Saturday, February 19, 2005

Minnesota Twins' Cosmic Enlightenment:
Success Through Knowing
the Contributor Is Not the Job Description  

One of the most common whiffs in big organization management is one they foolishly view as a big hit. That's the manager deluding himself the job description (a title, a set of tasks and directions) is the same things as the actual contributor doing the job. Michelle is a CFO. Derek is a shortstop. Geoffrey is a major general.

One of the secrets to the Minnesota Twins' chronic success is that they don't delude themselves that way.

Of course, this "the contributor is the job description" approach was net-positive early in the last century. It took hold when the military and then as a result manufacturing organizations divided jobs into finer and finer pieces of defined work. Careful division enabled machines/equipment to produce mass quantities of standardized output. At the bottom layers of an organization, job descriptions were defined around technologies, so that each person became a midwife to the machine he worked with. As you moved up the hierarchy, job descriptions were defined around controlling and making uniform the output from the people-who-were-the-machines'-peripherals.

This movement, because it was successful at producing income- & output efficiencies in its early stages, became what many ideas which are very successful in early, moderate applications become. A Cult.

Simple-minded adherents figure if a tablespoon is useful, a quart must be better. Followers of F.W. Taylor's theories (rolled into a belief system called Taylorism) ultimately worked his useful ideas into a Cult through roughly the following set of conclusions:

  • Machines are hard-working and close to predictable while humans are not.
  • Machines are superior to humans.
  • Why can't humans be more like machines?
  • If we treat humans like they were machines, they will approximate the benefits we get from machines.
  • The more we treat humans as machines, the more benefit we can get from them. People and their skills can be better managed as though they are machines.

If you're training lieutenants or QC line inspectors, uniformity and predictability are core elements of success, but that was true even in only a tiny minority of jobs. Taylorists took this model off the battlefield and factory floor and applied it to office work and even, eventually, creative endeavors (if you doubt the latter, you've never watched TV sitcoms, where every rôle is as uniformly & tightly defined from show to show as brake drums coming off an assembly line). So even those staffers who weren't midwives to machines had their talents constrained by this expensive delusion that was not even vaguely efficient outside of its original context.

Many managers grew up in their careers taking the Cult that Taylorism became as Truth. Baseball is a fantastic filter to expose the fallacy. Some teams' scouting and field managers follow the Cult to some degree, but most don't, and the ones that don't perform better over time.

For years, observers looking at the Twins' opening day roster and knowing the team owners' tight-fistedness would imagine that failure was right around the corner. But the Twins are as adept at winning games and getting into the playoffs as any team is. One of their success techniques is the realization that the job description is not the player and that a definition made at any stage along the player's career might change to get better output from the contributor in what is then the current context.

This week an interview with team skipper Ron Gardenhire graced the pages of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Three of the answers to the reporter's questions displayed both this realization and how you can apply it as a manager yourself.

Q: Coaches believe that Michael Cuddyer has looked more comfortable at second than third. How do you feel about playing him at third?
A: He could still play second if Luis Rivas comes in and doesn't play well. I could put Cuddy over at second. Then I can put [Eric] Munson at third or Terry Tiffee. I've got options. There's lot of things that could happen here, but I want Cuddyer over at third. I think it is time. I think he is comfortable in the major leagues and has been able to make adjustments to different roles. I think he likes second base a lot, but he also understands the opportunity to get 400-500 at-bats at third, and I think he's ready for it.

Even in the majors, they've been using one of their leading prospects, Michael Cuddyer, in different positions on the field. They didn't define him as a third-baseman or a second-baseman, or even a utility infielder. They defined him, in part because of their own requirements, as a player who got appearances at a couple of positions while he matured and got used to the league. That also gave them insights into his aptitudes at a major league level.

This management awareness is especially rare with a leading prospect. While a young player of middling expectation will frequently be tracked to be a utility player or swing-man, it's the low expectations themselves that determine management investing little attention in exactly how the player can be best applied. Cuddyer is a high-ranked Twin prospect, and the temptation with those hopefuls is to define them early and tightly into a defined rôle. That simplifies management's work (one less thing to have to think about is a benefit).

