A Lean Guy Watches Moneyball


When it first came out, I was a big fan of Michael Lewis' book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game about the Oakland A's major league baseball team and the unorthodox approach they took to building a team (under the leadership of General Manager Billy Beane). Now that the movie, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, is out on DVD, I watched it (as the first movie I downloaded to my Kindle Fire) for general enjoyment and with an eye for “Like Lean” concepts that I had remembered from the book.

I'm not a movie reviewer, so you might want to first read Roger Ebert's review and summary of the movie and then I'll give my Lean perspective.

Early on, Beane is frustrated by the conversation of the group of baseball player scouts employed by the team after they lost (as a low payroll team) to the New York Yankees (the highest payroll team) in the 2001 playoffs.

Beane asked, “What's the problem?” and the scouts threw out a lot of solutions – which players they should sign or promote. Beane kept saying that nobody was framing the problem correctly. The problem is that, with their financial constraints, they couldn't afford to find a direct single replacement for Jason Giambi or for Johnny Damon after they were signed away by the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The problem wasn't about what player to sign – it was about how to compete differently. The scouts were portrayed as being stuck in the traditional baseball orthodoxy, including discussions of a player having “a good face” or talking about who had “an ugly girlfriend” as if that was an indicator of their baseball success.

As Toyota had to do after World War II, facing a smaller market and a smaller budget, Beane and the A's would have to think differently and compete on different terms. For Toyota, that meant things like mistake proofing, quick changeover, and just in time production. For the Oakland A's, it meant evaluating players on a different basis – relying more on statistics than the traditional approach and valuing some statistics like on base percentage and walks more than baseball traditionally had done.

Needless to say, the baseball traditionalists, including manager Art Howe, didn't like having their orthodoxy challenged, as that was a threat to their way of doing things and it was a threat to their jobs.

One of the scouts confronted Beane and told him he wasn't pr0perly respecting the accumulated experience and intuition of the scouts, that baseball couldn't be run based on pure numbers and science. Do we see this in other industries where we are trying to shake things up with new thinking? Does the old guard say “look, you just don't understand how things work here”? Beane comments at another point that baseball has “medieval management” – which is something you can use to your advantage if you're willing to adapt (“adapt or die” being one of the slogans that Beane threw out at the team).

Beane and his stats-driven special assistant (a composite character named Peter Brand, played by Hill) want Howe to play Scott Hatteberg (a poor defensive first baseman who had a high on-base percentage) over Carlos Pena (a promising young player who fit the more traditional mold). Howe refused to listen to Beane, consistently playing Pena.

Out of frustration, Beane made a move that could be considered a “forcing function.” Beane couldn't directly make Howe play Hatteberg, so he did what he COULD do – he traded Pena to the Detroit Tigers.

As the A's start winning in 2002, Beane gets more involved in directly coaching the players in this new “Moneyball” approach to the game. Beane tells a group of players in the weight room that “This is a process – it's a process, it's a process.” He's trying to get them to buy into the new process before the results are completely proven (something that should seem familiar to many readers).

This “process” wasn't just a bunch of rah rah motivational talk (although Beane half heartedly tried some of that earlier, when the team was losing a lot). There were guidelines – “standardized work” if you will, including:

  • Take more pitches (wear out the pitchers)
  • Walk more (just get on base, a walk is as good as a hit)
  • Don't steal bases (too risky if you get thrown out)
  • Never bunt to advance runners (you're giving away an out for little benefit)

Beane says simply, “get on base, we win.” He had a method and a process, not just a pep talk.

Toward the end of the movie, after the A's lost again in the 2002 playoffs, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry is attempting to hire Beane away from the A's and he tells him that when innovative thinkers challenge the powers that be, those who hold the reins, they “go batshit crazy.”

I think Moneyball, while not a perfect movie, was entertaining and interesting enough, especially if you like baseball. But I think the movie is of particular interest to those who are trying to chip away at the conventional wisdom in an industry.

