Pass the Ball: An Exercise in Continuous Improvement

By Angie Okuda, Director, Capability Building


November 26, 2019

Participants from Cohort 5 of the ImpactU quality improvement science course walked away in November from Session 2 motivated and enthusiastic about testing and trying new things thanks to a hands-on activity called “Pass the Ball.”

Pass the Ball is all about continuously improving processes. It is a core lesson in the course, which is co-sponsored by StrivePartnership and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. In groups of no fewer than five, participants pass a ball among themselves in the same pattern as quickly as they can.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, how quickly do you think it can be done? Less than a minute? That’s not bad. But it’s not good as 0.5 seconds.

I can hear you saying, “0.5 seconds? That’s impossible! It takes me 0.3 seconds to blink!” Let’s look at the process.

It is worth noting that this game could be a simulation of any process – from issuing a student reference letter to following an accounts payable process. The “ball” represents the task and the movement represents how the responsibility passes from team member to team member. The only rules for Pass the Ball are:

  • Everybody must touch the ball.
  • The ball must follow the same pattern each time.
  • The start point is the end point.

The process of Plan-Do-Check-Act allows participants to try different approaches through trial and error. Multiple methods from the team produced results between 10 and 30 seconds. That is a good effort, but the process can be reduced much further. Sure enough, after a few more tries, they got it down to 0.5 seconds.

Here’s how they did it. One member of the team stood in the middle of the group as the other members stood in a circle round the outside. The member in the middle held the ball in one hand while the members on the outside held out their opposite hands. Touching each member’s hand with the ball, the middle member spun around in a circle.

Phenomenal! And that’s the power of continuous improvement processes.

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