Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dancing With The Stars:
Baseball's General Managers Side with Innovation Over Comfort  

Those of us who do change management or kaizen or Lean as part of their practice know the greatest barrier to positive change is comfort. The status quo allows the players within the system to repeat past behaviors and have a higher (not perfect) expectation of how the interaction will work and what the range of results will be. Baseball is better at change, and better at balancing the benefits of change against the benefits of tradition than most endeavors in business, government and the non-profit sector, and the best recent example of that superiority emerged last week.

At the General Managers' annual meetings last week in Orlando, GMs voted 25-5 to start in motion the process towards getting instant replay in Baseball. According to a story on MLB.com

Instant replay may now become a factor on a limited basis in Major League Baseball games.

The collective general managers voted 25-5 during their Tuesday morning session to at least explore the possibility of using the video technology to help decide disputed home run calls: fair or foul, in or out of the ballpark.

"We've talked about replay for borderline calls -- safe and out, home runs or non-home runs -- for a number of years," said Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer, about a proposal handed down by the technology committee headed by Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd. "The umpires, particularly in a four-man crew, in many instances are 150 feet from the outfield fence where the ball crosses the line.

{SNIP}Calling movement in MLB "glacial," Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's vice president of baseball operations, said he didn't expect the proposal to be cast into a rule and implemented in time for the 2008 season.

Solomon, by the way, doesn't know glacial. If dude had worked at DoD or Boeing or a University or even Dell Computer, he'd feel the frelling wind whipping past his face with Baseball's "glacial". 

It's not that Baseball is lightning-fast. The beginning of the argument about whether or not to have some forms of instant replay happened ten seasons ago, when Mark McGwire was chasing Babe Ruth's home run record; late in the season when it was clear he was in contention for it, he hit a shot with home run distance the umps couldn't determine clearly as fair or foul. The crew chief went to the television camera nearest 3rd base (best view of the shot) and watched in slow-motion several times to watch the ball move past the pole and determined it was fair. He wanted to get the call right and he used available technology to get it right.

This violates Baseball tradition (using technology, not "getting it right"). There were ripples in the force...if my memory serves me right here, this was the game, the crew chief was Frank Pulli, a very senior and respected ump, and that he was reprimanded, although that may have been for a call in this game, one Pulli was definitely reprimanded for. When the umps union had a job action the following year, Pulli was one of the 22 whose careers vaporized faster than Joe Lieberman 's short-lived appearance on Dancing with the Stars (┬┐why did he choose Kara Wolters as a partner, anyway?), and a couple of insiders have told me they believed his termination, certainly not about the quality of his abilities, was more about one or both of those tools-using episodes than it was about how deeply embedded in the union he might have been.

So it's taken a while to internalise the idea that "getting it right" trumps the comfort of tradition. That weighting is not universal; the last couple of years, I've attended the General Managers' November meets, and I heard plenty of Bitgod (Back In The Good Old Days) rants from babseball people and reporters opposed to changing the tradition. The arguments were typical of comments on proposed changes beyond baseball (most frequent = Well, you'll still get some wrong; most pointless = It'll take too much time which is a tactical implementation issue, not an argument against it's value in {correctness-delivered divided by time+resources applied}.

Baseball is also going to have some serious advantages in the tactical implementation, because they have eight years of NFL experience to take advantage of. And the NFL had some great advantages because the U.S. Football League wrote the the blueprints 14 years before that, and the USFL was taking advantage of technology that had been completely internalized for fans and coaches because it had been invented 30 years before that.

Tactical implementation will not be a significant barrier, only the comfort of the existing standard operating procedures. And baseball's approach is going to be very informative for managers in all fields. I only wish Sandy Alderson was still at MLB-HQ to implement it -- he is, as I've mentioned before, North America's superstar management-from-any-field practitioner. But they'll get it right sooner or later regardless.

The comfort of not-changing is endemic, even in the best, kaizen-drenched organizations.

I'm doing a consult right now with a logistics and transportation company in Seattle, one of my oldest clients, and certainly my cleverest about change. Four of their companies use independent contractors as couriers to pick up and deliver all kinds of objects around the state. Their processes have evolved over time, but mutate in response to how heavy demand is at a given time, how much time each of the jobs has left on it, how many drivers are on the road and where, and a half-dozen other factors. Procedures have tended to build up over time, many of them to advance fairness between the couriers and to make sure none hogs opportunities while always making sure the customer gets their jobs delivered safely and on-time. The most complex, compound set of rules are wrapped around the harvesting of jobs that originate in Downtown (the plurality of jobs).

To document procedures and recommend tweaks to the workflow, I immersed myself the daily flow of work. I can tell you the courier work is the second most-complicated and demanding job I've ever seen outside of Baseball, requiring project management skills, spatial memory, some physical abilities, excellent clerical skills, air-traffic controller caliber twitch decision-making capabilities, driving skills, and the magic thing I call "judgment".

Their official procedures can change on any day (I won't explain the mechanics here), and they have to adapt. But even for these cleverest of non-baseball professionals, it's easier to add rules than remove them. To claim a job for downtown you need to know not only where you are in a virtual queue that changes at least every 10 minutes, but you need to know which of 28 permutations your current situation put you. The people who live in this can simultaneously see how difficult it is for new talent to internalize, feel the pain of having to do real-time technical support even for some experienced drivers who haven't/can't master the drill, and resist simplification. I'd like to cut the permutations at least by a third as an experiment, but I have little support from front-line supervisors.

I have empathy for them. They want to "get it right", and in this case, I'm trying to cut learning time by half, and they would yield some fairness (I suspect about 4% of fairness in that in about 1-in-25 cases someone would do something that would benefit themselves at the cost of the team' overall welfare, to a significant enough degree to cause discomfort).

If even the most capable kaizen outfit I've worked with struggle with change, then anyone will. You have to be willing to listen to legit (and not-legit) concerns with respect, test, tweak, follow-up and tweak again.

It'll be exciting for managers to observe how Solomon and his team at MLB implement these changes in the most tradition-drenched AND most changing (by the season, by the game, by the inning, by the play) endeavor in North America. Significantly more exciting than a Joe Lieberman Dancing with the Stars pratfall.

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