Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Part I: Baseball Evolution
Changing Your Changes  

Nothing in the universe is constant except for change.
And change changes in direction and rate, constantly -- from Anaximander

Yesterday's entry was about the inevitable changes being forced on the Yankee organization from the owner. His repulsive personality and criminal record aside, his knowledge that change is a necessity is essential in baseball success and to organizations outside baseball.

Take the Oakland A's, for example. Most of the readers who write to me have read Michael Lewis' Moneyball (see my link in the left-hand link bar if you wonder how my views differe from his). And Lewis' nifty book was a beautiful snapshot of the way the A's were designing their approach at a moment in time, that while recent, is still past. They have mutated their strategy. The documented offensive theory of patience at the plate and a total disregard of defense and speed as overpriced components has mutated into patience at the plate, isolated power, and a ratcheting up of defensive value to low-not-zero was the approach they were taking by the end of this year.

Beane and DePodesta tweaked their approach, because they had to. First, it would do them little good to pursue a theory that had been made public, since imitators would start bidding against them, even if only to prevent them from getting what they needed. Second, they "listened" to the feedback their approach was making. Defense is not a linear function. Their defense was so bad, it cost the team games it didn't need to lose and did need to win. They took care of that and it worked pretty well. According to Keith Woolner's Defensive Efficiency report, the A's were the second most defensively-effective team in the American League this season. Beane didn't let his Moneyball poor-mouthing of defense as a skill worth paying for get in the way of tweaking his team to improve it.

If you're in a competitive environment, you have to change, even as your competitors are deconstructing what you are doing now. That's truer in baseball than any other endeavor, but Joe Ely's Learning About Lean blog has a perfect, informative example (Oct. 25th) of this in manufacturing. Toyota has a plant in Indiana that they open for tours, and Ely's been a couple of times. The Toyota management and work force appear quite open about what they're doing to improve their processes, refining their approaches, tweaking their methods. And they're not afraid of giving away their proprietary advantages to competitors who might come on a tour, because by the time the borrower implemented the advantage, the Toyota plant would have changed and refined it anyway.

If you need to cope with organizational change, follow what the Yankees are doing (quite publically) during this off-season. Ignore the viviparous personality crud, the vituperation and vitriol, and instead watch what they do to try to improve. Scout out what the A's are doing; it's less public, but you can see who they draft and what moves they make and ask yourself what direction they seem to be trying to move in -- are they tweaking, re-tooling, trying something completely different? And read Joe Ely's fascinating Toyota write-up. If you're not in manufacturing, you probably can't replicate Toyota, but you can parallel what they do in an organized and structured way.

Most organizations won't allow themselves to do it, especially publically-owned ones (politics, fear, institutional shareholders). Many that try it fail because they "go binary", that is, they lose their ability to repeat successes because they won't document anything, assuming this environment is about pure fluidity and lack of process (it's not).

Steinbrenner acting as though he was a sociopath is not a necessary ingredient in the recipe for constant prevolution. But the recipe is mandatory. Anaximander knew that over 2000 years ago.

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