Monday, February 27, 2012

Avoiding Change Manglement, Ichiro-Style  

Observer effect: The act of observation changes
the object being observed

Like most normal people and baseball players, Ichiro Suzuki prefers to do things his own way. Like almost all successful baseball players, and like many (though not most) normal people, he is committed to his employer's success. And it looks like there's a big change coming in both how he will do things and in his employer's success.

It's the result of a many-year Change Management initiative that has been barely committed to over the years, sometimes desultorily, sometimes not at all, the luke-warmness of it created by or merely encouraged by executive ownership. That lack of commitment eroded the commitment of the Seattle Mariners' all-time most successful manager and ate the career of one other proven manager. That chronic lack of commitment, though, resulted in what I call Change Manglement...the act of changing only when the status quo has declined so severely that only a functional idiot committed to failure (or with an incentive that transcends what everyone else considers "success") would continue on the same path.

Ichiro Suzuki is a relentless seeker of excellence, and through an intense commitment to doing things his own way (even if that meant training 50% more than any other franchise player in the big leagues, and even if that meant politicking to get rid of anyone who wanted him to do things differently), he has had a long and successful career making continual small adjustments to a basic foundation to which he's committed. 

He hasn't changed because he's been a success in his own measures of what that means. For Suzuki, like most people, it's hard to balance a decision to change when the contributor has been a success in their own currency, but that currency is different from what makes the employer successful, either in its own currency, or that of customers. Measuring the same events using different currencies is one of the most significant blockages in getting contributors, employers and customers to achieve Change (because if one measures "accomplishment" using different currencies, the status quo may look "better" than the proposed change. 

HISTORY FOR THOSE WHO WANT IT (otherwise skip down to next section)
In his seven years as a regular in Japan, he led the league in batting average seven times, that is, every single season. In his first (adjustment) year in the Majors, he won the batting title. In his 4th year of play, as a 30 year old, he broke the all-time record for hits in a season (in 162 games, not the 154 games George Sisler had done it in) and most singles in a season (again, in more games than Wee Willie Keeler). He has been great at what he does, overrated in the outfield but still more than adequate there.

As a previous Mariner GM noted, it's great that Suzuki hits .340, but because his hits are so singles-centric, and because he doesn't walk much, his batting average alone overstates his true value as a lead-off batter. Again, when he can hit .330 and get on base at about a .375 clip and steal 40 bases a season while not getting caught stealing much, he's very useful, but not a super-star.

Over the previous few years, he had made small adjustments, getting just-enough better at dealing with the inside pitches that it encouraged pitchers to work the whole plate more he been surprisingly resistant to both radically altering his approach and the expected ravages of age.

But last year, his approach just tanked. Look at this comparison of 2011 against his previous output as measured in percentage of plate appearances.

Suzuki 1b 2b 3b HR BB+HBP K
2001-9 25.1% 3.4% 1.1% 1.2% 6.9% 9.0%
2011 21.4% 3.1% 0.4% 0.7% 5.4% 9.6%

Every single aspect of his game, from his sky-high production of singles, to his already lightweight production of walks, sagged markedly. It's not as though it left him one single tweak to focus on. While he has been resistant to changing his approach (going for more power as former manager Lou Piniella had requested, or for more walks and steals as former manager Mike Hargrove had hoped for), this was a collapse by any measure. And his relatively hollow .370 on-base percentage declining to 2011's .310 really made his desire to be a lead-off batter a hollow hope.

As I've written about a few times, Ichiro has shown an extraordinary mastery of change in his career, adjusting to age, to changing continents, to the never-ending adaptations of pitchers and infielders to his game. But last week, he finally relented to the bigger changes he has been avoiding. According to this piece by the usually insightful Larry Stone:

Ichiro's style change is bigger news than his lineup change

At age 38 and moved to third in the batting order, Ichiro plans to evolve into more of a traditional gap hitter.

PEORIA, Ariz. — A quiet Mariners camp was riled up on Tuesday.

