Thursday, May 20, 2004

Spittin' Bill Doak: Why Tool-Users Are
the Most Innovative Tool-Makers (Part I)  

Early baseball is a great lens through which to view the process of innovation. Because baseball is open and recorded, and combined with a tradition of story-telling and archival history, it's a fantastic lens through which to see, and learn, conscious evolution (what I call prevolution).

Prevolution differs from evolution because it's pre-meditated, studied, intentional, while evolution in nature is random and without forethought, apparently functioning because it's accidental. Sometimes research scientists and design pros and expensive consultants come up with the most valuable tools, but frequently, the best inventors are right under your nose -- your own staff. Being immersed in the process can make them blind to the subtle observations required to innovate, or it might give them the necessary platform from which to innovate through experimentation.

Early baseball was one experiment after another -- differing numbers of balls and strikes, official balls that were juiced and deadened (well, recent baseball shares that one), equipment made out of rapidly-prevolving materials in mutating shapes and configurations. As with most experimentation, most of the ideas didn't work. Some were downright failures, and I don't mean Mickey Brantley type failures, but more like 1899 Cleveland Spiders failures.

The most consistently putrid artifact, though, were the burnt-toast gloves fielders used. Once fielders' gloves became the norm (early baseballists, like cricketers past and present, went bare-handed, the last noteworthy hold-out being the legendary Bid McPhee) they held on to their basic configuration for about three decades, emulating what we think of today as non-baseball gloves, with unconnected fingers, flat surfaces without a pocket, uniform material thickness everywhere. Market theory fails to explain why they were stuck in this configuration. Players wanted better mousetraps and there was money in providing them with better mousetraps. Sporting goods manufacturers were constrained, it appears, by the word "glove".

The Einstein who shattered the paradigm was not a scientist nor a leather-worker nor an industrial designer nor a sporting goods magnate. It was Spittin' Bill Doak, a polymathic pitcher of the Teens and Twenties. As a player, he had specific ideas about what was needed, including a more convex shape (like a slightly cupped hand) and a pocket with webbing. According to Rawlings:

In 1920, Bill Doak, a journeyman pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, approached Rawlings with an idea for improving the baseball glove from a mere protective device to a genuine aid in fielding. The "Bill Doak" model was so revolutionary that it stayed in Rawlings' line until 1953. Its key feature was a multi-thong web laced into the first finger and thumb, which created for the first time in baseball's young life, a natural pocket.

According to SABR member and Doak biographer Steve Steinberg, the glove was the foundation of Rawlings' glove design for about 30 years, and that Doak made up to $25,000 a year in royalties from it (which would have clearly exceeded his feudal-ownership era baseball salary).

According to Steinberg, Doak was also responsible for other innovations, including a campaign that made an important alteration in the trajectory of the rules. In 1920, the leagues were interested in boosting offense, and decided to ban trick pitches and deliveries; they came up with a plan to ban the spitball, but many pitchers like Doak relied totally on (a) the effect of their spitball, and (b) the disconcerting effect that throwing a pitch that might be a spitball had on batters (spitballers would frequently pretend to load up the ball even on a pitch that wasn't going to be a spitter, just to mess with the batter's mind). Doak campaigned to have all active spitballers "register" and be grandfathered by name in the rule, which allowed the select group to continue throwing the banned pitch through their careers. It didn't help Doak very much much, but guys like Jack "The Mighty Eskimo" Quinn thrived. Quinn loaded phlegm onto horsehide effectively in the majors until he was 48 years old.

If the the history of the spitball intrigues you, Steinberg's own site has a lovely, informative and entertaining section on it here.


If you're not enlisting your own staff to gen up ideas, innovate process designs, experiment with tools (conceptual and physical), you're missing out on the kind of magic Spittin' Bill Doak created. They are immersed in the quotidian actions. They know things you (and all the outsiders) don't. That doesn't mean all their ideas will be useful (in fact, most won't). But some of the best and easiest ideas to implement are sitting in staffers' heads, waiting to happen.

Joe Ely's writing about Lean Manufacturing Systems (I'm not going to explain it here, read his stuff; Joe is smart, knows what he doesn't know, and has the perfect attitude about learning, meaning he's exceptionally observant and therefore, useful to read) is filled with examples of prevolution and innovation. My favorite one, and a great example of Toyota encouraging line staff to innovate aggressively, is here.

It doesn't matter if you're managing outside of manufacturing. The example holds perfectly by analogy. The tools in Ely's case are physical, but paper forms are tools, work processes are tools, the way you connect processes together are tools. The examples are powerful regardless of what your organization does.

If you're not recruiting and mining and rewarding the prevolutionary ideas of your line staff, you're unnecessarily limiting your success, like standing out in the field with a piece of burnt toast on your hand, when you could instead have a useful innovation, like a Bill Doak model glove with webbing and a pocket.

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