Friday, April 21, 2006

Enron Field Meets Dilbert:
Corporate Naming Rights for Management Flubs  

Corporations' executive teams like to shell out their shareholders' money for the rights to name almost everything related to baseball. We have stadia like Enron Field. We have the In n' Out Burger Seventh Inning Stretch. We got the 2nd National Trust of Marshallton Bring in The Reliever golf cart. We haven't yet bar-coded the radio color-man and sold him off ("Here's The Citibank Ralph Kiner Postgame Interview"). But my astute colleague Martin Marshall sent me one of those classic apocryphal internet messages because it had great Management by Baseball lessons in it.

It was an epiphany. Because this "Stupidity in Action" message contained what were allegedly the top ten "Dilbert Quotes," stupid things managers said. Since the boneheads' corporate affiliations were made explicit, I think each of these sayings give the corporate owner naming rights over a classic baseball blunder.

How about...


Dilbert award winner from an alleged UPS manager: This project is so important we can't let things
that are more important interfere with it.

Gene Mauch is one of the most respected, and least successful baseball managers of the second half of the twentieth century. He was respected, because he knew what all the moves were and how to make them. He was a great role model for many more successful followers. His limitation was, he didn't flex much. "The Book" is heuristics, a flexible set of guidelines, and Mauch just had his probability tables in his head and followed them. After a while, other managers could predict with very good certainty what Mauch would do, undermining his effectivenes.

Most baseball managers, and the handful of really good ones beyond baseball, react to system feedback. Most managers would have realized they were being scoped out and they would tweak their approaches to meet competitors' moves. Mauch never let that get in the way of what he knew. One manager who faced Mauch a bunch said he could play the man like a fiddle -- if he wanted to get rid of a certain pitcher early on, he'd put up a specific pinch hitter, knowing Mauch would react just so. In 26 seasons, many of them for dreadful teams he inherited or for an expansion franchise, Mauch made the playoffs twice. He was a good sensible solid manager, but not a winner. Like UPS' corporate flub dude, he never let more important things like winning interfere with the core precepts he knew were really really important to his own world view. That's why Gene Mauch posthumously gets the United Parcel Service Failure-to-Flex Self-Immolation Habit.


Dilbert award winner from an alleged Delco (Delphi) manager: Doing it right is no excuse
for not meeting the schedule.

The Mariners' Michael Morse is one of the most enthusiastic, aggressive players in the game. He's really fun to watch. He plays with an almost-Cuban baseball joy and flair -- but unlike a Cuban player, without a shadow of a dream of a shred of instinct for the task at hand. He runs the bases as though speed in getting to the next base was the end in itself, not being safe. I've seen him picked off, gunned down trying for the extra base on a single, smoked trying to steal. He's comparable to a really confused beer-league softball baserunniner in the late innings after a feww to many brewskis. The thing is, for a guy his size, he's kinda fast. He knows it. He likes it. He's desperate to succeed. He simply has no idea how to do it right.

Goal oriented people who hate "the process" can be effective as long as they are aiming at the right goal and they don't let quality suffer more than the goal can handle in the end. Like Michael Morse, the managers who sent the Space Shuttle up in out-of-spec bad weather against the objections of their scientists, ignoring the advice because they were trying to privatize the program and needed an aggressive schedule to prove its potential profitability, meeting the schedule, not doing it right, became the goal. Morse, of course, never killed anyone with his lack of acuity, the NASA managers killed a bunch, as well as vaporizing assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars and setting back their agency's program several years.

So Mike, until you accidentally kill someone with your Runaway Train routine, you are the proud recipient of the Delco (Delphi) Willy-Nilly Quality is Job #8 Failed One-Out Steal of Home nod.


Dilbert award winner from an alleged AT&T Long Lines supervisor:
We know that communication is a problem, but
the company is not going to discuss it with the employees..

In the American League's 1940 campaign, the strong Cleveland Indians' squad had a real martinet of a manager. Ossie Vitt was a good-field, no-hit third baseman from the 1910's (a common model for that era that's almost extinct now as a result of the livlier ball which downplays the returns of buntng) who was in his third season. His management theory was "If you don't have soemthing insulting or cruel to say, don't say it".

In June, the team revolted and many, perhaps all of the players on the squad (the story varies and an ugly incident like this is bound to plaque up with apocrypha like a bad artery with cholesterol) signed a petition to have Vitt removed. When the talent is the product, and the talent's feelings are running strong, it pays in all endeavors, not just baseball, to do what the talent wants. If there's a clear right and wrong, you can make a decision based on it. But when the core of a conflict is generational difference or a matter of personal style, there is no right or wrong, only the need to make the correct, highest-yield decision. Cleveland's principal owner took the manager's side against most/all of the talent because...well, hard to tell. From a management perspective there's no rational reason. By reduction, one can only assume it was one of those "we're management, we can do anyhting we like" moments where people in power want to impose their will on the talent because they can. In Bradley's case, it went much farther. He enlisted the press in ad hominem attacks on the players, and the writers who covered the team labelled the individual players "crybabies". The fans joined in with some McCarthyism of their own, using the term the press had coined adding to the bad stress.

The team, surprisingly, didn't collapse. They just started playing less well. Through June, they'd played 42-25 (.627 )ball and after June, with the "Crybabies" harangue clanging in the papers and from the stands, they went 47-40 (.540), not a collapse, but just not good enough to stay ahead of the Detroit Tigers who beat the Tribe out by a single game. There's no mathematical proof the Indians would have won it if Vitt had been replaced with an equally talented manager but one without a behavior disorder. But it's been my experience that shops with good talent working for non-communicative or martinet managers always underperform at least a little, and I believe there's a strong argument to be made that the 1940 Indians without the quotidian barrage of ad hominem attacks would have fared a game or three better, and maybe more.

When the talent is the product, it always pays management to communicate with the talent, listen, respond, and treat it with a modicum of respect (even on days it may not have earned it). And even when the talent isn't the product, even when "management" is the warden in the Red Chinese prison factory where they made your DVD player, the treatment of the captive labor "talent" is reflected in the deliverable's quality.

It's less common than it was in 1940, but allegedly at AT&T Long Lines, at least, The spirit of Ossie Vitt is still alive. And for that, Ossie gets special mention during the AT&T "We're Management, We Can Do Anything We Like" Lineup Card Ceremony.

┬┐Got any Corporate Naming Rights you'd like to see sold for Management by Baseball moments?

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