What Brad Stevens Leaving Butler Can Teach Us About Lean

Posted on July 4, 2013 | in Basketball, Change Management, Employee Knowledge, Lean Tools, Lean Wastes, Sports, Standardized Work | by
brad stevens butler celtics

Brad Stevens goes from Butler University to the Boston Celtics – I don’t think anyone saw this coming.

Brad Stevens was seemingly part of the next wave of great college basketball coaches – 36 years young, sticking it out with one small Indiana school (Butler University) by turning down offers from bigger programs year after year, taking his mid-major program to two straight national championship games, the epitome of “the team is greater than the sum of its parts”, more wins in his first six years than any college basketball coach in history, and on and on.

But no one projected this – he was finally lured away. Not lured away by just any coaching gig, but the legendary Boston Celtics. When the Celtics call, you should probably answer.

What made Stevens special as a coach at Butler was that he built a basketball program, not a school for one-and-done players or highly-ranked recruits, and he sought out the right kinds of players that fit his program. (Remind anyone of Moneyball?) Kids from small-town Indiana high schools or players from other states that were overlooked by the big colleges gravitated toward Butler. Stevens had to recruit differently. He’s a teacher of the game, and his Xs-and-Os abilities are some of the best in basketball.

But it would have been hard to see Stevens stay with one team for his entire career, especially at small school Butler. In fact, Butler has been the proving ground for many coaches before they’ve moved onto bigger things – Thad Matta (now at Ohio State), Todd Lickliter (now formerly of Iowa), and a slew of assistant coaches – so turnover is not a surprise at Butler.

So why is this transition going to be a little more painful for Butler? It’s hard to replace a legend in the making with another.

Let’s look at the change from a Lean perspective.

“You should always be training your replacement.” 

One of the Lean tools is standardized work – it’s about applying the best known practices to achieve an optimal solution. In a manufacturing process, the best practices will reflect how to complete the process properly with the right outcome but also with using resources as efficiently as possible. In basketball, standardized work would be running a set offensive play properly (and together as a team) to achieve the desired result of scoring a basket.

In coaching, standardized work might be everyone following the same basketball strategy and philosophy through applications of tactical practices or skill training that tie directly back to that strategy. It really helps when that strategy and philosophy wins 166 games in six years, because the assistant coaches are learning what it takes to do things right to win games.

To build on standardized work, one of the Lean wastes is loss of employee knowledge during transitions – resource investment in employees by means of training and knowledge building can be lost when that employee leaves the organization. To minimize loss of employee knowledge, you can work hard to retain that knowledge by retaining the employee, and you can try to capture the knowledge and ideas as much as possible through documentation or sharing of best practices in standardized work.

So in the event Brad Stevens wins the proverbial lottery (which, not surprisingly, he did here) there would an assistant coach who can pick up the pieces and not lose as much program momentum in the transition. The same happened when Stevens was brought on board – Todd Lickliter was a success at Butler when Stevens was his assistant coach. When Lickliter left for Iowa and Stevens was promoted to head coach, he was able to build on the winning philosophy Lickliter had helped ingrain into the program.

Unfortunately for Butler, that top assistant coach had just been hired away by another school. Matthew Graves (former Butler basketball star and longtime Butler assistant under Lickliter before Stevens) was hired as the head coach at South Alabama just this offseason. If anyone would have been a perfect head coach for Butler, Graves was it. When you’re an assistant on a team that has had unprecedented mid-major program success, you are highly sought out by other programs looking for a boost.

Now what will Butler do? Promote a lower-level assistant coach who has been part of the standardized processes of running the Butler team and has the knowledge? Or will Butler look outside the program to bring in someone without awareness of “The Butler Way”?


Happy Independence Day everyone! A big thank you always goes out to the men and women that throughout history have put their lives on the line to either create our freedoms or defend them from those who try to take them away. A tip of the cap to our armed forces not just today but every other day of the year as well.

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One Response to “What Brad Stevens Leaving Butler Can Teach Us About Lean”

  1. John Hunter says:

    The two leading guys are former players and one is a former assistant coach the other just started as an assistant coach.

    Brad Stevens uses advanced statistics http://espn.go.com/blog/collegebasketballnation/post/_/id/38391/brad-stevens-embraces-advanced-statistics another thing we can learn about lean (and related) management improvement ideas as well as being moneyball related.

    I really hope Butler stays successful. I like college basketball but am really getting sick of the egomaniac, selfish coaches and administrators at the basketball and football factory schools. Butler seems to have a successful program without all the morally questionable (or outright bad) practices at so many schools.

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