The Hockey of Business

Jim Morgan's picture

Paul Maurice, coach of the Carolina Hurricanes professional hockey team, spoke on “Building a Winning Team” at an Association for Corporate Growth meeting recently. The title is somewhat ironic, given that the team was 2-11-3 on the season at the time, as he noted. Although I think sports metaphors are often misapplied in the business context, some of his comments mirrored what I have seen in business teams. A great way to tell that a team is in trouble, he said, is to observe members at a meal. If you have the stars at one table, the rookies at another, and the struggling players in a third, you have a problem. I have seen this in corporate lunch rooms, and it usually means your team has broken into subteams and is not working together. I asked what he did in that situation, and he said he would address individuals in each subteam to have them reach out across the borders. That’s a good first step.

He was surprisingly introspective given the stereotype of a professional coach. A few years ago, he said, the team was doing reasonably well, but after a loss to Florida he went into the locker room and lit into them as their heads hung down. The team lost a large number of games in a row afterward. He said many variables go into losing streaks, but he could not help but wonder how things might have differed if he had picked a better way and time to express his concerns.

But the most powerful thing he stated regarding teams is that you can tell within ten minutes of watching video of a good team what their system is. He listed all kinds of hockey terms I didn’t recognize, being a basketball fan, but the point was that the hockey equivalent of the team’s work processes were done in repeatable ways that an outsider could quickly recognize. On the other hand, he said, you could watch hours of videos of poorly performing teams and never figure out their systems.

In other words, if you want quality, you have to take the time to formalize your processes. Common to every quality control method from Total Quality Management to Six Sigma is writing down or diagramming of processes. That’s the only way you can ensure smooth coordination and handoffs of work—or the hockey puck.