Five years ago, it seemed that every company wanted to be like Toyota. The Japanese automaker had pioneered a production technology called “just-in-time manufacturing,” which allowed it to make the best possible cars in the least amount of time with the smallest expenditure of money. The core idea was to reduce to a bare minimum the number of parts of raw materials that were kept on hand during the process.
Unused materials cost money and they take up space, which costs more money. By only ordering just enough parts from its suppliers to fulfill immediate demand, Toyota kept waste to a minimum while sacrificing nothing in terms of quality. It was, in a word; efficient. Not coincidentally, in 2008 Toyota became the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. Executives from around the globe came to study Toyota’s process to see if they, too, could master the art of ‘lean’ manufacturing.
…but…efficiency turned out to have an unexpected price.
At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the northeast coast of Japan. In its wake came a tsunami, a wall of water over 100 feet high that surged inland up to six miles, wiping out entire towns and triggering a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Tens of thousands died and the country’s economy was thrown into a seizure. Toyota’s worldwide manufacturing operations, dependent on a constant on a constant flow of supplies from the homeland, ground nearly to a halt.
One Toyota executive had been quoted as saying several years before,
“We work without a safety net, so we can’t afford to fall of the high-wire.” What’s amazing, in retrospect, is that they believed they never would.
Go Ahead – dawdle, dither and dwell
Just recently, three football clubs; Queens Park Rangers, Reading and Wigan Athletic whom at some point in the past, earned the privilege of competing in the English Premier League (EPL) fell short in their quest of trying to summit Mount Everest (re: the English Premiership or even the anti-summit; a Union of European Football Associations [UEFA] Champions League berth which goes to the top-four finishers in the EPL) making it one of the most disappointing days in each of these club’s respective histories.
Interestingly enough, on the opposite end of the table, there were some rather unique, surprising and unprecedented changes to the management structure at several of the clubs who found themselves sitting at the top of the mountain. Never-the-less, another trio of mountain climbers; Cardiff City, Crystal Palace and Hull City will rise from the Football League Championship (Championship) next-year and push for the summit, meaning that the summit toll will well rise still further again as it does annually.
Toyota’s system was optimized based on the assumption of a stable future and that’s a problem with efficiency in general. We’re always hearing football clubs and management talk about “cutting the fat” out of the organization, yet in biology, isn’t it “fat” that is the energy store which protects an organism against life’s uncertainties?
Now, don’t get me wrong, maximizing efficiency is a good strategy, but only in an environment that is totally predictable…and we all know the game and business of football is not one of those. Think of a high-performance racing bike. Streamlined and super lightweight, it’s just the thing for going fast around a track, but take it onto a mountain trail and it will shatter like it was made of glass.
The Mind Trap
Now, before we go any further, I should let you know that we’re not going to talk about the numbers and figures and facts and names and monetary amounts spent and not spent, etc…by different clubs and so forth. There are other well-written, quality pieces available with a simple internet search that will cover those detailed aspects of the individual clubs and how or why they may have played a role in their relegation or promotion. So, I’ll leave that to those writers who can do those angles their due justice and take a different approach on the same topic as we move further into this blog.
So, what exactly makes Everest the most dangerous mountain on Earth? The extreme environment is only part of the equation. Yes, the “summit zone,” or the area at the top which is also referred to as the ‘anti-summit,’ is extraordinarily cold and constantly lashed by storms that most humans never experience. Yes, at that elevation of over five miles above sea-level, the air is so thin that any person whom is unacclimatized to it would die within minutes. However, all of that would be only ‘moderately’ dangerous, were it not for a fourth, more elusive factor: the psychologically warping effect of the actual dream, plan, climb, approach, seeing and ultimately the act of actually reaching the summit itself – a phenomenon I call a “mind trap.”
Having Room to Breathe Equals Success
Ever since Toyota’s falter after the Fukushima earthquake of March, 2011, companies the world over have stopped looking to Toyota as an exemplar anymore, but they shouldn’t; as should not football clubs – especially. In the wake of any crisis; whether it be relegation, financial, etc…, executives in every corner of a football club’s clubhouse can be found struggling to maximize productivity. They will begin to fire managers and coaches, trim investments and cut services. The managers, coaches and trainers who do remain or are those who are newly hired usually find themselves being asked to produce better results with fewer resources.
To an extent, this strategy always appears to work initially: stock prices go up, corporate profits begin to soar and executive compensation can even reach record levels, all giving off the impression that all is well and good within the framework and structure of the football club and business should continue as usual. However, as the trend continues, there becomes less and less give within the established parameters of the system. There’s no extra capacity to call on during a crisis. No reserves of enough quality when a layer is injured. No depth within the ranks to allow room to loan lesser used players to bring-in the dollars needed to bolster areas of significant weakness. Like the high-performance racing bike, when the machine; club, hits a bump, instead of bending, it breaks.
Regardless of our experience in the game of football as a coach or as an administrator, when placed in the kinds of situations previously mentioned, our ability to make correct decisions becomes dangerously skewed. So much so; that one small error in judgment can quickly snowball into an irrecoverable and fatal disaster.
It is important for coaches, as they grow in experience and continue to develop their craft to understand and be able to recognize that there are different kinds of “mind traps.” The ability to discern between the various types is a critical skill that can keep coaches from becoming snared as the next victim under different types of circumstances. More specifically, though; when it relates to coaching, the ‘mind trap’ that tends to claim the most climbers of Everest is a variety called “red lining.”
