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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Use the Catchball Process to Reduce Ambiguity

To reduce ambiguity and misinterpretation during the planning phase of Hoshin Kanri management uses a fact-based inter-level negotiation process known as “Catchball”. The word “catchball” denotes a simple social game in Japan in which a circle of young children throw a baseball back and forth. It metaphorically describes a participative process that uses iterative planning sessions to field questions, clarify priorities, build consensus, and ensure that strategies, objectives, and measures are well understood, realistic and sufficient to achieve the objectives.

Hoshin planning begins with the senior management identifying the strategic outcomes/goals to be achieved, complete with deadlines. Once determined, the ‘challenges’ are sent to the operational units who break them down and determine what each unit and person has to do to be able to achieve the management objective. They then bounce the ‘ball’ back to senior management who catches it and determines if the execution committed to will be satisfactory or not. If it is not, the ‘ball’ is bounced back to the operations folks again who catch it and respond accordingly.

The conversation about strategic objectives and means widens as top management deploys its strategy to middle management because managers throw ideas back and forth from one level of the organization to another. There are three major benefits to catchball. First, it opens up new channels of communication between company leaders and process owners, which greatly improves the quality of the organization’s shared knowledge about its processes, people and relationships. Second, it forges new relationships necessary to execute the strategy. Third, by engaging middle and even front line managers in genuine give-and-take negotiations—that is, by getting their buy-in—Hoshin dramatically reduces the cost of getting people to do what they’ve agreed to do.

In short, catchball is a disciplined multi-level planning methodology for “tossing an idea around.” It takes strategic issues to the grassroots level, asking employees at each level of management to “value add” to the plan based on data analysis and experience of their functional areas.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was on to something when he said, “A strategic plan is nothing but a dead letter. It comes to life only through discussion and negotiation.”

Catchball requires that the people who deploy downward engage in some kind of data-based conversation with the people who design the plans. There must be sufficient coupling and discussion during the planning process to ensure the strategic plan is clear and realistic otherwise it will be nothing but a dead letter.

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  1. The key is the discussions. Be prepared for them to to longer than you think they should. We always have an idea of what we want but the idea of catchball is to get input from others, have the discussion and decide on the best course of action moving forward. Sometimes this means the discussions can take longer than expected. This is OK. Let the discussions happen because in the long run time will be saved and a better plan will be devised.

  2. I love this idea of catchball. So much better than 'over the wall'. In catchball, somebody throws, there's no retreat, only forward, into the ball. Retreat means either drop, or in the face. With 'over the wall', you can always shrug and hide, like Dilbert.
    And building on that as fact based is just great. Management has to associate with facts, and make objective based decisions and exert leadership. If we're not careful, this could culminate in a lot of work and customer satisfaction!