Saturday, January 29, 2005

Christy Mathewson, Big Ed Delehanty &
The Notorious BIG's Gregorian Chant Album  

One of the most challenging human tendencies to overcome is also one of the most damaging to management success. That tendency is to rest on a presumption until it's outmoded, but act on it without questioning it.

You sneeze and an acquaintance or stranger says "Bless you" or "Gesundheit", a call-and-response devised centuries ago to prevent evil spirits (or the batting stance of Craig Counsell) from inhabiting your body. The father of American Anthropology Alfred Kroeber named these autonomic, unexamined behaviors "survivals". Like the useless buttons on the end of suit jacket sleeves that clothing makers almost always add, these are things that are done, unquestioned, with motivation invisible to the actor. They just do it because they do it. And they like to repeat these guidelines as advice to newcomers, perpetuating the wierdness.

In baseball the examples are more obvious to an observer than they are in most endeavors, and Christy Mathewson told a great, elucidating story about events early in his career that woke him up to the need for eternal vigilance against missing survivals. In Pitching in a Pinch: Baseball from the Inside, he describes a 1901 game against the heavy hitting Philadelphia Phillies.

Matty is going to refer to six batters in the following story. If you're already familiar with 1901 batters, skip the rest of this paragraph; it merely compares the mentioned with contemporary players who are most-similar based on my normalizing database. Elmer Flick is the early 1900s Brian Giles. Big Ed Delehanty hit like Albert Pujols, but better and could run a little. Roy Thomas has no current similar player -- he had decent but ordinary batting average, no power and walked so much he could contend for league lead in on-base percentage. Hughie Jennings was Derek Jeter with a little more range and a little less power. Harry Wolverton was Jeff Kent in one of Kent's more nice-not-splendiferous seasons. Rip Van Haltren was the late-career Craig Biggio.

Mathewson is a rookie. He describes the series of events as starting with some well-meaning fellow players who came to him to tell him how to handle one of the great hitters of that era and of all time, Ed Delehanty. The scouting report was not to throw him anything high and hard. I quote Mathewson's words:

Being young, I took this advice, and the first time I pitched against Delehanty, I fed him curved balls. He hit these so far the first two times that one of the balls was never found, and everyone felt like shaking hands with Van Haltren, the old Giant outfielder when he returned with the other, as if he had been on a vacation some place far away.

In fact, I had been warned against giving any of this Philadelphia team of sluggers high fast ones, & I had been delivering a diet of curves to all of them, which they had been sending to the limits of the park and further, with great regularity.

At last, when Delehanty came to the bat for the third time in the game, Van Haltren walked into the box from the outfield and handed the ball to me, having come from the fence to fetch it. Elmer Flick had hit it there.

"Matty," he pleaded, "for the love of Mike, slip this fellow a base on balls and give me a chance to get my wind". Instead, I decided to switch my style and fed Delehanty high fast ones, the dangerous dose, and he struck out then, and later.

As it turned out, Mathewson had been temporarily done-in by a survival. Hitting high hard ones is pretty hard, unless you know they're coming and then it's easy and productive. As Mathewson tells it, the Phils in 1899 when playing at home (the Baker Bowl) had an injured veteran player, Morgan Murphy, sit with a pair of binoculars and read catchers' signs. Murphy relayed these to the third base coach through a buzzer system attached to a plank under the coach's box, and the coach relayed it to the hitters. So in 1899 in games at home, Phillies batters teed off on an unusual amount of high cheese and with explosively cheese-eriffic results. So the story got around that they could hit the stuff and to keep it away from them. Pitchers started throwing more off-speed against them, and if you're guessing off-speed and you're a good hitter (the Phillies had a bunch...the already mentioned, plus Roy Thomas, Hughie Jennings and Harry Wolverton) you're going to smack around the twirler who's overusing half his repertoire.

Mathewson continues:

But after the buzzer had been discovered & the delivery of pitchers could not be accurately forecast, this ability to hit the high fast ones vanished but not the tradition. The result was this Philadelphia club was getting a steady diet of curves and hitting them hard, not expecting anything else.

When I first pitched against Delehanty, his reputation as a hitter gave him a big edge on me. Therefore, I was willing to take any kind of advice calculated to help me, but eventually I had to find out for myself. {SNIP} Each pitcher has to find out for himself what a man is going to hit. It's alright to take advice at first, but if this does not prove to be the proper perscription, it's up to him to experiment...

