Curling stones ~by Dimitri Garder, Global-Z Captain

Sweeeeppp!  Hurry!!!  Hard!!!!

Yes, it’s curling, and the recent media coverage of the quirky sport, relatively new to the Olympics, has introduced the unique lingo of the game into the common vernacular.  For those of us who actively compete in the sport, it’s fun to watch the general public gaining an appreciation and knowledge of the game.  People have fun learning about the sport and love to demonstrate their newfound knowledge by asking lots of questions:  “Are you the one who sweeps or the one who throws the rocks?” (everyone on the team does both of those things); “What do you call the thing that looks like a broom?” (we call it a broom); “What do you call the thing that looks like a rock?” (we call it a rock); “What do you call it when you throw it down the ice?” (we call it throwing the rock); and so forth.

Curling is eminently unpretentious. But one of the most important details in the game is one that is almost always overlooked; in fact it’s often under-appreciated even by experienced curlers.  This critical detail is the ice.  I discovered this when I asked my wife’s family patriarch and long-time curler, her grandfather affectionately known as Popeye and now sadly passed, whether they curl at a local hockey rink.  The alarmed look on his face gave the short answer, but he patiently explained that curling ice is painstakingly built up over days in a purpose-built facility and meticulously maintained by skilled professionals who are trained to understand the many variables that impact the performance of the ice.

Really good, fast curling ice is referred to as being “keen,” and the idea is that any imperfections or blemishes in the ice can cause random behavior in the path of the rock, which diminishes the game from one of great skill to one of mere luck.  To prove the skill of the curler, the ice must behave as predictably as possible.  Think of it as the car in stock car racing.  The only variable is the competitor’s skill and judgment.

So how does a club create really “keen” ice?  The obvious answer is to hire a professional “ice man” who knows exactly how to make and maintain really good curling ice, and just ask that person to impart their skill and knowledge upon the club.  In fact, this is misleading, since an experienced ice man is certainly a great start, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for creating great ice.

It turns out that the way to create consistent, high quality ice that delivers long-term sustainable excellence is not so different from how to succeed in business. I learned about this over a beer with a Canadian curler at our local club, not in any way an unusual combination of events.  Our club had been struggling with its ice for years, and after getting beaten badly in a match against a Canadian team at our club’s annual invitational bonspiel (tournament), my team took the opportunity to sit down over a beer and ask the Canadian team’s skip (captain), Ross, to give us some pointers on how their club developed their famously good ice.

Data: The Surprising Secret to Curling and Business Success

I expected Ross to just recite the formula for what makes great ice: ice temperature x, air temperature y, air humidity z, etc.  Instead, Ross told us the following story.  Some years ago his club had also been struggling to improve their ice, so they hired some big shot ice man out of Minnesota or Alberta or somewhere else where they learn that type of thing from childhood, and brought him out to Quebec for a week to “fix” their ice.  So the ice guy shows up and Ross asks him to get started, and the guy says, “No problem.  First thing I need is to see all of your records. Blank stares. “Huh?” “You know, your records.  Your logs and such.” More blank stares. “Huh?” “You know, your data.  Show me your data.” “Data?” “Well sure, your data.  I mean, how can you know what’s working and what isn’t if you’re not looking at your data?” “Ummm….”

So the ice man explains to Ross that a lot of clubs believe that there’s a single formula that works equally well for everyone to create good ice, but the reality is that there are so many variables, that what works well is dramatically different from one club to the next, and sometimes from one day to the next in the same club.  Instead of spending the rest of the week “fixing” the club’s ice, Ross’ ice guy spent the rest of the week teaching the club how to fix their processes.  He showed them how to take measurements controlling one variable at a time, and analyze the data to understand what works and what doesn’t.  By now I was a couple of beers into the story, but I couldn’t help but remember all of this from fourth grade; this was just scientific method.  Develop a hypothesis, create an experiment designed to test the hypothesis, limiting the experiment to one variable at a time, conduct the experiment, take measurements, analyze the results, adjust the experiment, rinse and repeat.  Good old-fashioned science.

Finding Business Strategies That Work

So what does all this have to do with business?  Taped to the wall in my office is a Dilbert cartoon that says it best.  Dilbert tells a software developer that he’s not competent at his job, so the developer suggests that he might try another job, such as marketing.  “Marketing”, scoffs Dilbert, “that’s just liquor and guessing.”  The joke is funny because it fits the stereotype, which derives from bad marketing.  But good marketers know that finding strategies that work requires following scientific method.  Develop a hypothesis about which strategy will pull better, conduct an experiment limiting the test to that one variable, conduct the test, measure the results.  Adjust.  Change.  Improve.  W. Edwards Deming, the founding father of manufacturing quality improvement, demonstrated that this works not only for marketing and curling, but for all business processes.  The concept of continual improvement is rooted in the idea that the only way to get consistently excellent results from a business is to methodically identify the variables that impact performance, and use scientific method to optimize those variables.  Using data. Anything else is just liquor and guessing. I was so grateful for the lesson that I bought Ross his next beer.

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