Saturday, August 14, 2010

For Turnaround Management, Buck (Showalter) the Status Quo  

Beyond Baseball, when you inherit a struggling or failing department, you usually have a short time to initiate actions that will turn it around. Shorter, certainly than the mythical First 100 Days a U.S. President gets. It's critical to DO SOMETHING, but frankly, flailing around aimlessly but vigorously like a Rock'em Sock'em Robot usually doesn't work out. That's leaving it to chance.

Because of Angus' Law of Problem Evolution, you have an advantage if you are quite different from the previous manager(s). If the predecessor was an a$$hole, it helps to be humane, if she was passive, it helps to be decisive, if he was an hysteric, it helps to be samurai-calm. But in the end, your best chance of success is having a plan adapted to the situation, and immediately but deliberately executing against it...incrementally, relentlessly. And use the techniques of Change Management: set expectations, communicate the changes and the reasons for them, and most critically, enforce accountability.

There is no better stage to examine business or military or non-profits' turnaround than Baseball. The National Pastime is the most transparent billion-dollar institution that exists, and moves that management makes are examined and broadcast. The subtleties hidden in the social structures of corporations publicly-owned and private, officially guarded in the military, unofficially aliased in non-profits, are all hung out to see in plain view in Baseball -- and the highly measurable results, from wins and losses to to the contributions of individual team-members, is exposed to the world. And between the 30 major league Baseball organizations, there are a number of styles and cultures and patterns that cover most legitimate organizations' equivalents.

For the last decade, a classic, transparent example of what I call a Droopy-Dog organisation is the Baltimore Orioles. A team that through several eras maximized management practices to make a relatively "small market" franchise highly competitive has fallen on hard times, and it's been so long since they won anything...

Year               Tm    G   W   L W-L%    Finish                                     Managers
2009 BaltimoreOrioles  162  64  98 .395  5th of 5                        David Trembley(64-98)
2008 BaltimoreOrioles  161  68  93 .422  5th of 5                        David Trembley(68-93)
2007 BaltimoreOrioles  162  69  93 .426  4th of 5    Perlozzo(29-40) and David Trembley(40-53)
2006 BaltimoreOrioles  162  70  92 .432  4th of 5                          Sam Perlozzo(70-92)
2005 BaltimoreOrioles  162  74  88 .457  4th of 5      Mazzilli(51-56) and Sam Perlozzo(23-32)
2004 BaltimoreOrioles  162  78  84 .481  3rd of 5                          Lee Mazzilli(78-84)
2003 BaltimoreOrioles  163  71  91 .438  4th of 5                         Mike Hargrove(71-91)
2002 BaltimoreOrioles  162  67  95 .414  4th of 5                         Mike Hargrove(67-95)
2001 BaltimoreOrioles  162  63  98 .391  4th of 5                         Mike Hargrove(63-98)
2000 BaltimoreOrioles  162  74  88 .457  4th of 5                         Mike Hargrove(74-88)
1999 BaltimoreOrioles  162  78  84 .481  4th of 5                            Ray Miller(78-84)
1998 BaltimoreOrioles  162  79  83 .488  4th of 5                            Ray Miller(79-83)
1997 BaltimoreOrioles  162  98  64 .605  1st of 5 LostALCS(4-2)           Davey Johnson(98-64)
1996 BaltimoreOrioles  163  88  74 .543  2nd of 5 LostALCS(4-1)           Davey Johnson(88-74)

Source: Baseball Reference


...that the organization gets riddled with Droopy-Dog-ism, the belief (you've all heard it in some workplaces before) "that no matter what we do, it won't work out" or "failure? it's just the way we are".

So two weeks ago, the Orioles fired their second manager of 2010 and hired Buck Showalter, who last managed a promising Texas team to a bunch of unremarkably medium finishes. His history and the immediate results of his turnaround attempt?

Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% Finish
1992 36 New York Yankees AL 76 86 .469 4
1993 37 New York Yankees AL 88 74 .543 2
1994 38 New York Yankees AL 70 43 .619 1
1995 39 New York Yankees AL 79 65 .549 2
1998 42 Arizona Diamondbacks NL 65 97 .401 5
1999 43 Arizona Diamondbacks NL 100 62 .617 1
2000 44 Arizona Diamondbacks NL 85 77 .525 3
2003 47 Texas Rangers AL 71 91 .438 4
2004 48 Texas Rangers AL 89 73 .549 3
2005 49 Texas Rangers AL 79 83 .488 3
2006 50 Texas Rangers AL 80 82 .494 3
2010 54 Baltimore Orioles AL 9 2 .818 5
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/14/2010.

As you can see from the table, in his first 11 games as an Oriole manager, the squad has gone 9-2. While such an extreme turnaround requires a bit of luck, in the Orioles, as well as in Beyond Baseball organizations that are endowed with decent talent but are struggling, there's a bottled-up reservoir of will-to-win. 

┬┐So how do you tap into that to turn around a Droopy-Dog organization? Not the Rigglemania Approach...if you want a stunning counter-example to plumb, here's one from last year. But Showalter represents one very viable positive path.

There are several ways to do this (all require the correct context), but in the Baltimore Orioles' specific case, the beginning of the turnaround is measurably good. One is hidden, something not generally shared with the public. And you can see from reportage and by merely visually observing Showalter during games and in interviews four visible practices that generally work.

The Hidden: Relentless acquisition of data and relentless erasable whiteboard charting out of the season's plans adjusted and tweaked before series and games.

As my buddy Talmage Boston, who knows Showalter, said, Buck charts out a plan, gets it committed to "paper" (a whiteboard) and adjusts it perhaps daily when opposing pitcher assignments change or increased data gives him impetus to experiment. But if he was abducted by space aliens, his successor would inherit documentation of the plan complete enough to show the logic of it, and the successor could carry it on.

