Monday, April 04, 2005

Slipstream the Cosmic Wisdom of Lou Piniella:
Knowledge from the Trenches  

When you take on a new management position, you have a handful of days to take advantage of a unique opportunity that can make you a legendary rainmaker. You can either do it the normal way or you can succeed.

The most typical model for a new manager is to do whatever he's done before, whether that record was particularly successful or not. The next most frequent is to NOT do whatever she did before that didn't work. Somewhat less common is the doing whatever one did before, but just those things that were successful. And while you don't see it all that often, the final common model is to do nothing you've ever done before and try to make up everything as you go along -- sort of reinventing everything simultaneously. This latter approach I call the splatter approach, and it works about as often in a human organization as it does in nature, which is very infrequently.

Occasionally, you'll see a new manager using the initial one-on-one meetings with staff and peers to go beyond the get-acquainted routines and really going into details. That's a great thing, but usually executed top-down, starting with the highest-ranking people (in large organizations, most often seen as the people you need to please) and working the way down the hierarchy.

While it's good politics, it's crappy management. I strongly urge you to follow the Piniella model

Piniella has learned to become a very good "turnaround" artist. Like most good managers, he learns to take away both the good and the bad from his job and apply the lessons in his next gig.

Here's his record after his first management job (which was a three year run in the Bronx working for the functionally-sociopathic Yankee owner). BP is Before Piniella & WP is With Piniella.

Before or With Team Year Wins Losses Gain or (Loss)
BP Cincy 1989 74 88  
WP Cincy 1990 91 71 +17
BP Seattle 1992 64 98  
WP Seattle 1993 82 80 +18
BP Tampa Bay 2002 55 106  
WP Tampa Bay 2003 63 99 +7.5

It's a universal rule in baseball and beyond it that a new manager tends to get better results than her predecessor (that's based on Angus' Rule of Problem Evolution, a point I'll get to in a minute). But Piniella just creates a successful environment for a turnaround. His uncommon approach is one I like to use myself both as a new staff manager and as a consultant. First I'm going to tell you why it works, and then I'll tell you what it is.

The Piniella model works because it adapts to the rule of problem evolution. Any manager with a shred of ability will solve some kinds of problems, and no matter how good, will leave some problems unsolved. The manager, as a human being, has strengths and weaknesses, high aptitudes and black holes of incapability from which no wisdom escapes. Over time,. the problems within an organization that a manager can solve get solved and the ones he's not good at solving fester and become an ever-greater proportion of the remaining problems. If the manager is not good at "change", Home Plate in the Management by Baseball Model, and the vast majority of managers aren't even passable at it, this plaque of unsolved problems will usually be the downfall of the manager or the entire department if no other person does anything to attack the plaque.

That's why the top-down approach to learning what's going on in an organization, what needs fixing and what needs to be left well-enough alone, is counter productive. Because management has already bought into what needs to be done and what doesn't. The problems they were able to solve are more likely to have been solved. Moreover, by the time you get to the line staff, your head is already positioned to some degree, filled with the views of the people whose talents have left the problems unsolved.

It's people on the line, in the trenches, generally without a position from which to affect change who, by the rule of problem evolution, have the unimplemented solutions waiting to be tapped. Managers generally ignore the ideas stored in the heads of certain staff.

So Piniella's technique is: First talk to those without a strong investment in the solution set that's been the m.o. before you came. Act quickly upon the insights that have value -- it informs everyone in the organization who has been overlooked as a cource of wisdom to come forward.

According to the following clip from Art Thiel's book, Out of Left Field (Sasquatch Books, 2004) about Piniella taking the Mariner job:

"Upon taking the job, one of his first phone calls was to trainer Rick Griffin, seeking an assessment of personnel from the '92 team {SNIP}.

"I trust trainers as much or more than scouts," Piniella said, "Be honest and don't sugarcoat--nobody knows we're talking."

In a conversation that lasted two and a half hours, Griffin spelled it out, saying there really was only one guy who didn't fit. A couple of days later the oft-injuered, portly outfielder Kevin Mitchell was traded to Cincinnati for relief pitcher Norm CHarlton, who would become vital in the Mariner's climb.

Piniella called Griffin again: "How do you like that?"

"Wow," Griffin said, "You work fast."

"From now on, we're going to work fast."

The Piniella Solution then, is

  • Start at the bottom of the org chart and solicit suggestions in the "What needs changing/improving around here" line.
  • Act quickly and publicize the change
  • Follow up with more right away so you can accustom staff and adjacent departments that change is an on-going thing, and that it has payoffs.

The approach is not effortless or without its own potential pitfalls. Many times, line workers "don't get it", "it" being strategy or marketing fine points or subtle initiatives. Some suggestions will be entirely dysfunctional and not based in any reality. Okay, both are frequently true, but line staff know things others don't, those things are usually not valued, and there's much ore to be mined there. Persoianlly, I've gotten my highest quick returns in larger organization from people who work in the mail room. In the realm of management by walking around, they are the people who walk around, they see things not from a departmental perspective, but from a more integrated systemic model -- the patterns that connect departments or functions.

You want to turn around a drifting organization, or even improve on an already-successful one, listen to those who haven't been listened to. Most frequently, those are line staff.

You can overcome the rule of Problem Evolution if you channel the cosmic wisdom of Sweet Lou.

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