Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Gross Nationals' Product: Endometriosis Chávez
or When the Dud Thuds  

Washington Nationals lead-off hitter & starting center-fielder Endometriosis "Endy" Chávez, the only professional ballplayer named after a nasty medical condition, became a minor leaguer yesterday.

Exactly how this occurred is explained by the dean of American baseball writers, Thomas Boswell in an article that appeared today (courtesy Baseball Primer). Chávez did something that American staff in non-baseball organizations do too frequently, and the Nationals' management approach is instructive: it's risky but the potential benefit is greater than the potential cost, and is therefore worth learning and perhaps applying.

Chávez, as lead-off hitter and starting center fielder has three main performance objectives that relate specifically to his team role (he has others in common with many other players, but these three are his custom ones).

  1. As a lead-off hitter, get on base by any means legal (primary objective),
  2. Be an active baserunner, get into scoring position and torment the opposition's defense,
  3. Cover a lot of range in center field.

Now, Endometriosis is not a big star; he doesn't hit for a lot of power, so management can't afford to cut him a lot of slack on his performance objectives -- his value as an ordinary young performer is closely tied to his personal performance objectives. "Endy" not only failed to meet his primary objective, he didn't bother to try. He didn't jump-start himself to do it, he didn't do it once management made it clear that was his primary task this Spring. He didn't push back, he just didn't, like the rare contributors all over American organizations, lift a finger to do anything to meet the objective.

According to the Boswell story:

What the Nationals asked of leadoff man and center fielder Endy Chavez wasn't much.

They just wanted him to get on base 4 percent more often than he did last year. That's all -- 4 percent. And it would have been so easy. Everybody showed him how. But, for some reason, Chavez couldn't or wouldn't listen. All advice was ignored. No attempt at improvement was made. For weeks the camp has buzzed with befuddled amazement at Chavez's oblivious inability to sense the precariousness of his position. His career was slipping away and everybody knew it.

Except him.

Yesterday, in a stunning move that some hope will finally serve as a wakeup call, the Nats shipped Chavez to the minor leagues even though it meant making an enormous mess of the entire Washington lineup less than a week from Opening Day.

{SNIP}"I've agonized with him," Robinson said. But to the manager's amazement, when he told Chavez he was being shipped out, the 27-year-old seemed not to understand how everything had gone so wrong. "It was strange," Robinson said, twice.

{SNIP}It should never have come to this because that 4 percent improvement could have come so easily. In baseball stats terms, 4 percent is the difference between Chavez's atrocious .318 on-base percentage last year and a mark near .360 that would be acceptable for a speedy leadoff-hitting center fielder.

Please, Endy, the Nats begged, listen to us. Robinson, hitting coach Tom McCraw, General Manager Jim Bowden and coach Jose Cardenal, as well as several teammates, all made the same point. Endy, we like you. We need your glove in center field. But our offense was the second-worst in baseball last year. We can't afford a .318 leadoff anchor. If you don't improve -- not a lot, but just a little -- you're going to lose your job. Just show us you're trying. Just make progress.

{SNIP}As he packed his bags in the middle of the Washington locker room, chatting in somber tones with Cardenal, Chavez seemed almost numb. He refused to comment to reporters. But everybody else had plenty to say.

"Potential is great. But you've got to perform. We tried everything we could. I told him, 'Endy, if I had one more 40 home-run bat, I could afford a defensive center fielder who doesn't get on base. But with this team, I can't,' " Bowden said.

"This was our most difficult decision of the spring . . . Maybe it makes a statement in the clubhouse. The players that make the adjustments that we ask them to make to improve themselves are the ones who are going north with us," Bowden said.

{SNIP}The most perplexed person may be Robinson. "We weren't asking him to do anything he isn't capable of doing," the manager said. "But he had two walks in 37 at-bats this spring. Two. Not walking, not bunting, just swinging. That's not enough to keep a job up here. . . . But he came in here like he wasn't worried about anything."

The primary performance objective is not some sudden, unique requirement invented by the Nationals for some custom purpose. It's not even that difficult for someone with Chávez' underlying physical skill set and experience, like learning how to correctly pronounce the number seven in Swedish. It's intrinsic to baseball and there are a number of ways to do it: learn the strike zone so you can walk an additional 1-in-19 plate appearances, or allow yourself to get hit on the arm or glutes by an inside pitch once in a while, or learn to bunt. Mastering any one of those things would have met his primary objective, or just getting barely-adequate at all of them would have done the trick, too.

