Saturday, July 03, 2004

PART I - The Book: Baseball Proves Why
Big Organizations Don't Need a Procedures Manual  

"By The Book", a platitude you hear in organizations whose size or industry has shorn them of their entrepreneurial vitality, comes from baseball. But in moving from baseball to other organizations, especially business ones, the model has unnecessarily lost a lot of its intrinsic value. Non-baseball organizations should examine "The Book" baseball keeps for guidelines on how to proliferate policy, how to diffuse it though their organization so people understand it and how to see that it evolves appropriately over time.

Seattle Times reporter Larry Stone did a big feature package last Sunday on "The Book". In the mainbar, he synthesized both the history of the idea, and interviewed recent and current managers about their use of and beliefs in it.


Of course, "The Book", unlike a government agency's or corporation's procedures manual, doesn't actually exist. According to Stone:

You will not find the book (or, more accurately, The Book) on Amazon, no matter how adroitly you manipulate their search engine. Even the most massive Barnes and Noble outlet doesn't stock this tome, revered though it may be. [snip]

The authors of baseball's much-quoted and perpetually referenced "Book" are anonymous, and the contents, as mythical as they are mystical, have evolved constantly over time. And yet this hypothetical masterwork has served, over the past century-plus, as the guiding principles for generations of managers — the invisible bible of baseball, governing both the strategy and ethical standards of the sport.

"When someone does things by The Book, it takes all the imagination and creativity out of what they do," said Mike Hargrove, former manager of the Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles. "But there's also a reason The Book is there. It's based on sound principles." [snip]

"The Book" can be roughly defined as the accumulated knowledge of the sport, distilled into bite-sized chunks of wisdom: Guard the line late in games, bring in a left-handed pitcher to face a left-handed batter, don't play the infield in early in the games, sacrifice the runner into scoring position late in the game, and, for the love of Connie Mack, never put the winning run on base intentionally.

It's not a set of rules decided by a committee, then published. Unlike a procedures manual, it's both organic and scientific, evolving from the tested and known, retested stochastically over time so that "the ideal" solution is not always the one chosen, intentionally. In a stochastic process, neither purely random nor repetitiously identical, baseball managers gain the advantage of having the sound principles Hargrove mentions to work from, and this benefits them in that they don't have to reinvent from scratch every day. At the same time, they vary their approach judiciously and observe the returns on those variations. I said judiciously. This doesn't mean trying techniques that are totally prima facie wacky, like trying the sacrifice bunt with a runner on second and two out.

By chronically testing the book's wisdom by varying approaches in gentle, incremental ways, managers gain two advantages. First, they avoid becoming predictable, and second, they can get chronic feedback that helps them determine if the environment underlying "The Book's" assumptions is shifting.


Outside baseball, organizations tend towards being either random, avoiding what they fear as the rigidity of procedures manuals and cookie-cutter rules, or by crazy-gluing themselves to a QA approach, creating a rule for every case and slapping on new boilerplate text every time they face an exception the rules don't cover.

When I worked at Microsoft Corp., they had no written procedures, and attempts to create guidelines of even the most minor consistency were met with anxiety and neurotic reaction. The lack of a "The Book" guaranteed high-achievement when extraordinary humans doing their best got good luck and everything worked out well. It also engendered vast waste as project after project hemorrhaged resources that were not being managed and goals that were not focused enough.

At Boeing, where I worked right after Microsoft, there were big heavy four-feet long manuals detailing how to do everything including how to pick your nose, pick your friends and pick your friend's nose. The manuals guaranteed uniform performance, that is, as a system it minimizes total failures while expunging the possibility of innovation or great success. By taking a QA approach, winnowing everything you can to a predictable median, you guarantee predictability. And once you've done that, you minimize investment in examination and analysis, but you also miss out on most possibilities for radical improvements.

Baseball's evolving tradition, "The Book", is different from, and superior to, either the random approach or the hyper-prescribed approach. By making probabilistic rules most managers are expected to hew to, it maintains the stochastic advantage by maintaining the most proven actions as the primary ones, while allowing for variations that play to the environment at the moment the manager is making a decision.

Any organization can dedicate itself to rejecting both the sloppy, wasteful mess of no-book ways of doing things and that approach's binary opposite, the four-feet of procedures manuals written to military specifications. Any organization can, if it commits itself to winning the way baseball organizations do, can model baseball's approach, if it has the will.

In the next entry on The Book, I'll examine how The Book is diffused throughout baseball, a model alternative to the norm of how it's done in large organizations outside of baseball.

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