting the Right Folks on the Bus

Wayne’s selection of the right players for the Toros bus, was the beginning of putting Jim Collins’ thinking to work. The belief that Disciplined People with Disciplined Thinking deliver Disciplined Action is a given here. At the Minor AA Bantam level of play – players know they must work hard to make the team. But bringing 17 young and very independent men into alignment is no small achievement. One of Wayne’s ‘Standard Work’ elements is – to strive for perfect unison in the pre-game and pre-practice stretching exercises. The team forms into a 4 by 4 box with the team captain leading the exercise. If you have seen army drills at boot camps in the movies, you get a sense of the synchronicity of the stretching exercise. The young men love it and really get into it. They get pumped as they drive each step to perfection. And anyone who might be just a tad out of time will quickly and good-naturedly be reminded by his peers. They snap through the sequence getting more excited as they go through each step in near-perfect unison that would make a synchronized swimming team proud.

Disciplined Lean thinking produces a structure that is explicit, well communicated, and understood. Everyone knows that for 30 minutes before game time, all players have:  1) 20 minutes to themselves where they may listen to music, talk, think — and get mentally prepared, 2) At precisely 10 minutes before game time, the trainer switches off the Ghetto Blasters, 3) The coach addresses the team and covers the key issues in preparation.  4)  As the starting lineup is read – each person’s name is cheered as it is announced. And each knows their opportunity is coming because the starting lineups are rotated so everyone can feel the exhilaration.

It’s onto the ice!  As they flow out to the ice for the 5 minute warm-up they are thinking, pumped, disciplined, serious players.

Continuous Improvement

Here is where the Coach really goes to work. His role is to give the kind of feedback that can make every player better. The philosophy that it is ‘feedback that makes perfect – and practice that makes permanent’ is alive and well.

Wayne video tapes every game (the key process for the team) and reviews it immediately after the game. He prepares a detailed summary report for each game which he shares and thoroughly reviews with the team. It includes the top 3 issues to be considered – and no more – before the next game plus the strategies, diagrams, and adjustments needed to improve.

Adding to Disciplined Thinking:  Discipline is part of their life.  And at all times, every player is required to show respect for opponents, for parents, for referees, and each other. They are held accountable for it by the Coach.  When the game begins, the teams line up longitudinally down the ice and then turn to face each other to shake hands before play begins.

Wayne, and the Toros, want no part of flippant hand taps and off-handed ‘good game’ expressions that are not sincere, because character building is part of the Vision for these young men,  Each member of the Toros faces his opponent with his hand firmly extended for a firm handshake while making direct and sustained eye contact with a pleasant wish for success. The team is no doubt beginning to believe, as Wayne does, that life skills are learned from small things.  And when the final buzzer brings the game to a close, they move to their end of the arena to acknowledge their goalie and the contributions made throughout the night.

Making it Sustainable

In order for the team to continuously improve – continuous improvement is part of every minute of the experience. Feedback is given clearly, positively, and always concludes with a positive comment – especially at the end of the game when they go over the good, the bad, and the things that need work.

To continue sustainable results means involving people in their own success because only through such involvement is the true feeling of ownership imparted. And as the process, led by the Coach initially, begins to take hold, the culture change begins to give more and more to the desired behaviors.

A simple way to look at it is as a maturing process, for people acquire more maturity the more they start Disciplined Thinking and Disciplined Action. So, too, is it with teams – and that applies in every workforce as well.

The Results? Life Lessons Learned

Our thanks go to Wayne Verge, Steelcase’s Lean Facilitator and the past coach of the Markham AA Bantam Toros who applied the Lean methods he led in Steelcase to help the team win their League’s Championship.  Read on to hear from a very proud coach at the season’s end…

In Wayne’s words, “If someone asked what kind of a season we had – I’d tell them that we accomplished more than expected over the entire year. Our team and staff just kept moving forward – once they started … they did not want to stop!”  He said.  Wayne was humble in expressing an experience that had transformed a group of 13 year-old’s into young men who now fully understand the meaning of Sacrifice, Discipline and Dedication… the teams key mantra.  And they will never forget “Inches make a Champion”.

“About a month we finished the year, we had a ‘team bonding day’ and its theme was “A day in the life of an NHL’er'”.  On that Saturday morning I had arranged for a practice with the Stanley Cup present – Yes, the real Lord Stanley Cup – followed by a team brunch,  and later that night – a league game.  Let me tell you, the boys responded like very professional young men. The theme for that full day was to “Follow your dreams and never let go”.

I had arranged for a photographer to take pictures of the boys holding the cup. One week later we were in Waterloo for the “Waterloo Memorial Tournament” and managed to make it all the way to finals where we lost a heart-breaking game 2-0. I had told those young men that I was very proud of them, and what they had accomplished – because they are champions in my mind and seeing is believing.  During the tournament I was repeatedly complemented on how our team represented themselves by the way the every one showed respect for the tournament staff, defending teams, coaches and referees. It was cool to see and hear teams walking by our dressing room and commenting on how we operated.”