Saturday, December 04, 2004

PART I: Stealing 3rd - Ichiro Suzuki's Mastery
of Tools, Synthesis & Self-Awareness  

Third base in the MBB management model is self-awareness, knowing how your own personality traits and biases and habits invisibly tug you towards certain responses to situations, and how to control those impulses so you can make better decisions.

One of the planet's great masters of self-awareness is Ichiro Suzuki. I suspected it but didn't actually know it until I read his recently released book, Ichiro on Ichiro: Conversations with Narumi Komatsu (Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2004). It's not a great book (few baseball bios as-told-to are), but it has some great insights of use to managers in their everyday work, because Suzuki is totally rigorous in his mental approach to the game (you'll never hear him say about what he does on the field the two cop-outs less-introspective players do: The Lord did this through me or see the ball/hit the ball). He's as precise and doggedly experimental as a bio-engineer about his approach to his craft.

It's one of the reasons that while Suzuki is not really an MVP, he's clearly at the top of the MWP (Most Watchable Player) list both for me and many serious observers of the game. An important aspect of that watchability is his relentlessly analytical approach to making himself effective.

One of his self-awareness advantages is working with what the environment gives you. Most managers fail at this skill. They succeed with a certain set of techniques in a specific situation and when a similar situation comes up later, they autonomically apply the same package of techniques. What is past is prologue, ya know?

It never pays to ignore past success or failure. And doing what you did before, doing what you've totally mastered before, is much easier than standing back and rebuilding an overall plan from scratch, it's much cheaper in time and effort.

But environments, moments, other things change. Not only that, but the very definition of what constitutes success can change.

If you're Maury Wills and you can steal bases and the team you bat leadoff for wins precisely because you can steal bases in a low run-scoring environment, it's hard to have the self-awareness that when you manage in a much-higher scoring environment, base stealing doesn't correlate very well with winning. It wasn't that Maury Wills was wrong in thinking his base-stealing success made his team successful, it was that he was wrong to think of "success" as a static goal unaffected by the environment. Just like airlines that planned for fuel to always be priced below replacement or Starbucks assumed people in Chicago would uniformly like the same ultra-dark incinerator roast people in Seattle uniformly liked, or or or.

Wills' lack of self-awareness (equating his own historical success factors with some over-arching definition of "success") made him perhaps the worst baseball manager of the second half of the 20th century, no mean accomplishment. Suzuki, on the other hand presumed environmental change would change the way he needed to approach his craft -- he never assumed his title-winning batting methods that put him at the top of statistical measure in Japan would work when facing MLB pitchers in MLB parks with MLB umps.

Here's an exchange I transcribe (extra typos probably mine) from pages 16-17 of the book, with the interviewer's questions in italics.

In the beginning American sportswriters and reporters where saying "This Ichiro Suzuki hits everything to left field. Why doesn't he hit to right?" Apparently it was a hot topic of conversation. Lou Piniella, your manager, also seemed concerned you were hitting everything to the opposite field and not pulling any pitches. And it does seem true that in the early stages you were hitting everything to left. After a certain point when you started hitting to right as well, Piniella told reports, "That's what I've been waiting to see. If he could hit to right all this time, I want to tell him, 'Hey, why did you wait so long to show me that?' " Was there some reason you were hitting like that?

{snip} This is a little complicated , but first of all has to do with the strike zone. The major-league strike zone, compared to Japan's, is much wider on the outside. I had to get used to this. Inside pitches, if they're over the plate, are strikes (in MLB), but different from Japan, if they miss one balls' width on the inside, they're seldom called a strike. I'm not saying they never are, but compared to pitches on the outside of the plate, they're much less often called strikes.

If the pitch is on the outside of the plate, one ball width outside, it's often called a strike (in MLB), right?

That's right. I have to be a much more aware of outside pitches than when I was playing in Japan. As I stand in the batter's box, I have to somehow handle outside pitches while also paying attention to the ones on the outside part of the plate. But it's really hard to pay attention to inside pitches that are one or two balls' width outside. Which means I have to focus my concentration on the outside of the plate where it's easy to get called on strikes. {snip} And then if you hit those pitches on the outside, they're naturally going to go to left.

So Suzuki, attentive to differences in his environment worked with what he got (a lot of outside pitches he had to swing at), paid attention to what was different (the relatively far-outside pitches) and did the best thing you can do with them (hit them the opposite way), which to some degree cost him some hits he might have had on inside pitches because he had to make the adjustment.

This worked for him. It sucked away a lot of what power he had in Japan, but it made him the most successful singles hitter of a generation, and while singles are not the greatest thing ever, if you can generate them at the rate Ichiro does, you are going to help your team. So while Piniella wanted to move Suzuki to batting third in the Mariner team line-up, Suzuki had analysed the situation better than Piniella had and saw that to be successful, he had to adapt to what his skill-set & the environment would give him. He couldn't be the mean-average-power-plus-top-average batter he had been in Japan, nor the power-hitting Edgar Martinez-with-speed Piniella wet-dreamed he could be. If the MLB umps had a strike zone that paralleled the Japanese leagues' zone, perhaps he could have been, but instead of fighting the strike zone, he worked with it.

He didn't allow his past success to fog up his thinking about success in the present situation and environment.

There are far more Wills-es in big-organization management positions than Suzukis. Entire giant businesses are built on investing up front in creating or copying a stable model and cookie-cutting solutions against it, limiting development costs or research. Wall Street loves the for-profits that do this. Big-time consulting itself is based, more than anything else, on this concept (creating a solid solution and selling it over and over to many customers, regardless of environmental specifics or context differences). Governments are sucked into this one-size-fits-all solution by gravitational forces, and the bigger the governmental unit, the more attractive the approach seems and the stronger the gravitational field is this key diseconomy of scale.

Big organizations, larded with this overhead, struggle to achieve organizational self-awareness, and this inertia reifies the tendency into management behavior. They further struggle to spare any overhead resources for self-analysis, larded as they are already with the effects of lack of self-awareness.

Stealing 3rd base, even for a skilled sack-pilferer, is a challenging accomplishment that doesn't happen often. Managers successfully getting to 3rd base in the MBB Model is easier, but less-frequently accomplished.

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