Most of us have memories of playing the game of catch either as children or with our children. I really shouldn’t call it a “game” because there are no winners and losers. There is no defense because everyone is on the same side. One participant tries to deliver the ball to the other in a way that they will be able to grab and return it. The ability to catch and throw a ball is important because it is a foundation for success in many other, more complex sports. The Lean idea of catchball involves moving ideas and information from one person or team to another and, much like catch from childhood, it forms the basis for complicated decision-making and policy development.
What is Catchball?
In their book, Value Stream Management for the Lean Office, Don Tapping and Tom Shuker describe catchball:
“Catchball is simple. Regardless of who initiates a project (although it’s most commonly a manager), that person articulates the purpose, objectives and other ideas and concerns and then 'throws' them to the other stakeholders for feedback, support and action.”
This creates a bi-directional feedback loop. As in the game of catch, it is always clearly evident who has responsibility for the next action.
Why is Catchball Important to Lean Success?
Discussing ideas and transferring the ownership of them is common in companies, so why give it a name and add more formal guidelines around something that is already happening anyway (or should be happening)? As with many Lean strategies, the point of catchball is to add intention and thoughtfulness to the practice. When viewed as a discrete part of the improvement methodology, it can be taught and performed consistently across the organization.
- Feedback and ideas from people at all levels of the origination
- Decreased barriers to cross-functional collaboration
- Clarity of ownership and accountability
- Alignment of goals and objectives
While most organizations tend to dictate strategy and tactics in a top-down way, catchball changes that dynamic. Strategies and goals still tend to be top down, but there's input from lower levels of leadership as the strategy and goals are thrown back and forth via catchball. Tactics and opportunities for improvement tend to be bottom-up in a Lean culture, but again there's feedback from the managers and leaders. A Lean culture is neither completely top down nor completely bottom up.
When to Use the Catchball Process
Catchball is an effective method of gathering information and promoting discussion around any improvements under consideration. It is most often used for complex initiatives that involve multiple departments, roles, or processes. It is ideal for these situations because it ensures that everyone who should be providing input has the opportunity to do so and can be heard without interruption. Value stream mapping, standard work development, and Hoshin planning are all examples of situations that go more smoothly when catchball is used.
The Rules of Catchball
Of course each organization may adjust the concept of catchball to fit their needs, but typically the following guidelines are observed:
- Everyone who should be involved in the opportunity for improvement has the chance to hold the “ball”
- Enough time is allowed for each player to fully investigate the plan and provide feedback and data before returning the ball to the manager or passing it to another player
- Everyone is on the same team, so all ideas and suggestions are welcome and given due consideration
- The person or team that has the ball accepts ownership and accountability
The idea of catchball in Lean has been called “simple, but not easy.” By being mindful of the give and take that goes on in your company every day, you can foster better communication, speed improvement, and increase your chances of achieving operational excellence.
Peyton Manning didn’t start off his football career as a pro quarterback. He started by playing catch.