Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Try This Technique -- #28
the Cleveland Indians'
Player Plan  

"Only a mediocre person is always
at his best" -- W. Somerset Maugham

Some management lessons from baseball are subtle. Sometimes though, they clang you over the head like they were Juan Marichal and you were John Roseboro.

Take employee evaluation. Managers are expected to do it, but not trained seriously in how to. Most hate it, leaving it until the last minute and throwing together whatever mental dust-bunnies are drifting by at the moments they're working on the eval form. It's one of those Tragedy of the Commons problems...the manager gets no credit from the organization for doing it, but the sloppy execution of it (or skipping of it entirely) savages the prospects of the organization that doesn't reward the manager for doing the job right.

You're still not sold. "So what," you say, right?

Think about this a second. In this era, with most organizations (that aren't Iraq-reconstruction contractors) struggling for every bit of margin they can grab onto, the expense of hiring and the expense of carrying non-productive employees hasn't been higher. That means employee evaluation (assigning work to and promoting the capable, purging/finding new work for the incapable) is more important now than ever. But in in a small sample study (my clients plus those of some other consultants I know), employee evaluations are coming less frequently now than three years ago (when it was already less frequent than it should have been. Less analysis, less actionable feedback, less probability of improvement.

Baseball teams routinely have it much harder. For them, it's always high turnover time. Their methods are instructive to what yours should be. Baseball organizations dump over half their recruits for failing to cut the mustard, so they have more flexibility in recruiting and retaining than most organizations do (because most can't free up enough resources to hire way more than they need and experiment with them to find out who's working out and who isn't).

If you're not evaluating at least as well as a baseball team, you're simply not evaluating well enough. Take the Cleveland Indians organization as a milestone of sensible practices. As recently described in an engaging and beautifully-written and edited series in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Tribe uses something called a Player Plan to track each employee's limitations and then help each employee overcome limitations - physically, fundamentally and mentally.

The essence:

(Brandon) Phillips, one of the prized young players the Indians received when they traded pitching ace Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos in 2002, didn't realize the Indians had a plan for him. They call it the Player Plan, and they use it in their minor leagues as a detailed road map for improvement.

Coaches and instructors collaborate to determine what a player needs to do to fix his problems - or, as the Indians like to call them, "limitations." Then they map out how to help him do it - physically, fundamentally and mentally. This systematic approach is a reflection of the Tribe's overall strategy to rebuild its franchise by using basic business practices to get maximum results.

At the heart of this strategy, driven by 36-year-old Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro, is the desire to create precise, efficient and measurable systems to evaluate a player's skills and then improve them. The goal is to cut down on mistakes that can cost the Tribe progress and money. This emphasis on business is being seen more and more in baseball as owners pinch payrolls and hire non-traditional general managers like Shapiro, who have Ivy League educations but no playing or coaching experience.

Of all the departments in the Indians' organization, player development and scouting present perhaps the biggest challenge in applying Shapiro's strategy because of the subjectivity involved. Scouting, the process of identifying talented young players and projecting their future success, relies heavily on judgment and "gut" instinct, two factors impossible to quantify on a computer - a favorite tool of Indians management. Player development, a rigorous learning process that takes years, can be affected as much by a player's mental state as by his talent.


Shapiro saw good intentions and hard work by coaches and scouts with the team, but he didn't see an organized system that efficiently measured the development of the Tribe's young players. "It was rhetoric-based," Shapiro said of the player development and scouting systems he observed. "Smart baseball men who didn't have that systematic approach to it. They were saying, He's pretty good, but he can't throw strikes.' Well, why can't he throw strikes?"

Shapiro wanted not only answers to such questions, but a detailed approach to assess a player's "limitations" and a road map to improve them. (Calling them "weaknesses" is considered too negative.) The idea, he said, was to act more like "a cutting-edge business" than a typical baseball team. "The old baseball mentality and one that still is employed in some places is throw the bats and balls out on the field and the cream will rise to the top," Shapiro said. "And I will tell you, that still will happen: The cream will always rise to the top. The issue is to factor in business. If the cream rises to the top and that's an 8 percent success rate, what happens if you utilize these methods and you can develop a 13 percent success rate?"

While Shapiro alleges it's baseball's model to just throw out the bats and balls on the field, I'll bet the organization you work in is les cutting-edge than Shapiro's when it comes to monitoring employee performance, planning for improvement and delivering needed training.

And thanks to Baseball Primer for the link to the Plain-Dealer story.

TIP: Try the Cleveland Indians approach. Have a serious, actionable plan for each employee, monitor and measure each employee's performance, try to intelligently eliminate all limitations that affect your organization's performance.

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