Monday, July 05, 2004

PART II - The Book: Baseball Proves How
Big Organizations Can Nail Procedures  

In the last entry, I discussed how baseball's "The Book", a set of agreed upon ways of doing things, works and where it came from and why it's better than the models normally deployed in big organizations (usually a binary choice between either nothing/chaos or an Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse full of rigid procedures manuals). "Baseball" is both an industry and a large organization, broken up into many competing divisions, geographically dispersed, and at least as complex in that challenging-to-cohesiveness way as just about any multi-billion dollar endeavor.

So how does baseball do it? And how can you?


Baseball doesn't write down the book because individuals only get promoted when they've mastered the basics.

Connie Mack, who according to the roster managed the Philadelphia Athletics from 1901-1950 (and probably actually made most of the management decisions through about 1946), assembled the core of his teams from college attendees. It wasn't that other teams didn't take college attendees, and it wasn't that Mack chose players exclusively from the ranks of college graduates. It was that Mack favored players with a track record of being able to learn.

In Mack's system, according to The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, Athletics players were expected to make a lot of in-game calls themselves. Mack could delegate more if he could pass on training more easily. But it was more than a proven ability to receive that made Mack's design work -- it was that combined with Mack's determination to mentor. Mack worked with his players in the dugout, asking them to tell him why he was doing certain things, telling them what he was doing, teaching them "The Book" through iterative instruction in live situations, the classroom of nine innings.

Any manager can do this...narrate their decisions, solicit thoughts, provide constructive criticism in return. Essentially, this is knowledge management, a way of making the transmission of knowledge throughout the organization a by product of daily work.

Baseball, of course, is a great medium for stories, and ballplayers with management ambitions soak up the many stories baseball's famous for while sitting in the dugout or clubhouse, or in socializing with coaches and scouts away from the stadium.

Stories are an excellent medium for transmitting knowledge. IBM has set up an entire facility for studying ways to optimize the knowledge transmission of stories, a baseball technique. Their champion for this approach, David Snowden, has had success applying the technique. There's a link to their work here. I don't buy their work totally, btw, because part of their theory is that the value of stories is so high it doesn't matter if they're apocryphal and fluffed or even fabricated; the deliverable is so important, it's worth fibbing to achieve it. I believe if you enthuse people with a story and they find out it's not true, you'll have a hard time convincing them only the facts were fibs, the message is true nevertheless.

Mentoring is cheaper than producing procedures manuals, even low-cost manuals. Does your organization use this technique?


Another technique for steeping an organization in "The Book" without truckloads of manuals is to bring everyone together to work on the same things using the same methods.

Branch Rickey innovated this when he came to the Brooklyn Dodgers from the St. Louis Cardinals. He had all the minor league organizations working the same drills as the players from the big club, and for at least part of spring training, on adjacent fields and at times, mingled.

Really big organizations can't do this for days on end, but many do bring everyone physically together for a company meeting. Too often, those kinds of meetings are just to announce results or to party. Healthy organizations bring people together to learn common lessons, too. The Snowden/IBM method can work well in this kind of venue, since stories are a shorthand way of transmitting knowledge. And of course, every organization tries to do this with memos and newsletters, the minimally effective approach.

Does your outfit take advantage of the Dodger model beyond the bare minimum of memos and newsletter articles?


The Baltimore Orioles organization under Paul Richards created a model where all the managers exchanged common wisdom and produced a way of doing things, The Oriole Way, that provided that organization a comparative advantage for years. Much of this ended up being actually written down, but the essence of it was developing it at the top, refining it though the life experience of middle management, and then bringing the results of testing it back up through the system.

Big non-baseball organizations aren't systematic about this percolation style. They do tend to transmit mandates and orders from the top and push them down, but without the line managers' wisdom being infused and blended on the way down and then having the tested outcomes pushed back up the chain for incorporation to ensure evolution of The Way.

Beyond baseball it is possible to do this. It takes planning, the unusual foundation of a healthy executive team that both has a leash on its individual egos and cares about long-term results, and a relentless pursuit of continual re-examination of results.


It is possible to use all three baseball techniques to diffuse proper procedures throughout an organization with only minor effort and almost no friction. They're cheaper and more effective than the status quo. They only require understanding why the baseball model works so much better than what most big organizations do today.

In the next entry, I'll discuss baseball's "The Book", and how it evolves, and the lessons that contains for helping you see that your own organization's ways of getting things done evolve properly and don't just fester like some expensive Maginot Line that turns your strengths into weaknesses.

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