To sum up: Listen to advice especially when you're starting something, but examine the results and experiment to get better results. Don't let survivals (stories, reputations, anything taken for granted) stand in the way of improvement.

I'm going to give you a tool for finding survivals to attack in the next entry, if you're interested.

Automatic behaviors and accepted wisdom enable good things. "Never make the third out at 3rd base". "Don't staple your lips together with an industrial-strength stapler" (a good baseball story on that I'll tell some time). "A guy should never take a first date to a Leonardo DiCaprio movie"."Real estate prices can never go down". "Never buy a big piece of industrial equipment built on a Monday".

But more often than not, these rules are accepted as Truth long after their context has changed so much, the context that made them true has mutated vastly. By the time Leonardo is 60 and playing the rĂ´les Jon Voight does now, it'll be safe again. That big stamper might now be being built in Red China where unions are illegal & the general rule is production-for-export is made by prison labor that works seven days a week, so the concept of "Monday" doesn't affect output quality (if you can attach the word quality to anything that comes out of that facility). But in general, we hear our rules enough to accept them and we don't question them because they simplify our lives by reducing the number of instances where we need to make a decision and because going against them has extra costs in fighting the intertia of everyone else's faith in them.

Survivals can be exhausting to fight.

I work with Turk Farrell, a total Turk of a project manager, all sharp elbows & assertion & determination to get his own way. He's well-trained and experienced so he knows the old school knowledge -- when you roll out a new system, you have to run in parallel (the old, manual system and also the new, automated system both at the same time, comparing results) for a while. In the nineties, if you don't already know this, it became the norm in most organizations to dump that model. Terribly dysfunctional change that came about because the people running the projects didn't have enough experience to realize how many implementations the act of running in parallel had saved; because the "more with less" cult had made paying for the effort and staffing it very difficult; because the vendors and people inside who implemented the projects were marinating themselves in MBWT (Management By Wishful Thinking); and running in parallel tarnished the "brand" by giving off the image of fallibility.

Turk Farrell recently worked on an automated time-keeping and payroll project. The staff wanted the new system but was used to the old and trusted it. The underlying ethos of the group was fear of making a mistake. So Turk didn't have to insist they work in parallel...they bought into it readily. But there was one hand-driven report they had always used, brutally time-consuming and actually a little redundant even before the automated system came along. They won't give up this survival. Long after the parallel runs have worked out the inevitable kinds in the system, they are still holding onto this piece joints-locked, as Charlton Heston would say "In my cold, dead hands", frittering their organization's woman-hours based on the need for buttons on the end of sleeves that will not button because there are no button holes.

Survivals can be incredibly expensive.

One of my first consults was with a savings bank in suburban Seattle. They had bank examiners coming for the first time since about the Great Depression, and they needed about eight years of a couple of specific reports they could no longer produce on new systems. They were confident that they had them somewhere in the thousands of cubic yards of greenbar printed reports stacked up, but couldn't find them, and they asked me to look at the RPG programs that had generated the reports to find how they'd been produced. The code was unenlightening, the deadline rapidly approaching. We literally printed out the programs and used an old-fashioned technique called "walking through the code", being a data object and physically following its path, which we did literally with hundreds of feet of program print out.

With a handful of hours to spare, we found the where the reports were printed. The long-gone programmer had about 12 years earlier realized the reports were never actually needed, but required by regulation to be printed out anyway. The programmer decided to append them to the end of reports people looked at but that weren't vital in day-to-day examination. Adding them to those less-used reports meant the most-used wouldn't suffer the cost of being heavier and less wieldy. There's a limit to how thick you can bind these greenbar reports, both for convenience, and because you don't want the plastic flanges to explode like Mr. Creosote when you're flipping through them or trying to stack them. So the programmer, knowing the limits of binding, spread them out over the back of a bunch of different report sets, each bound volume of which had been carefully labelled and with tables of contents that didn't include the missing-in-action reports (because no-one ever looked at or needed them). Too clever by half, as the bank president told me.

The print-outs of reports-not-needed were apparently themselves survivals. The thought they could be ignored forever, too, was a survival.

To amp up productivity question the unquestioned, examine the unexamined assumptions. You'll find survivals lurking in almost all workplaces. Buttons that don't button are plaque, using up resources that can be better used elsewhere. Oh, and regardless don't make the third out at 3rd base, and never staple your lips together with an industrial-strength stapler.

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