While he was continuing to meet his objectives #2 and #3, Endometriosis just festered on the one that counted most. The team sent him down. It's not a cheap decision for them. They don't feel they have anyone on the 40-man roster with lead-off hitting skills (on-base ability & speed), so at the end of Spring training, they are shuffling the deck and are going to have to try to work out a replacement by experimenting during the regular season when games count, or work out a trade under duress. This was not a trivial move for Washington to take. But it was one they believed they had to take.

This Clueless Contributor problem is widespread but just rare enough (thank Ahura and Mazda both) that managers can find themselves without an idea of how to deal with it. I'm going to give you a couple of tools, but first I'll tell you about an example from my own experience, an employee I'll call "Ben Davis".

You wouldn't think there would be many of these types left standing in American business, but this happened since the economic implosion that made decent-paying jobs scarcer than an "Endy" lead-off walk. That makes it more mystifyin', because the general anxiety in the work world post-implosion makes most people strive a little harder to please the supervisor.

Ben was a team member that the IT group assigned to a small-team project I was working on. He would get assignments and not do them. You could ask "where are you on your schedule?" and he'd reply, "fine". But you'd never get any real work out of him. It just wouldn't arrive. He take a sudden two-day vacation that started on the day some deliverable was due. Moreover, if you assigned him tasks A, B, C and D, he'd do none of them, but you might get G or H, or nothing at all. He might actually deliver some piece of assigned work, but it would be totally or mostly useless. When he was in front of you, he was courteous and seemingly intelligent, but of no actual use.

It's incredibly costly when a member of a small team becomes a no-op because there's not much flexibility in making up for one contributor's chronic lack of productivity.

There were three factors that made Ben Davis what he was. His supe, the IT Manager, had no supervisory skills and this was exacerbated by staff cutbacks that didn't mesh well with the manager's desire to keep the IT project pipeline full. The supe was super busy, clueless about staff performance in general, and Ben Davis wasn't even reporting to him on this project. Davis' boss on the project was a project manager, a person who, because of his own people-management shortcomings, had become a project manager instead of a supervisor (project managers usually don't supervise people, just inanimate work objects). The project manager didn't want to do what it took to force Ben Davis to either get the work done or do what it would take to get him off the project.

The pattern I've noticed in Ban Davises is that they tend to have some form of attention deficit disorder, a lack of intelligence, OR come from a sub-generation of people who run roughly from 26-35 years old. Why that sub-generation? I'm not sure why, but I'll offer up a quick w.a.g.: When these folk were adolescents, success as described by leading communication outlets such as TV and news seemed to be disconnected from actual accomplishment, and some imprinted on the idea that work achieved and success were somehow not linked. Dot-bomb millionaires, Enron, Milli Vanilli, Chainsaw Al Dunlap, et.al. Some people came away imprinted with the idea that just showing up and looking good was enough. And in our society today, that's actually true in many cases (though not in the true crucible of management, baseball).

So what can you do with a Ben Davis?

For one thing, you never leave her alone until the problem is fixed. As a manager, you have to focus relentlessly, daily on what the Ben Davis can do better. This is my suggested sequence, moving down the list if you're not getting enough torque out of the Ben Davis:

  1. Figure out what work tasks the person can do and does do, and then anchor the contributor's work around those tasks.
  2. Ask what kind of help the Davis needs and try to provide it.
  3. Monitor the Davis' work on a daily basis, meeting at the end of each day to dissect that day's progress and set up tasks-to-be-achieved for tomorrow.
  4. Assign a mentor, a peer who has had success doing this kind of work, to help guide the Davis on a daily basis.
  5. Probation.
  6. Drop from the Major League roster -- purge the plaque.

The Chávezes and Ben Davises need the daily feedback because that's your best chance to wake them up. If someone really is imprinted on the lack of connection between accomplishment and "success", you want to try as a manager to disabuse them of it. You may not succeed. Ther person may be too unmotivated, too protected by her work situation to have to try, too lacking in intelligence or ability to focus attention to be able to learn the content of what the job requires.

But don't do nothing. The Chávezes need to be sent down if they don't pick it up, not just because of the contribution you're losing from keeping them on your roster, but because it's demoralising to the rest of your roster for you to let an Endometriosis fester.

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