Stephen Curry and Standard Work

The Golden State Warriors of the past decade have been one of the best teams in professional basketball. This is remarkable for those of us who lived in the Bay Area previously, while the Warriors were in a stretch of 26 losing season in 28 years. What changed? One of the biggest factors is Stephen Curry, who joined the team in 2009. “Steph” Curry is broadly considered the best shooter in basketball history. He repeatedly pulls off ridiculous plays like this:

I love highlights like this. There’s a thrill to the improbability of it: evading four defenders, running backwards, swishing the shot.

Here’s another sort of highlight that doesn’t get as much play:

Chances are you didn’t watch the entire five-plus minute length of that. As the title gives away, it shows Steph hitting 105 3-point shots in a row. It isn’t nearly as exciting to watch as a game highlight, but it’s much more important. Why? It’s a demonstration of how seriously Steph Curry takes standard work, and how he makes those game highlights possible.

Operations leaders know the value of standard work, whether in riveting an aircraft body or processing an insurance claim. Standard work improves training, reduces quality defects, maintains smooth process flow, and enables experimentation. Above all, it creates control.

By control, I don’t mean a supervisor being in charge. It’s almost the opposite. An operation steeped in standard work keeps on humming when the leader is on vacation, as each individual and tool works within the bounds of their standards. How do you achieve that control? Not just by repeating a task over and over. Yes, we repeat, but with the goal of reducing variation. That means we have to be aware of variation, we have to be dissatisfied by it, and we have to take action in response.

Guess who does that? Stephen Curry. Not satisfied with swishing threes, he’s been using technology during practice to provide him with instant feedback on how close to the center of the hoop his shots are. Why? This chart:

shot location

A basketball hoop is 18 inches wide. But the efficacy of a three-point shot on that hoop varies dramatically by where in that 18-inch width the shot falls. Stay within the middle third of the hoop (six inches) and 70% of shots will fall. Move left or right another three inches either direction and you’ve fallen below 16%.

Part of Stephen Curry’s standard work is to practice hitting not just within the hoop, but inside those middle six inches, over and over and over again. As the saying goes, “Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” That’s what you’re seeing in the second video: Steph repeating his standard work until he almost can’t get it wrong.

This practice provides the foundation for more complex “standard work” in the gym, which in turn prepares Steph for the intense environment of an NBA game. It’s one thing to practice three-pointers in a calm gym standing in one spot; it’s a different level to take a shot on the run with a couple huge defenders charging you down while tens of thousands of hostile fans scream at you. Despite how different these look, they share a strong foundation of standard work. Curry has mastered that practice. It all starts with those 105 shots in a row.

This principle is true for every operation. The better you are able to define and adhere to standard work under normal conditions, the better ability you will have to perform when the going gets tough. Instead of practice in the gym, an operation prepares by focusing on day-to-day excellence on normal, unremarkable days. A retail group which performs perfectly on regular days is much more likely to succeed on Black Friday than is one that is sloppy with the standards. A surgical team which is a stickler for counting every single sponge and instrument every time is extremely unlikely to lose track when a surgery takes an unexpected turn.

Two last notes. First, the pressure to hit the standard can’t rest solely on the shoulders of front-line workers. Management and support groups need to ensure they are proactively error-proofing work, eliminating distractions, and providing continuous training and coaching. I’ll write more about this later.

Second, standard work can be taken too far. Standards are not an end in themself; they exist to support a safe and effective operation. If you’re too enamored with standards you could risk stifling innovation and slowing down progress. Be aware of the big picture and be ready to course correct if the pendulum swings too far.

With those caveats in mind: may the standard work be with you!

Comments and questions are welcome via this LinkedIn post, or direct to me: benj (at) principledoperations.com. Subscribe to receive future posts in your email.