Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bobby Valentine Bulldozes Corporate America's Sacred (Mad) Cow

When a subject becomes

totally obsolete we make it a required course. -- Peter Drucker

Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine is often a horse's axe.

OTOH, he never would have created as much success for his employers if he had

been content to get-along-go-along. His type of self-serving, near-narcissistic

ego-centricity combined with high-energy and high-intelligence is visible in

many managers in many industries, but is more common and less punished in

Baseball, because unlike the accountability-sloughing corporate world, the

elected-officeholder government world and the non-profit & academic &

military worlds, performance accountability in Baseball is completely



...for the risible entrenched commitment the Commissioner's office has to

opposing the use of established technology that's been around since the last

century for the purpose of getting important umpire calls right. Major league

umpires are pretty fantastic, super-human even, in their ability to execute

fiftieth-of-a-second difference calls and get them correct a surprisingly high

percentage of the time. But established technology as an enabling tool could

improve umps' lives; instead of getting 90% of the close calls correct, they

could probably get to 96-98% of the close ones nailed.

In spite of polls indicating very high support for expanded "instant

(the use of existing cameras and angles and slow-motion

playback) to get close calls in games correct more often, Commissioner Zelig claims

he sees no support for it
. While his words have been a little more

conciliatory about it lately, his last official position on it was

breathtakingly toxic...when a pitcher lost a perfect game in the 9th inning to

an umpire's very blown call he expressed joy about the process, not the

blown (and totally avoidable) outcome -- he was thrilled the pitcher and his

manager were so civil.

It's one of those revelatory moments that tells you more about

humans who manage an endeavor than it tells you about the endeavor itself. It's

a management teaching moment, identifying the low-hanging fruit of consulting,

the "Survival".


"Survivals" are a concept forwarded by one of the fathers of American anthropology, Alfred Kroeber. 

A survival in this context is a behavior, a custom, a belief or another cultural artifact that has survived from a past usefulness even though it no longer has a current functional reason for being. My favorite Kroeber example of a survival was the buttons on the end of sleeves of men's suits. They don't button. The majority of suit coats'

sleeves did button before 1905. Slowly, for some functional reasons, coats evolved to not have sleeves that buttoned. But in the buyer's eye, blazers and coats without buttons "looked funny" and tailors put them on even when not needed to feed the customers' need. And because suits have non-functioning sleeve buttons when the next generation grows up, the presumption becomes tacit, invisible, usually unquestioned. 

It's not just material culture that's affected. When you sneeze in a public place with people who know you, what percentage of the time does someone say "God bless you" or "Gez-und-heit". I strongly suspect most people who say this to you don't really believe evil spirits (or

the batting stance of Craig

) will occupy your body if they don't say it (the original reason European people said this). They say it, because...that's what polite people do. Again, unquestioned, tacit behaviors that have no essential function.

Some people mistakenly think Baseball is a hot-bed of

reactionary anti-change-to-tradition ideology. 

It's not. Baseball is super-adaptive, especially since Michael

Lewis popularized in Moneyball the lessons Paul DePodesta brought to life

in the Oakland A's front office. (If you haven't read the book, the chief

DePodesta lesson is seek out the unquestioned, tacit beliefs and behaviors that

no one questions, and figure out which of those have no essential function any

more; then you can act with little competition, at least for a while, on the

alternatives that are being ignored as a result of the survival). One of the

best managers in baseball, the Texas Rangers' Ron Washington, spent his first

couple of years at the helm intentionally walking batters at a much higher rate

than any other AL skipper. It failed too often, so after

the 2008 season, he became far more selective in the application
of the

tactic, and with great success. He didn't stop doing it completely; he saw the

results (on his own or with the help of the very very savvy people in the Ranger

front office), and brought the frequency down by doing it in optimal situations

and less so in less-optimal ones.

But the resistance to using more instant replay, like the

determination to keep Interleague Play, is not just the indication of a's the indication of a Survival-ist, a level of commitment to

dysfunction that transcends habit or blazer-sleeve buttons. Commissioner Selig

actively embraces the wrongness as a faux virtue, as though it's an essential

part of the game that would be lost.