In his post-workout media session, Eric Wedge matter-of-factly dropped the blockbuster news he had been hinting at since the end of last season, with a couple of new twists. Turns out it was a three-parter:

Part one: Ichiro is no longer the leadoff hitter. Gasp.

Part two: Chone Figgins is. Whaaa?

Part three: Ichiro will hit third. Wow. {snip}

Ichiro, meanwhile, turned 38 last October, and now he will be asked to re-invent himself. And do so in the spot in the batting order many consider to be the most crucial — the one traditionally reserved for the team's best hitter. That has clearly been Ichiro in the past, but it was not Ichiro last year, when his "slap and run" style stopped being effective.

We are already seeing signs of what for him is a radical new approach. For one thing, in batting practice Ichiro has unveiled a much wider, and more balanced, stance. For another, he's not lifting his front leg, not perceptibly. His hands are lower. And, putting it all into action, he seems much more intent on scalding line drives than the slashing style of old.

"You can already see he's obviously made some adjustments this winter if you watch him take BP," Wedge said. "Ultimately, what I want him to do, I want him to make it his own. He's as smart a baseball player as we have in there. He understands the game very well. He understands what the responsibilities and priorities are with someone hitting third. I'm trusting in that. What he wants to do is what's best for the ballclub. That's what he's doing here.

"Any adjustment he's making is because there's good reason for it in his mind. I don't think he made any changes coming in here from a batting-stance standpoint with regards to just hitting third. I do know one thing: He's stronger. He knew this was an option, and I think he prepared for it."

Turns out that's exactly the case. Ichiro said he had been preparing himself mentally all winter for the possibility of hitting third. And he confirmed that he had also been working on changing his hitting style.

"I've been working on that stance the whole offseason, so that's not temporary," he said.

Asked why, he said, "To perform better. We all make changes, adjustments to perform better. That's the only reason."

Ichiro, to his credit, is saying all the right things about leaving leadoff, and Wedge stated emphatically: "He's on board. I was very clear with him, he was very clear with me. He's ready to go."

It is true that Ichiro actually played more games hitting third than first during his seven years in Japan, and won a batting title in all seven of those years. It is true that he dabbled in the three-hole during both of Japan's World Baseball Classic title runs. And it is true that every Mariners manager preceding Wedge — starting with Lou Piniella — toyed with the idea of hitting Ichiro third.

It is also true that Ichiro's identity as a major-league player outside of Japan — as a Mariner, in other words — has been inextricably linked to being a leadoff hitter.

In fact, in spring of 2001, when Piniella was contemplating Ichiro hitting third, Ichiro told the Seattle P-I, "I guess you could say I have the experience in the middle of the lineup. But I don't like it. When you look at major-league hitters, the picture of Ichiro isn't what comes to mind when you think of No. 3 hitters. I'm not a home-run hitter ... But if the manager says to do it, I will do it to the best of my ability."

Piniella eventually backed off on the idea (except for three games in 2002, during which Ichiro went 8 for 14 as the No. 3 hitter) as did all his other managers. But that was when Ichiro was cranking out 200 hits a year and hitting .300 annually, a trend that stopped at 184 and .272 last year.

To me, the change in Ichiro's approach is more interesting, and potentially more impactful, than the change in the Mariners' batting order. I think it's absolutely the right thing for him to do, regardless of where he hits in the lineup — the best way to regain his stature as a premier hitter. At his age, Ichiro is not going to get any faster, so an approach that has been so predicated on infield hits — more than 50 a season in his prime years, and up to a peak of 63 in 2001, when he took the league by storm — is not going to continue to be effective.

The first reaction, of course, is to say, "So why put a guy like that in three hole?" It's a legitimate question. But everyone has seen what Ichiro can do in batting practice when he swings from his heels. Drive after drive into the seats. His career numbers hitting in the clutch are excellent (.333 batting average/.436 on-base percentage/.411 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position in over 1,300 at-bats). And there has always been a sense that Ichiro can do what he wants with a bat, if he puts his mind to it.

Now, it seems, he is ready and willing to put his mind to being a more conventional hitter, one aiming for the gaps and not the hole at shortstop.

