Saturday, May 7, 2016

What Stephen Curry can teach us about the science of improvement

The Golden State Warriors can teach us a few things (actually a lot!) about leadership, organizational culture, teamwork, and performance improvement (also called continuous quality improvement). Performance improvement consists of improving processes to deliver better results. Improvement can be incremental or breakthrough. The science of improvement is best understood by understanding the theory of knowledge creation (plan-do-study-act) and single-loop and double-loop learning (Maccoby 2013).

On April 16, 2016, the New York Times published a graphic (Figure 1) depicting "752 lines---one for each NBA player who finished in the top 20 in 3-point attempts made in each season since 1980. Sitting atop it is the Golden State Warriors's Stephen Curry, who finished the regular season with a record 402 3-pointers" (Aisch, 2016).

Figure 1: Stephan Curry's 3-point record in context is "off the charts." "This chart contains 752 lines --- one for each NBA player who finished in the top 20 in 3-point attempts made in each season since 1980. Sitting atop it is the Golden State Warriors's Stephen Curry, who finished the regular season with a record 402 3-pointers." (Source: [])

Incremental performance improvement occurs by improving practices, and practices are based on accepted theories. A theory is an explanatory (or causal) model that can explain observed phenomena. Theories are not always explicit; they can be assumptions or mental models, sometimes they are hidden. The typical approach is to use PDSA cycles to test and adjust practice improvements (Figure 2). We plan to test a practice innovation, we test (do) the practice innovation, we study the results, and we act on what we learned, leading to incremental improvements.

Figure 2: Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle of experimentation and continuous improvement
Chris Argyris called this single-loop learning (Maccoby, 2013). He recognized that PDSA can also be used for double-loop learning which can lead to new theories and breakthrough performance improvements. Figure 3 depicts PDSA with single-loop and double-loop learning.

Figure 3: PDSA with singe-loop and double-loop learning

For example, when we are dissatisfied with the results of a practice we have two choices:
  1. Improve the practice (single-loop learning; possible incremental improvements), or 
  2. Improve the theory (double-loop learning; possible breakthrough improvements)
Double-loop learning makes these possibilities explicit and encourages innovative (breakthrough) thinking.

I propose that before Stephen Curry, we witnessed primarily single-loop learning and incremental improvements in making 3-pointers. Note that the cumulative improvements over three decades is very impressive! 

Also, I propose that with Stephen Curry (supported by an amazing team and organization), we are witnessing primarily double-loop learning and breakthrough improvements in making 3-pointers. Curry is changing the physics of shooting, and the Warriors are changing how basketball is played. The Warriors are developing new theories of shooting and playing. Many articles have been written about the Warriors's record setting year in basketball.

I often use sports to illustrate continuous improvement. I now use Figure 1 to teach not just PDSA, but also single-loop and double-loop learning. After all, single-loop and double-loop learning makes PDSA much more powerful, practical, and fun. Double-loop learning enables us to always question our assumptions, and is most productive when we use diverse, transdisciplinary teams.

References

Aisch G and Quealy K. Stephen Curry's 3-point Record in Context: Off the Charts. New York Times. April 16, 2016. Available from: http://nyti.ms/1SJHEvc

Maccoby M, Norman CL, Norman CJ, Margolies R. Transforming Health Care Leadership. 1st ed. Jossey-Bass; 2013. Available from: http://amzn.com/1118505638



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