The tragic death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter this weekend in a helicopter crash overshadowed any and all sports news, including the Huskies’ weekend series with Ferris State. While Bryant had many incredible accomplishments on the court, and was, by all accounts, a devoted husband and father, one particular comment I read made a great impact on the Old Dog.
Arn Tellem, who was his agent during his NBA career and is now Vice Chairman of the Detroit Pistons, said this about Bryant:
“The glint in his eyes wasn’t just joy. It was sparks from a fire that couldn’t be tamped down. To him, anything less than the best was failure.”
For me, this is one of the most powerful ways to celebrate someone’s life. To have a huge desire to exhibit excellence in everything you do resonates deeply with the Old Dog, and it’s very similar to what I’ve aspired to for most of my life. I’m not blessed with a fraction of the talent that Bryant had, but I’ve always burned with a desire to be the best I could be at anything I cared about.
I’ve fallen short too many times to count, and undoubtedly will continue to fall short until I die. But my personal quest for distinction will, I hope, never fade.
And, now, after this preface, the Old Dog can turn our attention to the Huskies and their play last weekend. There are so many negative things that can be said—scoring only 3 goals in 2 games, losing three points to a team on a nine game losing streak, giving up the game winner to FSU very late Saturday night, and the incredibly sloppy offensive work they displayed for most of the weekend.
However, what pained me the most was the overall sense I gained watching Team 99’s effort against Ferris State. For the most part, no one was laying down or tuned out. Something, though, was missing. There was a distinct shortfall in the passion to win—the spirit that Kobe Bryant displayed almost every night in a long NBA career—a career in which he put on a show almost every night. Bryant played for 19 seasons, including 1,346 regular season games and 220 playoff games.
When you step back and consider that in its totality, it is almost impossible to believe that an individual can bring that kind of effort and desire to his chosen profession on a consistent, even constant basis.
Certainly, a few of the Huskies burn with that obsession. Seamus Donohue hates to lose—you can see it in his play every shift. Justin Misiak never lets up and can always be counted on to put a full effort into every shift. Some of other players are close to that level, too, including Ray Brice—but overall, there’s just not enough raw passion to win.
This is eerily similar to situations I’ve observed over a very long career in engineering and manufacturing. Too often, great companies fall into a hole, a hole that is hard to escape, because they lose their thirst for excellence. This happens in a number of different ways, but it always seems to relate to something I learned studying the work of Dr. W.E. Deming, a man known as a world-changing expert on issues relating to quality, and a man who helped build the foundation of the Third Wave of the Industrial Revolution.
The Third Wave is seen as spanning the period from the late 1940’s to the first decade of the 21st century. The key elements of this period included wide dispersion of digital technology and computational power at both large and small scales. All of this would have been far less likely if the consistency of manufactured products did not reach levels that are simply not possible via individual craftsmanship. And, most importantly for this year’s Michigan Tech team, it was usually driven by a ceaseless effort to improve every day.
Many of you may have heard the term “continuous improvement.” Deming, though, disliked that expression. As he explained, continuous improvement means going from point A to point B without interruption. But Deming pointed out that getting to point B and stopping is all to common.
Instead, Deming always advocated for “continual improvement.” Continual improvement moves from point A to infinity—it never stops. While this may appear to be a fine semantic difference, it’s not; it is something far more difficult to do and, once you spend a lot of time working toward that end—as I have—you find it is actually a disturbing concept.
What this says is that you are never good enough, no matter what you’ve done previously. That’s not easy to get your head around, and, at the very least, can be exhausting. That’s why Bryant’s career is so astounding. Bryant, in his last game, dropped 60 points, including 23 in the fourth quarter, to lead his L.A. Laker team to victory. Never good enough, indeed.
I’ve seen this first-hand in business frequently. Three examples stand out. First, the US automotive industry, from the mid 1960’s until the early years of the 21st century, thought they were good enough and didn’t need to get better. “It’s good enough” was an idea I lived with (and hated) for many years as an engineer in that industry. Extra effort to reach greatness wasn’t just lacking, it was openly derided.
The second is Boeing’s 737 Max disaster. I owned a business that supplied to Boeing in the 1990’s and it was a transcendent experience; they wanted to be outstanding in almost every way imaginable. Somehow, somewhere, they decided to take an easier route in the past few years, and, as most accounts confirm, they cut corners and were no longer reaching for excellence—they were looking for an easy triumph.
The final case is the Volkswagen “Dieselgate” problem, a problem that has cost VW in excess of $30 billion, a number that stretches my mind beyond its limits. I was involved in the early stages of this disaster as a consultant, and although I can’t divulge everything I know due to professional confidentiality, the underlying issue was a set of senior management decisions that literally ignored basic physical laws and demanded a rapid, no-cost way to overcome the inherent limitations of Diesel cycle engines. I saw this and advised VW management that they were headed down a very nasty route, and I was rewarded by having my consulting contract cancelled. A decade later, the convoluted effort used to get around basic physics was revealed, and the outcome was beyond terrible.
On a very small scale but with the same directional outcome so far, we’ve watched Them Dogs do something similar. They reached a new level of excellence by winning the Great Lakes Invitational less than a month ago. Since the GLI, the Huskies are 2-4-2 and haven’t looked good even when they’ve squeaked out two one-goal wins. Now they seem to be looking for the easy way to win, and all of the other teams they’ve face since that victory aren’t having any part of that attitude. Ferris State, plainly and simply, wanted it more than Tech.
They had more passion.
After last weekend, there’s been plenty of on-line discussion about this, on Twitter, on THG’s Discord site, and among the THG staff. Joe Shawhan weighed in on his weekly radio show too. Is it the players? Are they too immature? Is it the coaches? Are they unable to inspire their team? Isn’t this the same thing we saw last year after a successful first half of the season?
At least in the business examples I cited, it was ultimately leadership that instigated and allowed these situations to arise and then to fester. The Old Dog is starting to suspect it’s the same thing with the Huskies. If you don’t hate to lose far more than you love winning, you are more than halfway to “it’s good enough.”
And that’s just not the Michigan Tech way.