In baseball (where's it's obvious) and beyond (where most managers just don't get it), to create positive change, you need both to design organisational change (reassign job responsibilities, prune technological and workflow plaque, tweak or remake messages given internally and to customers and suppliers, to name a few key aspects), and re-shape individuals' behaviors.

In my own management practice, the first knowledge I try to document is how the organization defines "success" (that is, its currency or currencies). If the organization is not already successful on its own terms, a frequent major contributor is that either contributors don't share the same currency or internal incentive systems don't reinforce that currency -- or outright undermine it. For example, I was working with a publishing concern four years ago that had as a mission delivering online the most important and interesting informational details the readers wanted. Okay, but contributors were evaluated primarily on how closely they hewed to deadlines and the conformance of their grammar and punctuation to a style guide...all very worthwhile objectives, but very different from the mission. It's not surprising that the shop was pointlessly tense and the product a failure at its mission. No one was particularly happy with the results, but change (outside of contributor churn, something that would not affect the organization's success) was not on the menu. This doesn't exactly guarantee failure (contributors may choose to pursue the organization's mission if it's stated clearly, even if contributors get no praise or bonus for it -- but to succeed in this environment requires a great deal of luck or extraordinary hiring). (One of the smartest clients I've ever worked with wrote a how-to book on part of the currency issue and it's a very worthwhile first step if you need to get actionable ideas on turning a currency problem around,

So getting contributors' and the organization's currencies running at least parallel is an important first step. When Ichiro first came to the team, they were determined to get to the playoffs to justify the most expensive publicly-subsidized stadium ever built, and he was the catalyst achieving that. His currency was: being a batting average champion, being respected as a defender, notching 200 hits per season, helping the team achieve its mission.

Over time, the team mutated. As documented in Jon Wells' forthcoming book, Shipwrecked: A Peoples' History of the Seattle Mariners, executive management committed to an overriding single mission: achieving positive cash flow every year. While not all fans/customers share Wells' currency (winning titles), and while most MLB customers will settle for an adequate team that is entertaining and has entertaining, family-friendly diversions, close to zero customers share executive management's overriding single mission. After a few years of cash-flow success with lagging on-field performance, contributors, especially hyper-competitive ones like professional baseball players, tend to lose some sharpness. Not Suzuki: he just pursued his own currencies more doggedly, and because the team's fortunes were so lukewarm and winning titles became more apparently a back-burner objective, the front office and field management had less incentive to go toe-to-toe with the outfielder to get him to do what they wanted even if it wasn't exactly what he wanted...it wasn't close to making a difference between winning a World Series and having a mediocre record, so ¿why sweat it?

The Seattle Mariners team approaching the 2012 season is a different animal, though. The front office has apparently got executive management to consider a long-term plan for extended winning records, giving playing time to young players and hot prospects who, if they succeed, become very cost-effective, success-hungry contributors. 

It's a strategy that tends to produce interesting but losing teams in the present with a chance to contend in the future. Given that strategy, Ichiro's pre-eminent currencies are worth less to the team. Instead of "setting the table", he needs to "set the tone" of a team ethic. When the young players see even the self-centered star is willing to make major changes to help the team succeed, they are likely to pattern their own behavior after that trajectory, one that helps organizations succeed.

It helps, of course, that Suzuki had an historically awful season last year and that, competitive dude he is, that allows him to relax his jaws a little bit and release the radial long enough to give the field manager's Change initiative a try.

But a key part of this Change initiative is getting the contributors to buy in. It's not enough to have a clear stated mission, and to rework incentives. To achieve organisational change, the team has to get the individuals that make up the systems to change, too. Change is organisational, but change in personal, too, and without both, the odds of success are close to zero.

The M's new experiment will be fun to watch through its predictable downs and ups. And if you have enough courage and persistence to try this in your own organization (through reassigning job responsibilities, pruning technological and workflow plaque, tuning your incentive systems -- both explicit and tacit, tweaking or remaking messages given internally and to customers and suppliers, to name a few key aspects) you have a potent tool for revolutionizing your outcomes.

Baseball does this all the time. ¿Will you?

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