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Quality Bulldogs

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I learned about quality in sports by accident. In 2002, my boss and I were talking about family and after-hours fun. I mentioned I was thinking about getting involved in coaching recreational soccer. A few days later, he asked me whether I could help coach his daughter’s soccer team.

The younger, more experienced coach couldn’t do it anymore, and the team needed an assistant.
The Mini-Rapids were a team of girls ages 10 to 11. They’d played together for a few years, but had never won a game. Even though I hadn’t played since the 1980s, I figured I couldn’t do any harm.
From a quality improvement perspective, this was the perfect situation. In the first practices, I saw issues and performed a mental gap analysis. The practices were chaotic, but the girls had enthusiasm. They loved taking penalty shots, even though shooting a stationary ball at the goal was extremely rare in soccer. A purposeful change of the processes was needed if we were going to improve the reliability of achieving our desired outcome—the definition of quality improvement.
It wasn’t the girls’ fault. The coaches did their best, and sometimes the sideline dads took a turn at coaching, too. Unfortunately, the dads grew up playing baseball and football, and didn’t know the first thing about soccer. They just made it worse by demanding that their children go after the ball. This led to the typical gaggle of kids around the ball, heads down, kicking and kicking, sometimes knocking over their teammates.
Root causes
I took on a larger role as the season progressed, introducing drills I thought might help, yet we remained scoreless and winless. One of the girls—I’ll call her Cheryl—was athletic and had potential, but in every game, she would whine from the middle of the field, "Coach, my shoe came untied."
I’d pull her out, help tie her cleats and send her back in. I was addressing only the symptom, not the root cause. At halftime, I looked at all their shoes, and it hit me. They didn’t even know how to tie their shoes properly to prevent them from untying during the game. I was trying to build skills before they had a basic foundation.
At the next practice, I told the girls we were starting from scratch. I quizzed them on the basics, and they knew none of them.
One girl wore an Adidas shirt, and I asked, "Do you know what Adidas stands for?" They looked at me with blank faces. "All day I dream about soccer," I said. They all smiled. Down the road, they probably discovered it isn’t actually an acronym. It’s the designer’s name, but they didn’t need to know that then. They were in on something only real soccer players knew.
Now with their attention, I called up Cheryl to demonstrate how to tightly tie their laces under their cleats with the knots to the outside, preventing an odd spin on the ball when they kicked it. I said we weren’t scrimmaging that day and received the typical "Aww."
Instead, I taught them the basics: how to pass; how to trap the ball; and how to juggle it with their feet, thighs and heads. At the next practice, I reached into my bag, pulled out five bright-orange practice vests and showed them their positions: two defenders, one midfielder and two forwards. I used cones to outline the lanes that they couldn’t leave. I split them up and gave the vests to one side. Wearing the vests forced them to look up and see where their teammates were.
As we scrimmaged, I periodically blew the whistle and yelled, "Freeze!" forcing them to stop and see whether they were out of position. It was my form of quality control. I knew it was working when I blew the whistle, and they looked up before I could yell, realized their mistakes and tried to run to the correct positions. As they began to play like a team, I blew the whistle less and less.
Deming’s goal
W. Edwards Deming defined a system as a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system.1 The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future.
This team was a system—a network of players working together to achieve a winning season, an audacious aim for a team that had never won a game.
As they improved in their positions, I developed defensive and offensive formations. I moved the girls around until I learned their strengths. It was a classic plan-do-check-act cycle. Unknowingly, I also implemented a few of Deming’s 14 key principles. We were "becoming competitive" and our "vigorous training" was improving our skills and fitness.
I made them run lines from one end of the field to the other, sprinting forward and backward. This improved their in-game stamina. I joined them on every run, encouraging them, "Come on, you can beat me. I’m an old man!" Most importantly, however, I never yelled at them. I wanted to inspire them.
No one was a benchwarmer because everybody contributes to a team. We still weren’t scoring, however. When facing offensive pressure, the girls made faint efforts to get the ball, and the opposing players went right past them. They lacked aggression and were afraid, despite often facing smaller opponents.
This was how Deming’s eighth principle showed up. "Drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively for the company."2 As a high school freshman, my coach tried this by taking the team to the baseball field, making us stand on home plate and drilling balls at us. We weren’t allowed to block the ball with our hands. It did nothing for us, and was one of the reasons I quit during my senior year. Tactics like that didn’t drive out fear—it just made me hate the game. I wanted these girls to love soccer and have a passion for it.
Unleashing bulldogs
I introduced a drill that would boost their confidence: British bulldog. The entire team, except for one person, lined up on the midfield line. Each girl’s goal was to dribble the ball to the end line without the "bulldog" knocking her ball away. As soon as the bulldog knocked it away, that girl became a bulldog for the next round. Eventually, it got down to just a few good dribblers avoiding a team of bulldogs. The girls found their inner bulldogs. I even got them barking and growling, but the proof was in the results.
In the second half of the next game, we were down 1-0 and appeared headed toward another loss, when it happened: a pass, another pass, a cross and, yes, a goal!
There was shock, disbelief and, most importantly, no whistle calling it back. Moms chattering on the sidelines stopped, left with their mouths gaping. When reality set in for the crowd, you would have thought the girls had won the World Cup.
My friend who was at the game was confused by the level of celebration for a tie game. As he walked over to me, I said, "It’s a little much for one goal, don’t you think?"
"I don’t think you understand," he said. "They’ve never scored a goal before in a game."
The girls were ecstatic. For the first time in three years of playing together, they had scored a goal. Parents hugged and some cried, including the dads. As the team lined up, I remained outwardly stoic. Inside, I wanted to dance or at least smile. I calmly told them in a show-me-what-you-got manner, "OK, now do it again." Sure enough, they did.
After the second goal, the body language changed on the field and sidelines. Suddenly, all the sidebar chatter about work, school, dinner and nongame—related topics ended. Players’ siblings were ignored: "Quiet! I’m watching your sister’s game!"
Hoping to just outlast the clock, everybody intently watched and asked, "How much time, coach? How much time?" I clenched my clipboard and paced, but the parents didn’t have to worry. The Mini-Rapids scored five goals that day.
Members of the opposing team, who came looking for an easy win, were just as stunned as the parents on our side. Even I was unprepared for the result. I quickly switched them to a defensive setup out of respect for the other team, just letting the Mini-Rapids play British bulldog with the other team. The first game they scored a goal was also their first win as a team.
Continually improving
We were on our way to continuous improvement. We ended the year with more losses than wins, but it was an improvement. The following year, the head coach and I switched roles, and the team broke even with a .500 record. Again, it was another team best.
As it happens in the quality world, some of the parents became complacent. They began over-committing the girls to other activities, making it difficult to hold consistent practices.
I resigned at the end of the second season feeling more committed to continuous improvement than the parents. The girls gave me a signed World Cup T-shirt, a signed soccer ball and a bulldog stuffed animal, which I still cherish.
The following season, the girls’ new coach was surprised by their skill sets and aggressiveness. They went on to have their first of many winning seasons. They also told the coach they wanted to change the team name from the Mini-Rapids to the British Bulldogs.
1. W. Edwards Deming, "Appreciation for a System,"
2. W. Edwards Deming, "The Fourteen Points for Management,"

Article Reference: Quality Progress



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