Are You Playing to Win?

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering
As appeared in
Reflections on Excellence

How often have you watched your favorite football team, holding a comfortable lead, become conservative near the end of the game only to lose the game? Fearing losing more than wanting to win, they focus on not making mistakes, calling plays that minimize the chance of turnovers, and above all, not taking any chances. Why do they lose? One reason is that the team they are playing has nothing to lose and, as a result, play to win. They take risks, gamble on interceptions, try to force fumbles and sometimes call high-risk plays. When they work, they win—but they were losing anyways, so why not take a chance?
Because of my background in reliability engineering, corporate management and business, and because I am a devout coward, I am risk averse. You will never see me skydiving, bungee jumping, doing anything that tempts fate, or making high-risk business decisions. With that said, one key to my success, and the success of all highly successful enterprises, is taking calculated risks. This means playing to win by taking advantage of opportunities when and where they present themselves. It means not being paralyzed by a fear of failure. We have all observed, if not ourselves been guilty of making, decisions that are driven by a fear of losing rather than a concerted push to win.
In a recent example, a services company experienced an unexpected growth in business that far outstripped its ability to deliver. The sudden surge forced a decision to either increase the current cadre of professionals with full-time employees or try to bridge the gap with a temporary or sub-contracted workforce. You have been there and can imagine the thought process. If the company hires full-time employees and the surge is temporary, then what? If they use temporary or contract personnel, will the quality of work meet their high standards? Which would you choose—would you go for the win, trusting in the future and your company’s ability to sustain and grow the business, or choose not to lose by using contract labor?
Over the past few years, playing not to lose seems to be the dominant direction of too many corporations. This phenomenon is occurring at all levels of the organization, literally from the boardroom to the newest hourly employee. Everyone seems so concerned about not making a mistake—not losing—that no one is willing to deviate from status quo. This phenomenon is not new. Dr. Edwards Deming, long before he took his philosophies to Japan, tried to point out this problem to American business leaders. You all know his message, “Your systems—the way you run the business--is perfectly designed to give you the results you get.” If you create an infrastructure and culture that is focused on winning, one where losing is not an option, you will ultimately win. However the converse is also true. If your culture is one that is risk averse, unwilling to change or try new ways of doing business, then ultimately you will lose. Failure might not be absolute; your company may have survived for decades and could continue for decades more. But it has not and will not realize its full potential. When focused on not losing, the best one can hope for is to survive.
This lesson came very early for me. Having been a devoted student of Dr. Deming, Philip Crosby, Joe Juran and other early pioneers of what has become known as the Japanese management model, playing to win is an integral part of my DNA. I shall always remember the reaction of my peers when these radical new philosophies were introduced in America. The common response was “Can you believe it? Japanese companies actually treat business like a war and they try to win at all costs.” They seemed genuinely shocked that anyone would view business with the same seriousness as one would face a war. They were shocked as well by the absolute focus on winning. It made perfect sense to me then and even more so now. After all, business is serious and deserves to be treated with the same respect and drive to win as if one was at war.  
I am not proposing that anyone should take unnecessary risks. Risks must be carefully weighed and options considered, but they are a necessary part of winning and long-term success. This is true at all levels of the enterprise and must be part of its culture and govern its day-to-day life. The workforce must be encouraged to try new ideas and methods even though change entails some risks. These risks can be managed and are essential for sustained growth and long-term success. Risk-averse managers must be identified and remolded into leaders willing to evaluate opportunities and make decisions—even when some risk is involved—that will help the company win rather than continue to hold the company back because they are playing not to lose.
Are you playing to win or not to lose? If your focus is on preventing increased costs or maintaining current performance levels, then perhaps there may be a more positive direction that would improve your success potential. History has proven that you cannot cost cut your way to prosperity and performance losses are indicative of an unchallenged workforce. If your focus is on status quo and not continuous improvement—stretching the workforce and your manufacturing capabilities to or beyond its known limits—you are playing not to lose, instead of trying to win. If you are not using all of your installed capacity or taking full advantage of the inherent skills and capabilities of your workforce, you are playing not to lose, instead of trying to win. Are you playing to win?

"Play to Win, Not to Avoid Losing"

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,
R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

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