Nick Saban and the (lean) Crimson Tide

If you told a football coach that he could learn from Toyota's lean manufacturing methods, he'd probably tell you that a football team isn't a factory -- and then he'd have an offensive lineman throw you out of his office. But it you told that to NIck Saban, University of Alabama football head coach, he'd probably agree.

A new Fortune Magazine article on Saban describes how his "Process" has led to remarkable success in college football: 48-6 in his last 54 games and two national championships in the past three years. Recognizing that his time and attention is the critical, non-renewable resource that he brings to his work, Saban drives out inefficiency -- no matter how small -- wherever he can:

As he sits down at a small table in his expansive wood-paneled corner office, the coach grabs what looks like a garage-door opener and presses the button. Across the room, the door to his office softly whooshes shut. Boom! Nick Saban just saved three seconds. Multiply that enough times and you have a couple of extra months, or years, to recruit more high school stars.

Then there's lunch itself. He has it down to a science -- another in a series of small efficiency measures. Every day, Saban sits at this very table and works through his lunch hour while eating the same exact meal: a salad of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes topped with turkey slices and fat-free honey Dijon dressing. No time wasted studying a menu.

What are these examples except eliminating non-value added activities (getting up to open and close a door, or thinking about what to eat) through the use of technology and standard work? (Bob Pozen at the Harvard Business School approaches breakfast, lunch, and even dressing for work the same way.) Saban even standardizes the overall flow of his work, reserving his mornings and afternoons for core football-related work, and scheduling meetings for the middle of the day. This is a classic time management trick, of course -- doing the most important work first.

Above all, Saban focuses on process rather than results. He believes that doing things the right way will inevitably lead to the right outcomes:

What really separates Saban from the crowd is his organizational modus operandi. In Tuscaloosa they call it the Process. It's an approach he implemented first in turnarounds at Michigan State and LSU and seems to have perfected at Alabama. He has a plan for everything. He has a detailed program for his players to follow, and he's highly regimented. Above all, Saban keeps his players and coaches focused on execution -- yes, another word for process -- rather than results.

And of course, by creating standard work for the innumerable tasks comprising the football program, Saban creates the time and mental bandwidth to engage in kaizen and improve the process:

"When you have a system, you kind of get in a routine of what's important," says Saban. "And then you spend a lot more time on thinking of things that would make it better."

Make no mistake: I'm not saying that Saban runs a "lean" program that adheres to all of the principles outlined by Toyota. I'm arguing that the disciplined focus on identifying value and waste, and the creation of standard work, can be applied to any field of activity, from manufacturing cars to running a football program to writing software. The key is to standardize the non-creative part of the job, so that there's more time and energy available for the creative components.