Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tampa Bay Devil Rays:
Writing Chapter 1 of the Turnaround Manual  

If you want to observe lessons in how to turnaround a failed or failing organization, you can't do better than to start with a few baseball lessons.

One of the most consistent failures in baseball is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization. Courtesy of Retrosheet.Org, the Ray's finishes since their inception:

Year Team     G    W    L   RS   RA  PL 
1998 TB     162   63   99  620  751  5E
1999 TB     162   69   93  772  913  5E
2000 TB     161   69   92  733  842  5E     
2001 TB     162   62  100  672  887  5E     
2002 TB     161   55  106  673  918  5E     
2003 TB     162   63   99  715  852  5E    
2004 TB     161   70   91  714  842  4E 

They've failed in a number of ways. As an expansion team, they had only a so-so draft. Then they tried to blast their way into contention with a monocultural slow slugging offense that didn't work. Then they drafted very well, acting as though they were willing to lose in the near term to give young players filed time to sharpen their chops, and this enabled them to set aside money for a run if they ever got decent. Then they got decent, good enough to be a .500 team, but didn't invest the money they'd allocated that might have kept them competitive. That cost them the services of their beloved manager who'd been lied to about the owners' interest in winning. Then they added inanity to impotence with the most incompetent marketing tricks since the 1988 Pittsburgh Pirates' Felix Fermin game-worn sweatsock giveaway.

But new ownership has taken the helm this year and wanted to get off to a quick start in the makeover department. Most organizations will change some of the more obvious faces in front of the public, and Tampa Bay did this with a smart and judicious trio of decisions.

They hired Andrew Friedman, to be a young GM with a very different background who could bring in tested ideas that weren't widely-used inside baseball. They brought in an experienced and successful executive to complement him, Gerry Hunsicker, who'd helped build the Houston Astro team that has had such a successful run in the last few years. Then they hired a new manager, Joe Maddon, and while he isn't as well-known as his predecessor Lou Piniella, like Hunsicker, he's got experience with winning teams.

Most turnaround efforts might have gotten that right. But it's the universally powerful and rarely-used supercharge technique, one of my own favorites, that I suspect will make the most difference in their effort to gain respectability.

According to a story by Alexis Muellner in the Tampa Bay Business Journal, executive management are finding out all the turnaround knowledge stored in the heads of the Devil Ray line staff.

Until then (the new ownership group took charge), the culture within the organization was oppressive, stifling and negative, Silverman told a crowd of more than 150 at the Tampa Bay Business Journal's Power Breakfast series Tuesday.

"Fear governed the entire workplace," he said. "I knew it because I lived it for two years."

The problem wasn't the employees, he said, nor the market. {SNIP}

Before announcing the ownership control change to the public last October, employees were gathered, given comment cards, hard hats, new polo shirts, and empowered to be ambassadors to a fan base and the corporate sector that had been alienated. More than half of the Rays' employees have been with the organization for six years or more. 

There's a large contingent that has been there since inception 10 years ago. But until now, they were never tapped for their insight, and the office had a culture of closed doors, Silverman said. Meetings that used to comprise two or three people now contain eight.

"Comment cards keep flowing in to this day," he said. Among them was an idea to create a giant fish tank with live Rays swimming in it, which has come to fruition and is being built in collaboration with The Florida Aquarium. "The change has been radical," said Silverman. "There was great institutional knowledge," he said, and the club as adopted something Silverman said he learned while working at Goldman Sachs: "Our people are our greatest asset."

This is information that's usually ignored. If management had been open to the ideas, they would already have tried them out. Listening to them provides a couple of frozen ropes..

The first benefit is that by being listened to, the employees of a sick organization get some rays of hope, and hope triggers higher effort and usually better morale. The second benefit is a lot of ideas. They not all good ideas, but you can be confident they haven't been acted on, and that means every single one is an opportunity to cut some new patterns. By not being MBAs or business majors, the line staff who have been ignored will have stored a ton of ideas no one has had the guts to try. And line staff know a lot of details, inefficiencies, tangles, blockages, that the management that created them haven't seen or refuse to see. The more the situation needs redirection and redesign, the more likely it is the brunt of the pain will have been borne by the line staff, the more likely it is they will buy into changes, even uncomfortable ones.

I'm not suggesting you implement all proffered ideas without considering their value. But if you listen with an open mind and involve a large number of people in steering a turnaround, you have a lot more torque at your disposal. In manufacturing, of course, this is s.o.p., and in many aggressive manufacturing organizations, it's a vital core of their process (check out lean manufacturing blogs, such as my favorite, Learning About Lean, by Joe Ely -- and check out his "Gang of Seven", collaborators who attack from multiple angles specific business problems). In other lines of work, it's just as effective (perhaps more so because fewer competitors have the guts to do it, so it delivers more difficult-to-match innovations).

And one last note: I have had good luck starting at the bottom of the hierarchy and working my way up. And start implementing at least a few promising ones within 48 hours. This tends to electrify the people you haven't talked with yet. As I already mentioned, the higher up you go, the more likely the ideas have been heard and acted upon, so there is a denser backlog of opportunities waiting to be acted on at the bottom of the org chart.

The Devil Rays are not guaranteed to turn it around because they have chosen to involve staff in redesigning the methods & processes of the organization. They are guaranteed not to be replaying the same old crud like a Seth McClung bloodbath that will just never end. They will be  trying something different with broad internal energy.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter