Thursday, April 05, 2007

PART II - The Cosmic Wisdom of the New York Mets:
Pinball Reflexes from Masterful Planning  

In the last entry, I spoke about long- and mid-range planning and how baseball is way ahead of other lines of work in finding the balance between and Zen-nothing & the Soviet 5-year plan. In this entry, I'm going to discuss the other mandate for baseball (and you): Real-time plans adjustment.

The Mets...all franchises, really, but the Mets especially, are beacons to follow for real-time improvisation.

The Mets got into the National League playoffs having just lost their #1 starter, Pedro Martínez. But they had a great contingency plan in place, because smelling the playoffs early in the season (with a great 28-17 record and a 5 game lead in their division) they had obtained one of the great playoff pitchers in recent history: Orlando Hernández (106 innings, 12-3, ERA of 2.55, and remember this is all against above-average teams). Great advance planning that worked out beautifully.

But their back-up plan was annihilated the day before the playoffs started when Hernández injured himself warming up, and badly enough to be scratched from his start. The Mets had to improvise again, so with tired starters, they picked rookie John Maine. Maine pitched well enough to leave with the lead and they went on to win the game, though cobbling together six pitchers to do it. They followed Maine with Tom Glavine, their surviving ace...an easy enough decision requiring little prestidigitation (three relievers going an inning each), who won the second game. Now, manager Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson were cobbling together pieces every day. For the third game, they deployed the erratic Steve Trachsel but for a short time, backed-up by a reclamation project who was having a career yearlet as a middle relief innings-eater, Darren Oliver. Oliver wasn't great but his team came back to finish off the series, this time totaling seven pitchers for the game.

This required knitting together accomplished pitchers, young pitchers, relief role players and a reclamation project. Management spread the work around, and even with the missing pieces, they swept their series and didn't burn out anyone they might have to fall back on in the NLCS. Even entering the NLCS without their Ace or His Replacement, the bullpen would have the benefit of the extra time off (four days) from the sweep.

The Mets pitching for NL Championship Series started with Glavine again (tight game but his 7 shutout innings were key). In game 2, Maine had control issues and in losing, they used six relievers though none enough that they would not be available for the next game (two days later). In game 3 perhaps the most problematic for planning event occurred -- starter Trachsel from whom they needed a better performance, was rocky, took what appeared to be a minor thigh bruise from a batted ball, and pulled himself out of the game with runners on and no one out in the second. Short of starting pitching, Randolph had to call on Oliver who hadn't been particularly effective in the first series -- and Oliver delivered six innings of three-hit ball in a cause that was already lost, enough innings that the Mets didn't need to go to their top three relievers.  They were barely alive, but alive to fight another day and hadn't burned up a pen that might make a difference in a close game they needed to win in the future.

This is important: Oliver's performance and the way the Mets management improvised balanced the low-tolerance mandate  in a short series to "win now", while still preserving resources they needed to have a decent chance to win the next games.

Starter-decimated and down 2-1, the series really could have been over when they sent Oliver "The Culiacan Tomato" Perez to the mound, a once-promising Padre hurler who had fallen apart, for years cruising on fumes and the wishful thinking of the Padres and Pirates before being a late July acquisition the Mets hoped their pitching Merlin, Peterson, could fix. Like Maine, he was effective enough to last enough innings in front of some serious offense that the 3-1/3 innings from three relievers, probably more than ideal, left the pen viable for the next game.

So the series is tied, & the team's best starter, Glavine is up. He has a mediocre start going just 4 innings, Cardinal Jeff Weaver is better, and the Cards go up in games 3-2, only one win to go to the flag. They use the pen, which is effective, carefully & no one gets a ton of work and they have the travel day. In the sixth game, they push Maine out to the mound again, he's great again for his 5-1/3 innings and with the series tied they go back to reclamation project Perez. Perez was great, but the Cards had more offense and won the game and series.

Great improvisation and cool real-time decisions that took into consideration the needs of the future let the Mets get to the last game of the NLCS, an outcome about no-one knowing in advance that would be without Martinez, Hernandez and half a Trachsel, would have imagined possible. The outcome, a halt in their march to the World Series is not the kind that attracts celebration. But Randolph and Peterson played the cards they were dealt optimally at every juncture and stretched what easily could have been a massacre to having the winning run on first base in the 9th inning of the last game -- a little miracle via excellent real-time contingency planning.

In non-baseball organizations, I see contingency planning falling far far short of the Mets' standard. The culture of Baseball is much more evolved, but in your own line of work, you can borrow some of the standard techniques Randolph and Peterson used, and even if you can't execute in real-time to their standard, you can excel relative to any of your peers.

Technique #1 - Always have a range of options for the next step this minute and tomorrow. Just as the Mets blended stars, kids and reclamation projects, you should be prepared for fate to throw you an eephus pitch by having a portfolio of counter-measures. 

Technique #2 - Go against the corporate norm: Count on obvious problems to appear more than unprecedented ones (that is, it's more likely your programmers will design software with a dysfunctional user interface than it is a meteorite twice the size of Prince Fielder will land on your refrigerator unit) and prepare more solutions for the more likely, but at the same time, invest some thinking in what you would do if a less-likely anomaly happened. Mets management probably spent more time worrying about Trachsel having an uneven start than that Orlando Hernandez would break down from stretching the day before the playoffs started. But when Hernandez went down, they had already been thinking about what the most effective responses would be.

Technique #3 - Use people in various roles, apply their efforts before you need to throw them into a high-impact moment. The Mets believed Maine could handle playoff games because they'd stretched him in a number of ways and observed and then measured his responses. In your own workgroups, find out what people know that's not in their job descriptions, try out people on each other's tasks if they're willing and you've been competent enough to carve out some slack to make small investments less risky.

Reminder - One cognitive quirk I see often among even high-capability contingency planners is that a great victory makes them relax their planning cycle. I was subject to this myself as a young manager. I was planning on a project that had staff in all U.S.E.P.A. regional offices except one. I needed to balance workloads between teams, while balancing complex sets of skills and domain knowledge within teams -- a very challenging set of variables, what I call a real "air traffic controller job". We had a crisis in the Dallas office with a sudden audit that a QA vendor decided was urgent (it wasn't) at the same time we got a lot of more-complex-than-usual-work, near the end of an Output-measurement period where our volume was slightly down because we had given extra time off to a person who had had some family issue. We were 1.6 average people off our output rate...a hinky number because we would either fall short of overhire. I knew a few people in Dallas, and asked around if anyone who knew someone with science & stats (or both) in their background who might be available to temp, and as I was talking with one, an old college buddy who sat across a lab table from me in a class or two, I realized she had the almost-perfect skill set. She was working full-time, but agreed to take on a night shift for a healthy rate and profit-sharing. We flew in an associate from another team to simultaneously train and work alongside her, and within a day, we realized we had combined skills and luck for a perfect outcome. All targets met (at the cost of some travel expenses and diluting the profit-sharing pool for the rest of the us). Everyone running to the mound to celebrate. Belief in a perfect (or at least perfectable) world. And then 12 hours later the fecal matter hit the rotary ventilation device in Philadelphia when there was a political battle in the EPA office between some of our client's management, and they said we could no longer work on site (rendering the work totally impossible). And I just froze. For 48 hours, I couldn't think straight. My business partner, when he heard about it, simply called our contract officer at HQ, who fixed it for us. Of course.

The first required complex multivariate planning -- juggling machetes, bowling pins, grenades and meth-smoking weasels. The second only a reasonable phone call to someone with power to fix it. But because it came right after a big "victory", I relaxed to the point I couldn't cope with the next fine-tune required. It was a useful lesson to me, but it's a given beyond baseball for those who don't remind themselves that while some issues are related and cascade, most issues are unrelated -- fixing one has no effect on the other things that can happen. Celebrate, but don't imagine there won't be a next issue right away.

In Baseball, they don't do that...because they can't. Just because you've had the skill to get the best-of-all-possible spare tires (El Duque) doesn't mean it can't take a piece of glass and go flat within a few miles of having to use it. No cause and effect between one issue and (the inevitable) next one. Just plan, adjust, implement, adjust, plan.

Another reminder - Occam's Razor holds here. The fewer factors you can have affecting choices, the fewer possible things there are to require addressing. In the EPA case I described, we had teams, skills, EPA HQ, EPA regional management, and the work-audit vendor. If it had just been the first three, the potential for issues would have been roughly one-third the total of the five together. We didn't have much choice either in how many groups we dealt with. But in planning and executing projects in general, simplification, slack, and reduction or delay of what I call "hood ornaments" (nice-to-haves that could be solid additions later) give you an environment where fewer issues are around to arise.

It's unlikely your organization can be as supple with contingency planning as the Mets or even the average baseball organization. Baseball has had 130 years of relentless focus on the discipline and now it's all internalized, implicit in the job descriptions. There are dozens of their techniques I've used, but you can start applying the three techniques and two suggestions I mentioned here...it's a small but significant start.

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