Saturday, February 14, 2004
It doesn't happen often enough, it requires luck and knowledge both, but there are times as a manager when you think through something quickly and just hit it right on the head. In baseball, it's a manager's Bernie Carbo moment, when with a World Series game on the line, you call for a pinch-hitter, and he essentially wins the game for you with a homer (if you read the play-by-play game line for the famous 1975 World Series game six that has the Carlton Fisk homer video byte, you'll realize it was Carbo's homer, not Fisk's, that was the deciding blow; Fisk's, for the home team in extra innings, was statistically almost a foregone -- or even fivegone -- conclusion). In baseball research, it's a Lloyd Waner moment, which I'll get to in a minute.
You gotta love those events, the total sweet spot, George Brett swinging as hard as he can and getting 100% of Goose Gossage's hardest fastball, whether in baseball or in management. They don't happen all the time, but the satisfaction of them persists, and serves to defend the psyche when things aren't going so well.
I was once consulting to a small, intentionally lean group in a wonderfully aggressive organization that had new management that wanted to prove to the world that the old regime was bad (it wasn't...not even close). Because the laws of physics, gravity specifically, apply to fecal matter on a steep embankment, one can expect that fecal matter to move in the obvious direction. In this outfit, the program managers were getting pressure from above to do "more with less", and they, in turn, were trying to deliver to impress the new executive team by "making it happen". But program managers, unles they roll up their sleeves and pitch in, don't do the work that makes things happen; they just beat the drum rhythm faster. And this group I was working with was already hyper-optimized and pushing hard.
Worse, the program managers were playing a zero-sum game, each wanting all the resources for their own program,and having no incentive to be concerned about anyone else's program.
I needed a tool to (a) protect the lean group from the Tragedy of the Commons madness of the program managers, (b) squeeze an extra 2-4% measureable effectiveness out of them that would indicate enough "progress" that the new executive team wouldn't think they weren't "doing more" in response to the marching orders sent down from on high, and (c) trump the efforts going on in the rest of the company in a way that made the group untouchable for a while. I'd used lots of tools in similar situations, but never the particular one I used here. I was just guessing based on a combo of some real factors and intuition.
In this case, the tool was merely an electronic Project Management package that output Gantt charts, the kind of tool no one else in the entire multi-million dollar company was using (and in most cases, had never tried to understand before). The group's manager already did this kind of work in her head quite effectively. But the tool addressed all three challenges, in this case, perfectly, George Brett swinging as hard as he can and getting 100% of Goose Gossage's hardest fastball. The intentionally-giant Gantt print-outs were the The Great Wall of China, unarguable, especially by the program managers who didn't know how to produce them themselves. The tool helped the manager and me do some creative re-sequencing that did squeeze out a couple of extra percent of production without burning people out. And it made the group look so much more technically sophisticated in comparison to the rest of the company that the executive team left them alone for two rounds of layoffs that resulted in big bonuses to the executive team.
I hit that 100%, and like a game tying line-drive gapper in the bottom of the last inning, it felt beautiful coming off my bat and has resided in my memories ever since as one of those perfect moments I'll carry to my grave.
100th-PERCENTILE HAPPENS SOMETIMES
It does. The perfect storm. Brady Anderson's 1996 season. The script for the movie The Usual Suspects. Bob Beamon's Olympic long-jump. Sometimes, against the laws of entropy, the dance of random chance lines up all the random factors in your favor and perfection occurs.
In my entry a week ago, I was trying to make an analogy about 'focusing on outcomes', and I chose to make an analogy out of a batter who hit for high average, but was actually an offensive drag compared to average for his team. I was in a hurry and just plucked Hall of Famer Lloyd "Little Poison" Waner out of my memory as a poster boy. I knew he was an decent example, but I was just guessing based on a combo of some real factors from memory and intuition. I didn't check my database or anything scholarly, I just grabbed the least-useful non-pitcher in the Hall of Fame.
It turned out that Little Poison is not only a good poster boy for high-batting average, net-offense-negative performance. In response to a message from someone wanting to know the all-time best batting averages that had OPS+es at or below average, I ran a query against my normalizing database and it turns out frelling Lloyd Waner's 1930 season is, by a megaton, baseball's all-time leader in the pattern I was trying to describe. Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug. Sometimes you're George Brett.
And because the message writer wanted a top-ten list in this category, I produced it and share it here, a trifling but tasty piece of statistical trivia.
Here are the top 12 seasonal batting averages of all time (minimum 200 plate appearances) that are associated with no-better-than-average hitting usefulness, with the RPRO column representing a measure similar to OPS+, normalized so the league average equals 100, with higher numbers being more valuable:
Stats notes for those who care: RPRO is my measure Relative Production, which is very close to OPS+ but does not adjust for park factors. Apps are approximated plate appearances.
An interesting bit of synchronicity: Five of the players on this list are all from the same single season, 1930. As I noted in that earlier post, it was a legendary year for offense, a year in which a last-place team hit .315 as a team (and that includes the efforts of the pitchers at the plate). Even more impressively odd, three of those five 1930-uns were catchers: Ace Wilson, Al "The Human Spore" Spohrer, and Bennie "Lost Freight" Tate. Given that there were over 50,000 qualifying player/year seasons for this "measure", it's interesting that almost half of them were from the same year.
I love these moments of perfection. Lloyd Frelling Waner...human lesson in management, and opportunity for perfect moment. If there was a Hall of Fame for Synchronicity, he'd be in it.
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