In their book, Value Stream Management for the Lean Office, Don Tapping and Tom Shuker describe the continuous improvement technique of catchball like this: “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.” As in the game of catch, it is always clearly evident who has responsibility for the next action.
Although the concept of catchball is brilliantly simple, there are a few “rules” that ensure it works smoothly.
Rule #1 – Catchball is not Fight Club
Catchball is not Fight Club. The more you talk about it the better. Everyone should understand why it is being used and how it can help speed improvement and tackle hard challenges. People must understand their role and be willing to speak up when they are unsure or feel like something in the process isn’t working.
Rule #2 – Everyone Gets a Turn with the Ball
Innovation is a team sport. Ideas get better with input from everyone. Catchball is a serial process for bringing great ideas to life, so more minds are better. In addition to fostering organizational improvement, Catchball also gives each person the opportunity to strengthen their own collaboration skills. No one should miss the chance to get better at managing change.
Rule #3 – There’s No Question About Who has the Ball
The handoff from one player to the next must be a clearly defined moment. It signals a shift in responsibility and accountability. Everyone involved must know who has the ball at all times. Tom Hanks taught us that there’s no crying in baseball. Well, there’s no, “I thought you had it,” in catchball.
Rule #4 – There’s No Forgone Conclusion
Although a manager will often start the catchball process with a problem to be addressed or an improvement to be considered, that input is only the starting point of catchball. The whole purpose of the practice is to let the initial idea improve through iteration. Catchball isn’t useful or necessary if a leader has already decided what will be done and how.
Implementing a catchball process is a straightforward, yet effective technique for getting the most out of your ideas for improvement. It improves team cohesion, invites constructive feedback and provides clarity of ownership and accountability. Why not give it a try?