He certainly has his advocates and followers in this. The

Seattle Mariners' announcing teams seem to "feel" that getting it

wrong when one could easily have gotten it right is a great occasional event and

part of the game's charm. I recently heard XM/Sirius game broadcasts from both

L.A. and N.Y. that endorse that basic position.


So given Bobby Valentine's nature and the persistence-of-resistance to closing

the gap on wrong calls that could easily be made correct calls with the

investment of 90 seconds, giving back some of the shortening of game lengths

trimmed in the last decade, it's not surprising that Valentine is the guy taking

point on this for the field personnel (players, managers, coaches).

In mid-June his Red Sox suffered a loss as a result of missed

calls, and he went ballistic. In the light of the following day, he did not, as

would be the normal "god bless you" response, recant. In fact, he

twisted the ice pick with a little left-back English in an interview with ESPN.

Valentine was asked before Monday's game with the Miami Marlins if he had received a call from the commissioner’s office regarding his comments about the umpiring in Sunday’s loss to the Nationals. He said he hadn’t, but added, “I probably will, right? Isn’t that great when that happens? Then they fine you, take your money, reprimand you, as though I did something wrong. It’s great. It’s a great system. I love it.”

Valentine spent the next 10 minutes talking about umpiring. His basic argument: If hitters constantly swing and miss at balls they believe to be strikes, umpires can’t be expected to get

all the calls right.

"My thought on that whole thing is this: From the time now that people pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars to teach their kids to play this great game of ours, the No. 1 thing they try to do is teach their pitchers to throw the ball over the plate. They teach their hitter to swing at strikes and take balls," Valentine told reporters.

"When I did the Little League World Series, I thought it was the most criminal thing I ever saw. I wanted to cry when a kid in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and his team down by one run was called out on a strike three on a pitch that was six inches outside. He couldn’t reach it with his bat. I cried for him. And that kid is scarred for life playing our game by an injustice.

"And then someone says the most ridiculous words that I ever heard: 'But we like the human factor.' It's criminal that we allow our game to scar a young person like that, and then it continues on. I think in 2012 it should not be part of the process.

Huzzah. Wrong, especially easily-avoided wrong, isn't virtue.


Of course, in our work world, especially in business and the military, we see

the Survival-ists striving to block improvement or defect repair all the time.

The two most-frequent reasons are executive insecurity (if

you change that it means we were wrong
) and rice-bowl defense (that is, the

dysfunction serves someone's power or financial interest even if it undercuts

the organization's interests.

I once led a software and hardware test facility that was

created by a publication to compete with the test facilities of another

established pub that had captured the position of "authority" in the

field, even though their test methods were limited and very flawed. I worked

with the Marketing department to build a set of tests very different from the

other pub's and which our pub had slavishly imitated.

WB, the editor who had crafted that previous attempt ,had really

tried to do his best to fulfill the assigned (flawed) mission, which was to try

to match or exceed the volume of the established competitor using the same test

plans but with one-quarter or one-third the resources. He was an extremely

accomplished Computer Science guy w/a degree from one of the elite engineering

colleges of the world & he'd never spent much time mingling with mortal

end-users. So when he crafted test plans by talking with his elite buds and

getting critique from the vendors who created the products, he got predictable

tests that delivered (mostly) predictable results.

So the Test Center staff and I tried to create something

entirely different: user-centered testing, with the plans' developed in 

collaboration with the readers, people who deployed and supported the products

in the field with real users.

And WB was unalterably opposed, even though it was not his job

any more. He campaigned relentlessly to have it overturned, and finally, when I

wouldn't budge without him telling me why he was so opposed, he said

"but if we change, that would mean we were wrong".

This is one of the primary reasons it took from the second

petroleum price shock until about 2009, roughly 30 years, for American auto

manufacturers to boost fuel efficiency, losing significant market share in the

delay. And one of the survivals of the failure, the legislated lack of universal

MPG reporting on all new auto ads, persists to this moment.

Will Valentine be cowed, or will his words free others to point

out the unforgivable failure of preventing a cheap defect repair? The

truth-tellers here usually suffer some, but in Baseball, at least, adaptive

change usually happens. ¿In your own shop, would you speak up or remain silent?

No comments:

Post a Comment