As I removed my laptop to get some work done on a three-and-a-half-hour flight home the other night, the flight attendant announced what the in-flight movie was going to be. I’m probably among the last people to have seen the movie, “Moneyball.” It might be that I’m too cheap to buy an $8.50 movie ticket, $5 bag of popcorn, and $4 Coke (Diet Coke, no less). I wanted to see the movie because it involved baseball and a view of things from a different perspective. So, while the laptop remained on the tray table, it was benched for the flight.
The story was about the Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s, a small market team that couldn’t compete economically with larger market teams. The A’s had good coaches and developed some great players. However, they didn’t have the money to induce top talent to stay or to come over to the team. This meant that they would forever be handicapped in their quest of a World Series title. This isn’t unlike many industrial plants — it’s hard to find good talent to replace the aging workforce, and it’s even tougher to keep them as competitors offer a little more.
There were a number of interesting lessons from the story of Billy Beane, the general manager, and his unassuming sidekick — a young, Yale-trained, economics major named Peter Brand, who had no baseball experience, but could boil baseball success down to one thing — getting on base repeatedly. Veteran scouts looked for attributes they believed would do two things — draw in fans and give the team a reasonable chance to win. They used an old formula that everyone else used, but one with which they couldn’t compete.
The two main characters, Beane and Brand, developed a strategy that involved finding players with high on-base percentages who weren’t high-salary guys; it didn’t matter whether they were hits or walks. The old guard — Manager Art Howe, the veteran players and the scouts — didn’t like the new strategy because it took them out of their comfort zone. The old guard knew better than some college kid, or so they thought. The strategy floundered as the manager circumvented the plan, a key player had to learn a new position, and an aging veteran player wasn’t brought in to relieve another player.
The manager resisted the plan as Beane tried to reason with Howe. Eventually, Beane took decisive and controversial action — trading two of the team’s best players. This kept Howe from reverting to the old management style. Beane also showed confidence in the player who had to learn a new position and stuck with him. The aging veteran, David Justice, had a key role to play, and Beane appealed to him to be the veteran leader.
Beane faced decisions at a couple of key moments in the movie, each of which had serious consequences for his career. Because his vision and strategy were so unorthodox, he most certainly would have been on the unemployment line if it didn’t work.
Manager Howe needed much more than an explanation of Beane’s vision and strategy. Pivotal action taken clearly could have led to Howe’s walking off the job.
It was a risk Beane took because the manager had to get in line or be gone. Combined with trading two young, star prospects in the middle of the season, Beane’s actions were akin to the old adage of “landing the troops and burning the boats” — there was no turning back. It was bold and made people aware of a deep commitment to the strategy. Beane also showed commitment by sticking with the player who had to learn the new position — acknowledging shortcomings, but staying the course as the player learned new skills to fit into the overall plan. In dealing with David Justice, Beane showed respect for the experienced player but asked him to step up and be a leader among his peers.
As with plant reliability, the long-time practice of being quick to fix broken equipment and rewarding that practice is an out-of-date strategy that should be abandoned. Getting on base, or avoiding outs in the first place, is like having reliable equipment. The strategy in how to get from the vision of high on-base percentages or high equipment reliability needs to be enacted by people, through focused and consistent leadership.
Beane was open to new thinking. But he also was ultimately accountable for the results. It’s why he made the big bucks.
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and (321) 773-3356.