Six Sigma vs. Sports

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Yu Darvish has nearly perfected his pitch delivery by treating each pitch as a process, evident by the same release point for each pitch.

We commonly associate Six Sigma and the DMAIC approach with improving the processes of manufacturing or certain service companies, but what about more unconventional industries? Professional Sports leagues are some of the largest businesses, yet they are hardly mentioned in regards to Six Sigma. Is it possible that athletes and coaches alike can use this quality management approach to improve their performances? Tennis star Steven Falk wrote “Six Sigma Tennis” where he explains how coaches and players can reach their maximum potential.  Falk analyzes a tennis player to find areas that can be improved using DMAIC. After the improvements, the player has minimized his unforced errors; thereby reaching his highest ability. Falk focuses on individual sports like tennis, where it is easy to identify success and failure based on points won or loss. However, the mainstream sports in America like football, basketball, etc. present a harder situation to use Six Sigma.

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have created the best power play in the NHL by treating each play as a process, reaching a high level of efficiency.

Focusing on hockey as an example, new statistical measures are being introduced to the game every season like Corsi and Fenwick now measuring puck possession.  At the core of each new stat introduced is a desire to improve a team’s performance. So why can’t Six Sigma be used along with Corsi or Fenwick for improvement?  Since Six Sigma results in 3.4 defects per million operations, essentially  a forward could expect to miss only 3.4 shots for every million he shoots. A goalie could expect to save all but 3.4 of a million shots he faces. Unfortunately, these two scenarios cannot coexist—exemplifying the issue with Six Sigma in sports.

While reaching the Six Sigma level of efficiency is nearly impossible in sports, DMAIC can still be applied to improve the process. Taking the hockey power play as an example—a time when the offense should be able to capitalize on its advantage—coaches can take each play as an individual process. First, they will define the weakness in the play, perhaps the lack of shots being taken. Then, experts can measure the amount of shots during the power play, and analyze it by comparing league averages and past results. Players improve the process by increasing the amount of shots taken, and control it by maintaining that shot level throughout the season.

Sports certainly can be subject to DMAIC application, but do they need to be? The most entertaining moments in sports and the traits that make them so appealing often center on the anticipation of what will happen next. With Six Sigma and DMAIC, there is less unknown. Every golf shot should be a hole in one, and every batter should hit a home run each pitch.  Gone would be the underdog victories or crazy upsets. Would near-perfect athletes be as entertaining? Even the Sidney Crosby and Tom Brady’s of the sports world make mistakes or bad plays. Perfect athletes throughout the leagues would be too predictable.

Do you think implementing this type of process control would change sports?

Should players and coaches actually take the time to improve their processes or is it dependent on the sport?