Leadership Skills

What golf teaches us about maintenance: There are no quick fixes

Tom Moriarty says you can't fix a swing – or a persistent problem in your plant – overnight.

By Tom Moriarty

My father, an avid (some would say obsessed) golfer, passed away last year. He had a sizable library of golf books. Lately, I have been reading some of his books, including a book titled “The Game for a Lifetime, More Lessons and Teachings” by Harvey Penick and Bud Shrake. Harvey and Bud wrote several books – a series of short stories and vignettes passing along Harvey’s wisdom gained over 91 years of life.

Penick was born in 1904 and died in 1995. He professed to be the world’s oldest caddie. He was the University of Texas golf coach from 1931 to 1963 – a pretty good run. Harvey was one of the best-known and most-respected golf coaches in the world. He coached and mentored a number of great professional golfers, including Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls, and Kathy Whitworth. 

One of Harvey’s stories was about a fellow who drove overnight from New Orleans to Austin, TX, just to get a lesson from the best-known golf instructor, Harvey Penick. This gentleman planned on getting one lesson and then immediately driving back to New Orleans for a golf match the next day. This was a desperate attempt to have the best golf instructor provide one lesson that would fix a lifetime of poor habits.

Anyone who knows anything about golf knows you cannot solve a lifetime of bad habits with one lesson, no matter whom the instructor is. It takes work to practice, achieve, and sustain success in golf.

Making significant improvements quickly with minimum effort or support is the pipe dream – a dream shared by many executives and managers who try “silver-bullet” fixes.

For those who haven’t played golf, I’ll just say that although it seems simple, a reliable golf swing is complicated. There are biomechanical movements (large muscles and small muscles), tempo, balance, club shaft flex (in two dimensions, varying with swing speed), and the major complications that arise from the gray matter between a golfer’s ears. Small, almost imperceptible nuances in how a person swings can result in major variations in how the golf ball is struck and where it ends up. (I know this from years of experience with poor shots.)

As complicated as a golf swing can be, human systems (maintenance and operations departments, for instance) are much more complex. Anytime executives or managers contemplate a significant change, they need to really understand the magnitude of the effort. Don’t short-change it. 

Managers and executives understandably want the lowest-cost, highest-return improvements. But what is a realistic level of effort and investment needed to achieve high-value results? Many directors underestimate the effort it takes to implement and sustain significant improvements – this is the conclusion from various studies showing that more than 70% of initiatives fail to produce benefits beyond one or two years. When multiple projects already have failed, the problem gets compounded by “program of the month” syndrome. People don’t believe executives and managers have the ability to commit to, execute, and sustain improvements.

Given that Harvey’s pupil had only a couple of hours to learn, Harvey knew he would be wasting time and money on a lesson. In the big picture, this was a small investment for the student. To achieve the level of improvement this guy wanted, he would have to dedicate hours of practice for months. Harvey knew his student wasn’t realistic about what he could achieve with one lesson and wasn’t convinced the guy would put in the effort needed to get there. 

Harvey didn’t charge the duffer for the lesson. However, Harvey did let the guy know that there were some good things about his game. And if a time came when he could commit to getting better, true progress could be made. But if he couldn’t dedicate sufficient effort, he should be content with his level of play.

There will always be vendors and consultants willing to pitch silver-bullet solutions – some method, tool, or software that promises wonderful results. But if you aren’t doing the basics well and aren’t disciplined, it’s illogical to believe substantial and persistent improvements can be achieved. Take a lesson from Harvey: If you’re not willing to put in the effort, don’t waste your resources or expect strong results.