Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Significance of Catchball

“A goal without a method is nonsense!”W. Edwards Deming

A critically important element of business planning that often gets downplayed or completely ignored is the catchball process.  The books and articles I've read on the subject of hoshin kanri tend to oversimplify the role of catchball and rarely go into the level of depth the subject deserves.

Catchball is a process whereby leaders and team members discuss objectives and plans to make sure everybody understands and is in agreement with expectations.  The conversations go back and forth between levels to assure that the objectives, as well as the plans to achieve the objectives are clearly communicated.

Catchball is often limited to the discussions at the executive level to sort out high level goals.  By not carrying the process through all levels of the organization, however, leaders are missing an important opportunity to communicate expectations and concerns before problems occur.

The objectives of catchball include:

Clarification:  Clarifying expectations to team members upfront rather than waiting until the performance review to criticize them for not meeting objectives that may never have been understood in the first place.  We tend to spend more time evaluating performance than we do making sure expectations are clear, which makes it appear as if we want people to fail more than we want the organization to succeed.

Consistency: Gaining comfort that a person can meet objectives through methods and behaviors that are consistent with the way the organization operates.  When the only concern is whether or not an objective is met (i.e., the "how" is ignored), we can easily create an Enron-type environment that undermines values, breaks down teamwork, and where improvements are not sustainable.

Coaching:  Providing a vehicle for coaching team members on the methods and behaviors required to be successful.  A critical component of development is to provide team members with objectives that stretch thinking and take them out of their comfort zone. Doing this without adequate coaching and direction, however, can be destructive to the person's development.

Communication/Dialogue:  Allowing people to communicate concerns to leaders about meeting objectives and asking help that may be needed to be successful.

Alignment:  Assuring that there is clear alignment between lower level plans or A3s and higher level plans and targets.

When implemented correctly, catchball can make up for many of the problems that companies experienced during the MBO-era.   It forces communication between levels and improves a leader’s understanding of the implications that objectives have on the people to which they are assigned.  Like anything in business, however, catchball requires continual improvement to be successful.  It requires patience and a willingness to listen to concerns, as well as a sincere effort by leaders to coach and mentor team members.

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