Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Part II: Enron Field Meets Dilbert:
Corporate Naming Rights for Management Flubs  

Last month I ran a few MBB items triggered by one of those inescapable e-mail humor messages, "Stupidity in Action," sent to me by my esteemed colleague Martin Marshall. These alleged recipients of top ten "Dilbert Quotes," stupid things managers said.

Since the boneheads' alleged corporate affiliations were made explicit, I think each of these sayings give the corporate owner naming rights over a classic baseball blunder.

So to continue the lessons, how about...


Dilbert award winner from an alleged 3M R& D Supe: No one will believe
you solved this problem in a day! We've been working on it for months. Now
go act busy for a few weeks & I'll let you know when it's time to tell them.

In the late 1920s, the New York Yankees had in their farm system a young outfielder named George "Twinkletoes" Selkirk. Selkirk was a professional hitter, left-handed, just made for the Yanks' home park The Yanks left him to fester, tearing up the minors, but never gave him a shot in the Majors.

Selkirk's problem was...well, it wasn't a problem with Selkirk. Because while he was tearing up the AAA International League, the Yankees had but one year where they didn't have Babe Ruth and two other All-Stars in the outfield. Hall of Famer Earle Combs (The Kentucky Colonel) patrolled CF and the other corner was patrolled first by Bob Meusel, later by Ben Chapman. A normal team, not needing an asset like Selkirk, would have traded him for an asset they did need. Except they didn't need anything else they could get in trade. So they kept in tucked away in case of an injury. His minor league longevity earned him a berth in the International League Hall of Fame (a bittersweet reminder of both how good he was and stuck he was).

Selkirk finally got a full season, getting the easy assignment of replacing Babe Ruth, assuring him the chance to shine (not). Selkirk squeezed a positive six-year Major League career out of what was left in him, getting in the top ten list for OPS+ (offensive production) four of those seven years. He probably would have been as important a player as Combs or Chapman if given the chance to play, not assuredly, but given his record, one can make a good argument for it.

Beyond baseball, you see people and processes stuck behind other agendas all the time. A friend of mine has a daughter who works at a mid-scale restaurant chain's location in Missouri. She works as a hostess (no serious money available no matter how hard you work). She's been trying to get promoted to waitress (where good customer service skills and diligence result in a legitimate lower-middle class income). But their model is not to promote if they can avoid it -- it's to use kids as long as they can and then dump them for new ones. As long as they train reasonably well, it's a viable form of parasitism, since the knowledge and abilities that go out the door can be replaced with a short term, low-cost investment in the next victim.

And the turnover conforms to Angus' First Law of Organizational Dynamics, "All human systems tend to be self-amplifying". Because the kids aren't treated very well or rewarded for loyalty, the ambitious are likely to move on, and the ones who remain will tend to be roster plaque, the unambitious who expect to give a half-hearted effort for a half-hearted income. And then management comes to believe there's not much talent out there so the existing environment (they've actually crafted) is "reality".

NOTE: Engineering organizations are notorious for slowing down quick solutions out of fear of being held accountable for speed in the future. Slowing things down is a means not only of lowering expectations (therefore easier to fulfill without having intrusive peoples' desires injected in their workshops), but of also being able to play around with the details that are the currency of the engineer. Engineers with the engineer personality type are intrinsically not managers (in fact tend to be anti-management, so even when they are appointed they tend to sabotage their own and others' efforts to manage). While there are engineers who can be very good engineering managers, in shops where good engineers are promoted to management without careful measuring of their ability to overcome their personal ways of being, you end up with an extraordinary concentration of managers like the alleged 3M manager quoted above.

In a competitive environment where survival is contingent on recognizing the Talent Is The Product, letting talent fester because it doesn't match one's pre-existing structures, biases or personality is Russian Roulette with five bullets. Put that on a Post-It Note.


Dilbert award winner from an alleged Lykes manager: What I need is
an exact list of specific unknown problems we might encounter.

This year's Seattle Mariners are having an extraordinarily bi-polar season, playing hot-clutch ball for streaks and then turning into pumpkins for longer stretches. When they are going well., it's partially on the innovative backs of a couple of players who come from outside "the system". Yuniesky Betancourt was the back-up shortstop for Cuba's Villa Clara team, defected, and quickly made his way to the Mariners' big club without spending a whole lot of time getting trained in the minors, so his fundamentals are much tighter, tuned by the fundamentals-obsessed Cuban system. Kenji Johjima was a veteran catcher for a decent career with the Japan Pacific League's Fukuoka Hawks, playing in a different, discipline-obsessed, fundamental environment.

Each has changed game outcomes. Betancourt has done it with his very aggressive but knowledgable, hawk-eyed baserunning (the announcers call it his speed...it's not. He's just average, but he's trained for many years to gauge defenders' quickness to the ball and arms). He's surprised opponents by going against the book and disrupting their assumptions by going for extra bases, or forcing really long run-down plays that stretch the abilities of even fundamentally well-tuned teams like the White Sox. Johjima has done it by going often to a play-at-the-plate choice that's rare. Three times in the first ten games on a throw home trying to nail a baserunner, he judged early the play was not close enough to bother with, ran forward to cut off the ball (ignoring the runner who was going to score regardless), and with the ball missing the cut-off man, nailing the batter who assumed the generic case, the catcher planted near home watching the runner score. He gunned out a pair of batters this way, batters who simply weren't looking for a specific unknown problem they might encounter.

Corporate and government strategic planning efforts almost always take on the alleged Lykes manager's point of view. They plan for the disasters, exceptions and unknown problems they have already experienced, and seek magic to provide the unknown ones.

The solution, as I've written about before is stochastic modeling, neither random (investing an equal amount in any eventuality no matter how likely or unlikely) or deterministic (invest in the likeliest n options only until there is no more to invest), because evolution is stochastic. Good strategic planning is like Betancourt's running, based on observation and experimentation, but never constrained to just the obvious. Bad strategic planning is executed like a Turn Back the Clock night, and there's a lot I dislykes about that.

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