Please note, also, this rejection of the Cult that Taylorism became isn't just about making Cuddyer feel good. Cuddyer "likes second base a lot", but it's not about the player's preferences, it's about what makes the most success for the team and the player.

Beyond baseball, managers too often mistakenly view the contributor as the job title he has, or constrain her possible contributions to what's delineated on the job description. If you don't experiment to discover what your staffer does well, you're most likely pimping your employer and yourself, leaving unused benefits to you and your organization unharvested.

Q: Do you view Joe Mays as your No. 5 starter?
A: I hate putting numbers on things. I view him as being one of our starters. He has to prove he's healthy and can get hitters out. We want Joe back. We've got some money behind this guy, and we hope he lives up to his contract.

Gardenhire is working from the idea that the player is not the job description. If you define someone as a #5 starter or a #1 starter, you're crazy-glued to the preconception that she is a borderline contributor or an ace. This is another example of lazy thinking. It provides the manager a chance to stop experimenting, to reduce or stop observation, to reduce or stop mentoring and training. If Mays gets hot, Gardenhire will use him as though he's pitching well (the reality of Mays' performance, not the job description)

Staffers, you'll find, are more like major league pitchers than you'd like to think: Most are inconsistent. They have areas of weakness and strength for sure, but over time these evolve, and, of course, on any given day each might be playing to her full potential or be having an off day in the field or something in between. You have to stay alert and observant for these changes, even if its inconvenient to your sense of comfort. There's probably little you can do as a manager that will yield more torque than observing your staffers and applying those observations to deliver actions. Too many managers define the contributor as a #5 starter and dissipate the organization's investment by not getting the most out of him.

Q: Have you kicked around a few lineups yet?
A: Oh, you do that all winter. Some people have great ideas in these papers. I've read the Internet and read projected lineups. It's all very entertaining. First, you have to see who will be in the lineup before you start writing down lineups. The big thing in spring is getting guys at-bats. So, if I think a guy is not getting enough at-bats, you'll see me bat him first or second so he can get more at-bats.

Beyond baseball, it's a useful convenience to be able to have a lineup in mind before a project starts. Who will do what, and when. You need to have some concept of it when playing out the project plan, at least a workable model. But more often than not with human contributors, you get injuries and hot streaks and cold streaks, and you have to cobble together a lineup on any given day based on what the environment offers up, shifting tasks, borrowing or loaning resources, creating ad-hoc work teams, re-examining basic assumptions. If you spend too much time mourning the inability to field your pre-conceived lineup, you are likely to either try to stick with it even if it isn't working, or to keep trying to force your staff into your pre-conceived hopes in a Procrustean way.

Don't get ahead of yourself. Defined rôles tend to be useful to a manager (reducing the number of decisions you have to make) and tend to be easy on players (don't have to flex themselves as much). But the net-benefit tends to be significantly less than a flexible approach achieves, and certainly so in an organization where the talent is the product.

A lot of the defenders of the Cult that evolved from Taylorism like to think, or at least argue, that alternatives are "new age" or touchy-feelie. That's merely part of their delusion.

It's not "humanism" to break away from the Cult that Taylorism became, or even humanitarian. It's just the cold assessment that it doesn't work and can't work in most workplaces outside of Red Chinese prison labor camps, maquiladora sweat shops and TV sitcom development. Thinking anything else is a delusion of the magnitude that thinking that machines can be like people (which is not only a delusion but sick, if you think about it -- who would want a machine to be like a person? What possible advantage could it have over a machine being a machine?). Letting the outmoded, implicit assumptions spawned by the Cult that Taylorism became limits your ability to advance productivity in the group you manage.

If you doubt it, just watch the Minnesota Twins' changes year to year, the enlightened way they use the small-budget talent they have flexibly to persist in being competitive.

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