Sunday, March 27, 2005

St. Louis Cardinals' Technique:
Increase Productivity by Getting More Utility From Utility Players  

revised 3/28

Preston's First Law: In most organizations, you can get more gain from
turning your bad performers into average performers than you can from turning
your average performers into better-than-average performers. And it's easier.

The St. Louis Cardinals won more games than any other team in baseball last season. In looking at their accomplishments, most observers focus on the team's top line offensive leaders, the remarkable Albert Pujols, steady Scott Rolen, or hockey players Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds. And that's a valid observation because it's the extraordinary production of those stars that made the team a winning team.

But the difference between St. Louis being very good and being the winningest team is more a result of the value Cardinal management squeezes out of more average contributors and even the utility talent on the roster.

Most American organizations are incapable of making good decisions in applying the staff they have, in part because most turn common sense on its head by defining people's work by their job descriptions instead of shaping job descriptions to people's aptitudes. All baseball teams have mastered this turnaround, and the Cardinals are an especially fine example of this skill. The Cardinal lesson is worth applying in your own organization.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a story in mid-February (no longer on-line) that stated that utility-man John Mabry (nickname according to Ivan Weiss = "Frickin' ") was working on learning to play catcher as an emergency back-up for this most difficult of all positions. Mabry is never going to be a star on a decent team, but the Cards have gotten use out of him in some visits to their roster as he's bounced around the majors (St. Louis --> Seattle --> San Diego --> St. Louis --> Florida --> Philly --> Oakland --> Seattle --> St. Louis).

At age 34, Mabry and the Cards are trying this unusual experiment that when tried, doesn't always work out. It's worth the effort to the Cardinals (and most likely to you, too) as well as to Mabry for these six reasons:

  1. Cross-training before you have a need for the added ability always saves time in the long-run.
  2. Cross-training before you have a need for the added ability always reduces the cost of acquiring the skill if you need it in an emergency.
  3. Cross-training usually reduces the number of contributors you need to achieve an objective.
  4. Cross-training, when effective, usually reduces the number of staff changes you need to make to adapt to change, and staff changes are the most expensive unaccounted expense to the bottom line and to productivity.
  5. The reality of Preston's Law (cited at the top of this article) is that it's easier to tease an extra 15-20% improvement out of your lower performers than an extra 5% out of your high performers, so there's reward to harvest in getting better torque from your non-stars.
  6. Staff who are willing to seriously cross train have more to offer so it can increase their career or job options in healthy organizations.

It helps to choose the right person to cross-train. Just as the Cardinals didn't choose Pujols to be a back-up catcher because he's too valuable as is but chose Mabry because he's a useful but limited utility player, try to pick specific kinds of talent for cross-training at jobs you may need more of later. The people should be willing and capable of learning. They should be people who are so excellent at their own current assignments that you would be introducing a distraction. But note: everyone needs training; I'm not suggesting you slow or stop training of your high performers. Everyone needs to keep their skills current and informed. I am suggesting that if you are going to pick a person to take on something that is well out of their current area, you choose people whose current contributions are not exceptionally valuable as is. Someone like Mabry...good enough to keep on the team, or perhaps good enough to be on the team if she masters this other skill.

Reasons #1 and #2 alone are worth the effort. I can't tell you how many organizations inevitably try out the breathtakingly-incompetent "just in time" training approach. Some do it because they know there's a chance the trainee will use the extra skill to either try to get a raise or use it as a piece of a career move to another organization. But much like the criticism of certain productive batters for striking out too much, it's an accurate observation but of an effect that doesn't affect the value of the contributor. Hitters like Adam Dunn and Brad Wilkerson strike out a ton, and its certainly unsightly, but their overall production at the plate is very high. The chance a trainee will take those skills elsewhere is real, and it will happen, but unless you have reason to believe the otherwise-qualified staffer is already looking elsewhere, the fear of the potential problem is bigger than the potential problem itself.

And it's always been surprising to me how many organizations don't bother to train or cross-train until a crisis has occurred and the situation is an emergency. They throw someone into a fire drill of a training regime (getting someone who was hurried through the process) or spend a lot of money to bring in someone new from the outside, someone who is likely to realize they have the hiring organization over a barrel. "Real-time" management seem addicted to these MBLMHE (Management by Last Minute Heroic Effort) gambits, & no matter how often they underperform or fail miserably, the faith in them rarely seems to flag.

The Cardinals, in contrast, are training an emergency back-up catcher before it gets to be an issue...just in case. The benefit/cost ratio is very high, because the cost is fairly low, and the consequences of throwing an untrained talent into that position are brutal.

Reason #3 is a little trickier. It requires an accomplished and self-confident manager to be able to both know all her contributors' abilities and shortcomings and win over their trust enough to have a fluid redeployment of talent to various tasks on an as-needed basis. There's always some lost energy in switching assignments or tasks in mid-trajectory, but if the manager is wise about balancing this guaranteed cost with the benefits, there are a lot of advantages in speed and quality.

Reason #4, staffing costs, are a giant accounted and even bigger unaccounted cost in most organizations. Cross-trained people can move more fluidly into positions the organization needs more. If the shop doesn't shoot itself in the foot by assigning the new position to the cross-trained person while expecting her to still do her old job, too (a not-universal practice, but more a more common suicide-bombardier technique than you ever wish on your worst enemy...I had to fire a client in mid- '03 for insisting on this), it saves a lot of money and time. The cost is merely diminished a little and shifted when the outfit decides it needs to fill the cross-trained contributor's position. But the current American jobs pattern that will probably persist for at least several years beyond the end of $50 oil and dependency on Communist Chinese manufacturing is a passion for thinning staff, so increasingly, positions perceived as less important a more likely to go away than be filled when someone moves on.

Reason #5, Preston's Law, is the truth that it's easier to get big advantages out of lower-end performers than the ones who are already stars. It's common sense, but something most managers, globally, don't get, because it's less fun and many managers just accept the status quo and choose to resign themselves to the idea that lower-performers are bound to that category.

Look, the stars are already doing very well. If your tuning approaches fail, there's risk you'll disrupt the very things that make the contributor a star (in baseball, last year's failed experiment by the Mariner batting coach to tinker with Ichiro Suzuki's batting approach, which ruined the outfielder's April; once Suzuki reverted, he started nibbling the league to death). Further tuning their game yields only asymptotically. But the contributors who are currently underperforming have lots of room for improvement. Breakthroughs for those more-mortal contributors, getting one beyond one current plateau, hold great potential gains.

Finally, there's a benefit that works to the contributor's advantage, Reason #6. Like John Mabry, a cross-trained person will have more opportunities to contribute and better job security. Sure, it wouldn't help the career of David Ortiz or Jim Thome or even Edgar Renteria to be able to play catcher, as well.

Follow the lead of the baseball model on contingency planning: Offer that cross-training opportunity to someone like John Mabry, a person whose value is real but intermittent in the current scheme of things, someone who's interested in and capable of learning new skills.

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