What the Trent Richardson Deal Can Teach Us About Lean

Posted on September 19, 2013 | in Change Management, Football, Lean Tools, Root Cause Analysis, Sports, Value Stream Mapping | by
trent richardson cleveland browns

The Cleveland Browns are a dismal franchise today but they made a wise move by trading away a valuable asset.

NFL trades happen very infrequently, especially in the middle of the season. Offensive and defensive systems all have steep learning curves, and to swap out pieces of the specialized schemes makes it very difficult to get through the learning curve in such a short turnaround time of one week between regular season games.

So it certainly sent shockwaves through the NFL (and all of those fantasy football lovers) when the Cleveland Browns dealt away last year’s #3 overall pick, running back Trent Richardson, to the Indianapolis Colts for a first round draft pick next year.

Usually, such big shocking news comes with an immediate negative response, especially from the Browns fan base – they just lost their franchise running back. However, analysis from ESPN:

All you have to do with this stunning transaction is consider one obvious fact: The Browns weren’t going anywhere with Richardson as their franchise back.

There are a lot of Lean lessons that can be pulled from this scenario.

In a complicated series of processes that comprise a professional football offensive scheme, having one super efficient (and valuable) piece surrounded by inefficient and substandard pieces will only drive optimal results so far.

The primary objective of a football team is to win the game. That’s why they play the games. In order to win the game, a team must score more points than the opponent. That’s why they keep score.

If one could properly evaluate and rank the impact of each offensive position group on scoring points, maybe using a fishbone diagram or an interrelationship digraph or value stream map, you might find that a quarterback has a greater impact on offensive success than a running back while both are heavily reliant on a strong offensive line. Outside of Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas the Cleveland offensive line is inconsistent. Good offensive lines can make good RB or QB into great ones, while a fickle offensive line can make great RB or QB run for their lives.

The Browns don’t have a great offensive line. They don’t have a great quarterback. Their wide receivers are not game changers. A lot of changes would have to occur with the Browns offensive personnel before they would be considered competent. Acquiring that competency would require money to bring in the right players and time to build cohesion in the scheme between the players.

Running backs, to a varying degree, are inherently replaceable pieces and the most easily subbed-out pieces of an offense. A lot of the value in a running back is the ability to read where defenders are once the ball is snapped and use athletic ability to get past them once the play has started. Great running backs like Adrian Peterson are rare and teams build around great players like that. Trent Richardson is talented, young, semi-inexpensive, and therefore very valuable to an offense ready to take the next step but not to one that is rebuilding like the Browns. Cleveland is better off putting in a replacement-level running back or free agent veteran like Willis McGahee who can pretty easily understand the playbook and comes in at a far cheaper rate but might lack the speed or strength that makes younger running backs popular.

Now cut to the Colts, who have dealt away a first round draft pick next year for Richardson. They have a strong offense (albeit a questionable offensive line). Their quarterback is also young but already very good. Their receivers are very good. They just lost their own starting running back Vick Ballard for the season due to injury. They are adding a competent piece to an already competent offense.

Having a strong running back like Richardson surrounded by less-than-adequate personnel on the Browns is like a manufacturing facility having top-of-the-line forklifts that are fuel efficient, fast, and can lift heavy loads while other aspects of the plant are struggling. If your production machines are inefficient and making lots of scrap, a speedy forklift isn’t going to make up for the lack of quality with fast transportation. Investment in the speedy forklifts would be premature, as would the Browns continuing to employ a running back that could bring more value to the club if dealt away. Invest in the “low hanging fruit” instead of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Sometimes the smart strategic decisions are extremely unpopular in the short term.

This happens all the time with strategic culture shifts in companies. In an effort to become more efficient and reduce waste, processes get altered and personnel responsibilities get shifted. People are creatures of habit and running into big changes in how they operate is scary and threatening.

So guess who absolutely hates this trade? Yep, Browns fans. It is another shining example of the club “investing in the future” by dealing away good players today and remaining incompetent in the short term.

But who thinks the deal was a good idea? NFL drafting experts and analysts. They don’t have emotional ties to the organization so they can review the deal objectively without feelings getting in the way.

What differs between this and traditional industry? The NFL’s revenues are driven by popularity. TV ratings, merchandise sales, ticket sales, sponsorship sales – they are all metrics driven by popularity. So along with the sacrifice of current talent for better talent later, the team is also “investing” the loss of popularity in increased popularity in the future. Unfortunately, there are only so many times a team can go to that well before the fan base completely gives up all hope.

That brings up…

Remain steadfast in applying a strategy that you believe will achieve the end goal and stick with it through tough times, but remain agile enough to make adjustments as needed.

There are only so many times a company can hit the figurative reset button on improvement programs without them starting to feel like the “flavor of the month.” Lean is a tough concept to absorb, especially by those who will be impacted the most by change. It’s extremely headache-inducing at first when programs don’t go perfectly at first, and many times companies will throw in the towel and say “It can’t be done here” when that’s almost completely untrue.

Look at the number of starting quarterbacks the Browns have had since they started the franchise back up in 1999 – 19. In the same year they drafted Trent Richardson they also took quarterback Brandon Weeden in the first round. Now with a new head coach and new front office the Browns are again in transition mode after giving up on Richardson and (seemingly) Weeden already. If you were the Browns fans, wouldn’t you be angry too?

Yes, the Richardson deal is probably okay-at-best in the long term – dealing away a former #3 overall draft pick for a first round pick that will be in the #22-32 range because the Colts are decent this season means that the Browns are losing 20 spots of value. However, Browns fans are frustrated that other pieces of the football offense interrelationship digraph have not been upgraded sufficiently that will allow a good RB like Richardson or a decent QB like Weeden to succeed. The Browns are again going back to the drawing board.

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2 Responses to “What the Trent Richardson Deal Can Teach Us About Lean”

  1. Mark Graban says:

    It’s a fine line between taking a long-term focus (a Lean principle) and flailing around without a strategy… not sure which it is with the Browns.

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