When you get down to the nuts-n-bolts of it, mountain climbing at extreme altitudes is really nothing more than a race against time. In comparison, that is exactly what the ‘cut-throat’ business of top-level football has become as well. You see, our endurance as human beings is extremely limited when in the face of extreme cold and a limited supply of oxygen.
Combine these limitations with how quickly and abruptly windows of good weather can slam shut on the mountain and you should be able to easily understand how lingering in one location for too long becomes an invitation for disaster. This is why when mountaineers are preparing for their final push to the summit, they set a turn-around time – a “red line” that they MUST abide by strictly and under NO circumstance can this line be crossed.
3M, Sir Alex and Post-it notes
The ultimate danger of efficiency is that it presupposes the primacy of its stated goal, minimizing the possibility that any other goal will be achieved. The company 3M has taken the exact opposite approach for several years. Instead of demanding that it’s engineers stay focused at all times on their tasks, they are actually encouraged to take time from their workweek to spitball ideas and kick their feet up on their desks, lean-back in their chairs and daydream into the blue-sky. So, should it come as a surprise that the company has profited handsomely from a range of innovations, including Post-it notes?
Also, should it come as a surprise that Manchester United has been such a power under the regime of the now retired Sir Alex Ferguson? Like 3M, Sir Alex encouraged his players and staff to approach the game with the seriousness of a professional, but also with the lightheartedness of a child; many times having unstructured training-sessions the day before matches where the players were open to do whatever they pleased and could often be found gallivanting around the grounds at Old Trafford like first-time tourists getting a free-run of the gleamingly historic facility.
Yet, it seems that any time we make plans which require us to establish this sort of safety parameter; we subconsciously entertain this risk that in the heat of the moment we’ll be tempted to overstep it. It’s as if we’re deep-sea divers who all-of-a-sudden see an interesting wreck or coral formation just beyond the maximum limit of our dive tables or we’re commercial airline pilots who while making an instrument approach descent through clouds to their minimum safe altitude, fail to see the runway and decide to go just a little bit lower.
In the case of football, many clubs have spent millions of dollars and endured long, tough seasons to get within striking distance of the summit. They’re a self-selected group, driven and goal-oriented. However, as the turnaround deadline draws near, the temptation to push beyond it can be overwhelming. In some cases, the club executives don’t even heed the suggestions of their own financial advisers. David Griffiths, a former club financial consultant with Liverpool FC and now serving in an ownership capacity of several professional sports franchises in Australia and New Zealand told The West Australian, “The people they [club owners and CEOs, etc…] hired to advise them in these matters can’t advise them otherwise because they think ‘I’m so close to winning, why shouldn’t I try (spend) a bit more?’”
The pressure has become even greater in recent years due to the ever-increasing crowd of would-be “summiteers.” The route to the top is only so big, so when a club finds themselves in a promising position days, weeks and even months prior to the start of fixtures; it’s not surprising to see their fans, staff and even players threading up in single file with their eyes peered skyward towards the peak.
Unknowingly to most, however, the biggest traffic jam of all awaits them at the “Red Step,” that step just short of the summit that requires the technical, tactical and psychological leadership to be guided up through this Mind Trap and not unnecessarily stretch the boundaries of any Red-Lines. This is the point that as a club waits their turn, many times for years, constantly faltering in their continuing attempts to climb-up this critical next-step, while their oxygen supply dwindles and their feet and hands grow ever so colder with each passing match, that the danger of not achieving success grows even greater and so does the perceived urgency to press on.
Has Evolution Made Us Less Efficient?
The ability to see beyond one’s own individual traces plays out at a personal level as well and it is at this individualistic level where the group dynamic falters and eventually collapses. A good friend of mine, James R. Dalwinger, is a sport psychologist at John Hopkins University. He’s been working in conjunction with researchers at the Mayo Clinic on a longitudinal study of certain athletes that actually began back in the 1980’s.
Over the years, this project has kept tabs on this group of males through the arc of their athletic careers and into their retirement from the competitive playing aspect of their sport. The study has found that as a group they were very success oriented when young, but by the middle half of their athletic careers the ones who were still going strong and thriving were not necessarily the most athletically successful. What they thought would be the most crucial part of their athletic careers – and hence the one they poured their time and attention into – turned out not to be so important after all.
Dalwinger told me that, “…with age, athletes begin to care less and less about the signs of achievement and more and more about whether they’re with people they care about, doing things that mean something to them.”
Athletes are still human beings and human beings, it turns out are just not designed to be efficient. Throughout our past our ancestors have had to endure a wide variety of conditions and being too focused on one challenge would leave them fatally exposed to another.
Whether we want to admit it or not and regardless of how focused we think we are, in reality, we can NEVER have just one goal, for it is in our instinctual nature to ALWAYS require many: To succeed as footballers, YES; but also to eat…to love…to relax…to pursue whatever fascinates us.
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to think: I’ll just go over a little bit. What difference will it make? The problem is that once we go over the Red Line, there are no more boundaries. Nothing’s calling us back to the safe side. Thus, in a brutally tough environment like Professional Football, once the game’s jaws slam shut, there may be no one to help you.