Friday, February 17, 2006

Three Insights into Change: 1 of 3 --
"Where" Is as Important as "How Much"  

When organizations facing changes try to analyze what to expect and design tactics for coping with it, they usually focus on "how much" change. How big is the budget cut or hike? How unlike the current protocol will the new one be? How different is staffing?

Baseball has some good examples of this logic. You almost always see a late March Sunday sports section with a baseball preview like this 2005 one, where the foundation of the analysis is built on which contributors have been added, which are gone. In and of itself, it's a decent start. But where the changes occur in an organization can be a lot more important than just the gross count or even scope of them.

As Bill Madden's recent Sunday wrap from Spring Training explicated:

FORT MYERS, FL : Until Manny Ramirez arrives, the Red Sox brass must cross its fingers that he and the missus have reconciled their alleged domestic issues about Boston and rescinded their trade demands. Assuming Manny doesn't make any waves and David Wells is finally traded to San Diego without further incident in March, manager Terry Francona can concentrate on working in his new infield - Mike Lowell at third, Alex Gonzalez at short, Mark Loretta at second and Kevin Youkilis/J.T. Snow at first - as well as resolving his closer situation from among rehabbing Keith Foulke, hotshot rookie Craig Hansen and Mike Timlin.

Presuming the right-handed hitting Youkilis and the switch-hitting Snow are platooning at first, one of two situations are going to be in effect. When Snow is on the field, all four of the Sox infielders will be new to the team since 2005. And when 2005 alum Youkilis is playing first, it'll be three new contributors and a first-baseman who started the season with a grand total of 47 innings of major league experience at the position. Not a shred of continuity.

It's not fatal for the Bostons, but it's a challenge that is more challenging than the raw number of changes might make it look. It's the "where", the infield, that makes this change so disruptive. Neither first baseman has been taking throws from any of these infielders in games, and the keystone combo of Loretta and González haven't played together before. That's a ton of learning to do. The one relationship that comes pre-built is the occasional communication required between shortstop González and third-sacker Lowell, who have played together as Florida Marlins for eight years in those jobs.

It's four changes (the Sox have some others, too), but the interplay of these four positions is critical. On the 2005 Red Sox, for example, there were 1375 assists between these positions, roughly 8-1/2 times per game that infielders had to coordinate with each other defensively. It's not as though an infield captain can integrate everyone into a working whole. There's no continuity anchor who can fluidly provide leadership on who does what. It's all going to be picked up along the way by trial and error. Four player changes elsewhere (outfield, starting pitching) could give you as many new faces, but not in such a sensitive (and now uniformly re-made) area.

I hand-checked the last fifteen years of teams, and I couldn't find very many that had four new most-frequent starters at all four infield positions. I couldn't find a single one that had a winning record. Is that the effect with the cause being the all-new infield? I don't think so. It's not an experiment many teams are willing to try except under duress, and most teams can't be simultaneously under duress and loaded up with enough talent to play winning ball.

NOTE: Let me make this clear. In baseball and beyond, this level of change can be a cause of challenge, it can be the result of challenges (think of teams in the offseason between 1913, when there were two leagues that colluded effectively, and 1914, where the addition of a third league that was aggressively competing with the other two made for chaotic and competitive labor and vendor and sponsor markets). It can also be both result and cause. The Bostons may be able to work through this handicap gracefully because of other strengths -- but it'll be truly noteworthy if they do.

A former co-worker of mine worked at a big Rust Bowl company that around 2001 started to implement a big ERP program that forced changes to every single department. As anyone whose ever lived through a serious ERP project knows, the user-company either has to change all its own processes to match the software vendor's view of how things should be done, or pay a Draconian price in time and effort (and aftershocks) in trying to transform the ERP software tot he buying organization's model.

They did a pretty good job...much better than average. Most ERP implementations are bloodbaths, but this one, while tough, was deftlexecuteded. By itself, that was a massive change, but not one with ugly implications.

Right after that was digested executive management decided to outsource the company's assembly and customer service, two functions that had low perceived value, low average wages. What they missed was that both were strong components of product quality. Both required handling of external relationships as deft as the more-massive ERP implementation. Neither was vigilantly managed, since they were both viewed as commodity. Both failed. By early 2004, their marketing department found customers' perceptions of the company's offerings had turned negative.

It wasn't the amount of change that (as they say in Boston) scrod; it was ugly because while fairly small in the scheme of things, the changes were in critical areas and both pumped up the same potential flaw.

A manager can affect good changes with small, strategically placed changes, too. For example, the New York Mets have retained the services of Paul LoDuca at catcher. He's not an offensive force (though he has been adequate), but he will affect (and should affect for the better) every pitcher who has been throwing to his predecessor, Mike Piazza. While Piazza is generally regarded as having had the greatest hitting career of any catcher who has ever played in the majors, his pitchers haven't gotten much help from his game-calling, while LoDuca is considered by soem experts to be one of the best game-callers in the sport. If they are right, every starter stands to gain incremental effectiveness from LoDuca's work. It's only one change, but it ripples throughout the organization. In the same way, a client I've been working for just replaced a struggling production manager with a new, ultra-competent one. Because he's much more effective than his predecessor was, logistically-adjacent departments have made a greater effort to deliver to schedule. There's more time to catch errors. Customers are going to get product earlier and, I suspect, with higher quality.

The whole organization is getting tuned because of this one small but vital change.

THE KEY QUESTION IS ¿Will the 2006 Red Sox be the first team in fifteen years to rack up a winning record with an entirely replaced infield cohort? It's quite possible, although it's equally possible that injuries could put Youkilis back to 3rd base, breaking up this perfect storm of change.

Either way, with change, you need to examine the "where" as closely as the "how much".

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