“Small Ball” Performance Improvement

Basic Business Cents

Small Ball is a term used by baseball teams who compensate for lack of power hitters by focusing on the fundamentals of the game and using team speed to win games.

Some years ago, Billy Martin, a major league player and manager with six different teams including the Minnesota Twins and five different stints with the New York Yankees used the same concept which was called Billy Ball . He was a fiery competitor who won several championships with his relentless focus on speed and fundamentals.

Does this attention to the basics apply to business? Dr. W. Edwards Deming developed the following chain reaction theory based on the work of Walter Shewhart and various Japanese engineers:

  1. Improve the quality of work processes. Results have shown that productivity does indeed improve as variation is reduced.
  2. Quality Increases and Costs Decrease. With variation reduced in the individual work processes, less waste is produced, time is saved by less rework, and a more consistent product is produced.
  3. Higher Customer Satisfaction. With higher quality products, more timely delivery, and lower cost the customer will by better satisfied.
  4. Increased Revenue and Profit. With higher productivity and lower costs, financial rewards will be realized.
  5. Business Prospers. With higher customer satisfaction, better product, better productivity, and more profit, the company excels.

Putting this plan into action requires a focus on the fundamentals, an application of “small ball”. A plan without action is useless so we want to get all employees involved in improving their own work processes. It is not rocket science. Every employee, including managers, should write down all steps in each of their key activities and then study their list to examine for a better and simpler way. If they do something because it is the way it has always been done, it is probably wrong. They should look for reducing variation in how it is done from time to time, distance either the material or the worker moves, time involved in each step including wait time, rework, redundancy, and wasted time and material. It is surprising how much is learned by looking at the steps on the paper staring back. Discuss surprises, ideas to improve, and recommendations to supervisors and fellow employees to get approval to change. Document the new way to prevent slipping back into the old way.

It is amazing how much improvement can be made in the organization with these simple steps. As time goes on, training can be obtained to enable the workers to make even further improvements to improve the work and therefore the business. The key is to get everyone involved and focus on the fundamentals of the work processes.

Lorne Ames, the President of INCO (International Nickel Corporation) Manitoba once said he now realized that what is important in performance improvement is not giant strides but baby steps—little by little, better and better.