‘Moneyball’ Lessons – Listen to Your Front-Line Staff
I loved the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis, but I haven’t seen the movie yet (I hear it’s good). To me, it was a story about being forced to go against conventional wisdom to come up with your own strategy in an industry — this could be Toyota in car making, ThedaCare in healthcare, or the Oakland A’s in baseball (the subject of Moneyball).
One lesson I don’t remember getting from the book was that you need to listen to frontline staff. Of course, I believe that’s very true, that frontline staff need to be engaged in continuous improvement via Lean and Kaizen methods (it’s the subject of my next book). USA Today had a piece last week by MIT Sloan professor Paul Osterman that made that connection: Column: ‘Moneyball’ lessons for the economy.
“…an organization’s success depends heavily on the contributions of front-line workers, the counterparts of the overlooked players uncovered by [A’s General Manager Billy] Beane.”
Yes, an organization’s success DOES depend heavily on frontline staff, but the ability of a nurse to participate in Kaizen isn’t quite the same as being able to consistently work deep into a pitch count and to have a high on-base percentage. Osterman cites Toyota, Southwest Airlines, and Google as three excellent examples of staff-driven improvement.
There is somewhat of a parallel to staff engagement since Beane, as a senior leader, listened to advice from lower level staffers who had ideas that seemed, at first, crazy to Beane. These ideas flew in the face of traditional baseball scouting guidelines and the old “conventional wisdom.” There are parallels to Lean… the old conventional wisdom in manufacturing is “bigger batches are more efficient,” while Lean challenges us to reduce batch sizes to improve flow and quality. Baseball traditionally looked at batting average, while the Moneyball approach places more value on on-base percentage and puts more value on statistics instead of valuing the way players look.
If firms could do better by taking advantage of what their front-line, often low-paid, workers have to offer, why aren’t they doing this? Why, instead, are they leaving value on the table?
In part the answer is the same as in Moneyball: old-fashioned thinking and outmoded beliefs. Too often, students in business school are taught that they are being groomed as leaders and that this means they will make decisions and will be responsible for the enterprise’s success. “Managers think; workers execute,” is the mantra they learn. They are infrequently taught that success lies in the hands of an organization’s employees, people often invisible to those at the top.
The forced Moneyball analogy aside, Osterman nails it… it’s outmoded thinking that traces back 100 years to Frederick Winslow Taylor, who taught that managers and educated engineers were the ones who were responsible for improving processes, not the workers. This is pretty common MBA thinking and I still run across some who, in the discussion of staff-driven Kaizen, out themselves as Taylorists, saying things like “well, but frontline staff members don’t know how to fix things.” My upcoming book has lots of evidence and many examples that show staff members DO often know 1 ) what’s broken and 2) how to fix it. The idea that staff members are the key to improvement is also the philosophy behind KaiNexus, a software startup I’m working with.
Osterman sums it up well in his conclusion:
None of this is easy, but the path is clear. The real question for our society is whether we can muster the will to move in the direction of higher productivity and better quality. If the answer is yes, our front-line employees can lead the way.
Not easy, but important!