Monday, February 19, 2007

All Roads Lead From Detroit:
Tiger Triumph, Trauma Trigger Tag-Alongs  

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that
which should not be done at all. -- Peter Drucker

Beyond baseball, there are always lots of management teams looking reacting to the Last Big Thing. The Last Big Thing may actually be worth following, but fads have a gravitational pull that tugs businesses' and governments' leadership teams to chase others' visible choices may have had something to do with their success (or avoid the ones that seemed to have led to failure). Of course, they are doing this not because they've worked out all the context -- they choose what's visible, obvious, striking.

Business and government go through fads pretty quickly, taking one on until it's a completely proven failure and responding to the realization of that failure by finding another intoxicating lure to distract themselves from that previous failure. Businesses chased Baldridge Awards. Government agencies tried to outdo each other in seeing which could act most like a business. Apple Computer made tons of money during some soft years by researching and then playing foreign currency markets and strategies for playing them with their international assets. And many other organizations saw Apple's success and tried it themselves, most not succeeding well.

SWAGGER, THE MISSING INGREDIENT AND LEYLAND'S LESSON As I wrote last March, then-new Detroit Tiger manager Jim Leyland came into his first Spring Training with the club, weight the available talent, did his OMA (observe, measure, analyze), and came to the conclusion that the limiting factor for the team's success was "swagger". He and his coaching staff then deployed some classic change management methods, got the players to think about themselves and the team in a different way and the rest, as they say in college departments with strong feminist cognates, was Herstory. The Tigers had their striking Cinderella season: improving 24 wins from the previous, pre-swagger year, an AL Central flag, the demolition of the favored Athletics and heavily-favored Yankees, and an A.L. pennant.

It's hard to get more visible, obvious and striking as that. Well, there was one, more eye-popping, event last year, but we'll get to that in the next section.

But it should come as no surprise that a team with a first-year veteran skipper looking to turn around the fate of a team that lost 96 games last year might look to that highly-visible turnaround and try to clone it. In many contexts, as I mentioned, it won't work. In this particular case, the match seems pretty good. The 2007 Chicago Cubs are being led by turnaround artist Lou Piniella, and guess what he's telling the world (or at least the New York Daily News' Bill Madden)?

Lou Sweet on Cubbies

Lou Piniella arrived at Cubbie camp in Mesa, Ariz., last week determined to succeed in what has been a manager's graveyard for decades. After admittedly having little knowledge of the "Billy Goat Curse" and all the other misfortune that has plagued the Cubs since 1908 when they last won the World Series, Piniella declared his intention to change the culture in Wrigleyville.

"I want to establish a Cubs swagger this year," Piniella said. "That's what we've got to develop here - a kind of subdued cockiness and quiet confidence. You do that by playing hard and being prepared every day and that's what you're going to see here."

The context works because the Cubs' talent/payroll has been outstripping their achievements since 2003. And just as Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski acquired the gritty-personality and skills of starter Kenny Rogers before last season and the gritty-personality of reliever Todd Jones to inject some swagger DNA into a heretofor talented but not high-achievement pitching staff, Cubs GM Jim Hendry tried to do the same with some high-profile signings of players who have seen playoff action (though not necessarily gritmeisters). On the other hand, Piniella is a lot grittier than the laconic Leyland. But the Cubs' pathetic Curse of the Curse looms over them like the Billy Goat of Damocles, coloring many small moments that tend to snowball, ultimately, into an absence of pennants.

Was it the right thing to do, to call out? Sure, though there are a lot of other ingredients that need to come together for this to work. There's always a limiting factor...remove the current one, there's always a most-constraining factor blocking the way, and a manager persists in attacking each. If he does nothing else but inject swagger, they are doomed, but, fortunately, Piniella knows this.

As usual, Baseball management is a lot smarter than it's peers in other lines of work. I can't tell you how many otherwise intelligent clients have felt compelled to follow successful competitors' tactics, only to find they undermined the things they were doing well to a greater degree than they got to benefit from the new tactic/fad. The passion of the moment colors the desirability of an initiative.

PFP & THE HIGHLY VISIBLE SELF-INFLICTED BANANAS FOSTER OF INFINITE DOOM These passions aren't automatically dysfunctional. Sometimes they're triggered by highly-visible failures to apply s.o.p or common sense...and the more visible, the easier it is to get broad buy-in across the organization.

If the Tigers' A.L. pennant wasn't striking enough, coming as it did a mere three seasons after a 119-loss campaign, their self-inflicted Bananas Foster of Infinite Doom in the 2006 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals was an even less subtle lesson. Eight errors, and five of them by pitchers. Pitchers don't handle enough chances usually to get even one-ninth of errors held against a team. This suddenly chronic problem in a widely-viewed stage that turned Cinderella into a Cucurbita maxima, a swaggering buzz-saw into a staggering Beer League Softball team, was visible (and risible), obvious and striking.

So it should come as little surprise that this Spring training, teams are working a little harder on pitchers' fielding practice (PFP). According to a Sunday clip in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

GETTING A GRIP: The Mariners are working heavily in the early going on PFP -- pitchers' fielding practice.

It's all the vogue after Detroit pitchers had trouble picking up balls and throwing them around the infield in the World Series. The Tigers set a record for pitchers' errors in a series and, partly because of that, St. Louis won the Series in five games.

"We always have a lot of PFP," Hargrove said. "We'll have it throughout the year, as I'm sure the Tigers did last year.

"In the World Series, I think it was more a matter of the Tigers' (lack of) experience showing. But it was a lesson driven home to everybody."

A lesson driven home to everybody. A good one -- though not a centerpiece of winning; if the pitchers field perfectly but don't pitch well, it won't make a positive difference. But while very unlikely to be a team's limiting factor, a tactical adjustment that has positive value. The PFP drills aren't very much fun, and most pitchers don't see fielding as a noble art, merely "something else they have to do", so using the striking pumpkinization of the Bengals last October as a hook to raise awareness and get staff buy-in is a swell move.

What's been going on in your own or related lines of work that staff are likely to have noticed? Are any of them worth calling out for small, easy gains?

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