Monday, July 18, 2011

Parlaying Pee-Pee Passes into Pennants:
Florida Marlins' Master of Change Jack McKeon  

Jack Aloysius McKeon came out of retirement in June to take over the Fish Tank, the cellar-dwelling, on-an-eleven-game-losing-streak Florida Marlins. McKeon is a self-important martinet, old enough at 80 to not give a hoot about what his employees think of him, but amazingly, he knows exactly how much pressure to apply and where. His ability to attend to every detail, learn from his mistakes, and fearlessly act on both his instincts and learned lessons make him one of the rare managers in any field who has gotten all around the bases and to Home Plate in the MBB Management Model.

While I last wrote about him eight seasons ago when he took this same team to an upset World Series victory, the front office chose him for this 2011 task for the exact same reason: changing the existing culture and exerting discipline over a very young discount-budget team. And McKeon chose to take the job for the same reason; because he was finding life away from the most challenging, complex, compound managerial job on the face of the planet too un-stimulating for his 80-years-old lifestyle.

The Marlins this year were actually above .500, 32-30, before this single swoon. But the front office believed that his resigned predecessor Edwin Rodríguez was not going to be the manager to take this recipe, still a ways from being fully-baked, into the playoffs, and believed McKeon's relentless discipline is what the youngest roster in the league needs now.

As I've written about before, McKeon has mastered change, maybe as much as any manager in the league not named Joe Maddon. He learned from his predecessors, and remarkably, learned from his own mistakes, and did not view his past mistakes as approaches-to-be-universally-rejected, as I explained in that piece linked-to two paragraphs previous (in brief, he started his management career by burning out young pitchers; he learned to stop overusing young pitchers, but instead of never riding a successful starter hard, found spots where he could occasionally optimize his team's chances by stretching out a young starter. This is a very rare ability...the ability to reject what you thought you knew, but not demonize it to the degree that what useful elements it contained are unusable).

One critical element of change for any incoming manager is to shock your employees enough for them to get out of ruts they may not even understand they are in. Maddon does this more completely and more entertainingly by making it clear every protocol that's optional (batting order, kangaroo court fines, dress codes) will be changed, that seemingly everything is changing -- a lesson that's impossible to miss. McKeon addresses the small range of things that are most symptomatic of what he's trying to change.

As is the norm for Bob Dole Generation managers, McKeon not only wants to be fully in control of anyone he's not convinced is fully-self-disciplined, he wants each employee to know he's in charge. No subtlety. Again, though, in trying to institute a change initiative, it's critical to shock the employees into understanding change is happening and expected. I prefer defter, more enlisting means, but McKeon's can work in this environment -- a young outfit under-performing in part because of lack of diligence.

According to an insightful story by the Miami Herald's Clark Spencer,

When McKeon took over as manager in ’03, one of his first priorities was to break (Josh) Beckett and (Brad) Penny — two pitchers with high ceilings but poor work ethics — of their lackadaisical habits. “I just hammered,” he said. “I just stayed on them.”

McKeon demands that starting pitchers sit in the dugout on days they’re not pitching to study and learn. When he discovered that Penny and Beckett weren’t on the bench one game in ’03, he stormed into the clubhouse between innings and tore into them. He ended up having the clubhouse door locked so players couldn’t go in during games.

He said Mark Redman had fun with that and made index cards into restroom passes for players during the game.

There was “a poo-poo and a pee-pee card, so if you wanted to go poo-poo or pee-pee, you had to get a card,” McKeon said, adding that players had to come to him to get one of the passes.

There is some technique in here to go along with the risible aspects of it. Mark Redman, one of the oldest guys on that team, made a bit of a joke about it, but McKeon leveraged that. He didn't punish Redman, he took it, aikido-style, and sideswiped it into his system. And by having something as ridiculous as hall passes (further coded by #1 and #2), what might have been pure conflict became amusing, and made the absolutely serious disciplinary needs (pitchers sitting in the dugout on non-start days so as to study and learn), seem more reasonable.

In your own change initiatives, I don't recommend hall passes (unless you're a middle school teacher or an investment banker). But the McKeon Ploy...to find the key ability shortfall, then identify the cause, then institute a surprisingly non-obvious but noticeable method to short-circuit it...is worth your consideration.

This Marlin team is unlikely to pull off the 2003 surprise. But McKeon is building a platform for his successor, a learning organisation that can take the next step when the time comes, ownership permitting. The ~47% of males and ~61% of females lucky enough to live to be 80 should aspire that if we do, we could still be achieving positive Change initiatives if we get there.

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