If you have a turnaround to perform, starting with a structured plan that's defined and documented enough to pass on to a helper or successor or your own supervisor, but one that's got the design that can evolve as the season wears on, is a critical, not always possible, approach. Buck is pretty relentless, even for Baseball, which is significantly more relentless and goal focused and accountable than corporate or military structures are.

     Data --> Plan --> Data --> Adjustments

VISIBLE CHANGE PRACTICE #1 - Intentional, Inevitable, Immediate
It's a classic Change Management strategy...from the first day, Showalter made it clear the new regime was different, expectations were different, and he would be unyielding in striving for success. The first messages were about avoiding mental mistakes and execution (the things that you should almost always succeed at if you pay attention, concentrate and commit. So many things in worklife are tough and likely to go wrong that it's important to get the easy stuff correct and if you can, you might turn a truly .445 team that's playing .305 ball into a .445 team (or even a little better, if their attitude makes them self-confident).

Part of that practice is to show everything is changing, that almost no s.o.p. is assumed to be operating. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays got this down in their turnaround...I've written in terrifying depth about that one aspect, here, in three parts.

In Showalter's case it's been many things, but Aaron Gleeman can point to a real break from standard practice that any Oriole can see and feel the ripples from, suggesting changing to a six-man pitching rotation. When you make public a suggestion like that, it deflects some heat from players, giving the Commentocracy some meat to tear into and at the same time making it clear to the world that just about everything from the past may be altered.

Given the Birds' chronic struggles, this is a "good" thing, because it's easier to get Droopy Dogs to perk up on seeing things actually changed (not just talked about). and it immediately engages them in changes to their personal roles, which leads directly to...

VISIBLE CHANGE PRACTICE #2 - Consequences &  Accountability
You declare and enforce the idea that everyone has to be accountable for success. It's natural to give a relatively weak team in a killer division, like the O's are, some slack. If you take every loss too seriously, and so many are inevitable, people can burn out quickly. So it's critical with a young team to simultaneously show you care a ton about winning, but not take every loss as though it was a World Series Game 7.

An earlier Gleeman article echoed a theme (several different players, all told first face-to-face) that has been going on for over a week...that everyone is going to have to justify his playing time by playing hard. From Gleeman:

Alfredo Simon took over closer duties in Baltimore when he was called up from Triple-A in late April, converting 15 of 17 save chances with a 3.40 ERA and .248 opponents' batting average through his first 30 appearances.

However, he's struggled lately, blowing two saves and allowing seven runs in his last six games, and not surprisingly new manager Buck Showalter is already talking about making some changes in the ninth inning:

"I'm sure Simon will get some more opportunities along the way, but I feel like we have some other people capable of doing it other than him. We'll see what each night dictates. Some guys down there have shown that they are capable of getting big outs for us. He has above-average pitches but he's still got to locate them, too. Guys can turn around a bullet up here."

Instead of the classic Droopy Dog behavior of letting it go because it doesn't really make any difference anyway, he's telling the whole team that execution is critical and will affect playing time, even in a role such as closer, where stability is most critical. But broadcasting this message leads to...

Discipline, like any other good thing has a yield curve. You can ramp it up to a point beyond which you degrade performance. In Buck's past manager jobs, I believe, he's turned up the military aspect beyond the optimal point ... we'll see how much he's learned in the last few years, see if he can find a more moderate plateau on which to make his stand.

But if everyone knows they need to please the boss to keep their job, and if the boss is pushing accountability & concentration on small controllable factors that are easy to adhere to with a little effort, they are very likely to do it. And they are especially likely to do it if it extends to "stars" like the closer. And even more likely to do it if the hammer falls on one or two underperformers in the next few weeks. It's critical that when you use this practice Beyond Baseball, you don't just lop off a few heads a few days in. That's just capricious. You need to give everyone a chance to succeed, or you're not being accountable yourself and that decimates the power of change management. But acting on stated factors and enforcing discipline leads to...

If the manager is accountable and enforces discipline fairly and consistently she can radiate the aura of being 'in charge', and this is a vital piece of turnaround. Because when the manager tells people something is to happen and will happen, if she's shown she's in charge, she trims much of the doubt (about whether it's a good idea, about whether it's actually going to be executed, about success when it's executed) and doubt, especially in a Droopy Dog organization is overhead, that is, energy and attention invested in activities that cannot add to success.

VISIBLE CHANGE PRACTICE #5 - Neither Respecting the Inherited Situation or Disrespecting It
It's really difficult to do this last one. It takes more willpower than most managers have.

You pretty much have to turn your back on the past. Avoid the temptation of doing the opposite of everything your predecessor did...that Binary Thinking will lead to great hope from the troops, but pointless avoidable failures in practice.

Avoid Respecting The Past...the Rigglemania Failure linked to previously. It's tempting to want to show your predeessor respect, especially if you worked for him or her, especially if you know that the failure was beyond that person's control. If you want Visible Practice #1 to succeed (everything is different now), the last thing you want to do is make people comfortable with the idea that the old system was okay.

Avoid Disrespecting the Past...bad-mouthing the prior manager. It's classless, unnecessarily alienates any remaining friends or people who liked her personally, and brings back memories of processes you want to move past because they evoke low morale cognates.

Pay attention to the past in your planning and data. Ignore the past in your communications.

If you inherit a Droopy Dog workgroup that needs turning around, it's a good idea to start with the Showalter outline and system. Every context is different, and if you don't make some tweaks to the basic design in response to who is on your roster and their personalities, you'll underperform.

But Baseball in general, and the 2010 revision of Buck Showalter, specifically, is a beacon of management wisdom for turnaround.

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