Have you seen the movie? What was your reaction to it? Check out a post by Chad Walters about Moneyball that makes some similar points and he catches a few things I didn't mention.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Of course I’ve got to be one of the first to comment!

    Excellent take. I now see the “coaching” and standardized work being conducted by Beane with the players.

    Because I read the book first as well, I’m very curious to read what others thought who have not read the book. I was pretty biased when I saw the film because I already had an idea of what to expect.

    Is “adapt or die” too strong a mantra to use in traditional change management?

  2. This comment is from a guy who saw the movie but didn’t read the book. Beane showed good leadership forcing his team to innovate because their situation was changing rapidly. People don’t always take easily to this change since they have different views of the current condition thus the phrase “Adapt or die” which is an interesting variation of Deming’s famous “Survival is not mandatory”.Ten years later baseball still has the same fundamental problem and small market teams are still forced to adapt or suffer many years of losing seasons.

  3. Al –

    I believe the fundamental problem with the book is that it spilled the beans (Beanes?) on the concept of recognizing and exploiting inefficiencies in the process of winning baseball games. It was a strategy that a small market team could leverage but now the big market teams have those business smarts too. Case in point: Theo Epstein using statistical analysis to win the 2004 World Series with the Boston Red Sox. Now that all teams have exploited this weakness, it is no longer exploitable for competitive gain.

    Other inefficiencies that have come and gone include stockpiling of draft picks and building up a strong farm system so you have a good stable of young talent that costs little.

    Small market teams have to find a new inefficiency to exploit, which is appearing to be difficult. Evidently the best way to gain a competitive advantage in baseball is once again “have the most money.”

  4. The “adapt or die” did strike me as a way of trying to wake people up about the need for change.

    It is reminiscent of Dr. Deming’s expression:

    “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

    That expression gets misused sometimes, though, as a way of trying bludgeon people into “do it my way… or else you won’t survive.”

    Beane certainly had a top-down management style in the movie. He didn’t really explain his strategy well to people, it was just “this is the way we are going to do it.”

    Not everything in the movie was a model of Lean leadership.

    Even the scene where Beane tells Art Howe that (I’m paraphrasing) “I’m sorry for not including you earlier in this new approach… that’s my fault” – it seemed to have a tinge of sarcasm or it seemed a bit like disingenuous lip service.

  5. I think that this movie is a good example for demonstrating lean principles. I did not read the book and was not ready to watch it with an eye for lean .After watching the movie I was thinking about the lean principles that affect my daily work: Do more with less,use your craftiness not your cash . Mark, you just added to the list of principles: Ask questions to get to the root of the problem, Challenge the old way of doing things , use standard work and change management.

  6. As a baseball enthusiast and Lean practitioner I always enjoy reading posts that relate to innovation and baseball. I really think the idea of “the process” is the important focus for Beane. Just as Taiichi Ohno said (or something close to it), without a standard, there can be no improvement. This idea that we can focus on the process for continual improvement rather than looking at the employees is the heart of the idea of Respect for People.

    However…as a baseball fan, I think there is something missing from Beane’s philosophy. He talks about the A’s as a small market team with a small payroll. Looking at some stats from Beane’s tenure, his team never finished in the top half of attendance in the American league. This isn’t because Oakland is anti-baseball, (they were #2-4 in attendance during the late 80’s & early 90’s) but because the team makeup was not very exciting. With 3 stud pitchers on the roster (Mulder, Zito, & Hudson) this team could have drawn huge interest and maybe a few playoff wins by going out and getting one bat to help push them past mediocrity (I realize they won more games/$ spent than anyone).

    I find it very interesting that a guy who continually looked outside the box for ways to compete was unwilling to step outside his own box for the chance to become great.

    • Thanks for the comment, Wesley.

      The quote and source is from Masaaki Imai and his book “Gemba Kaizen.”

      Imai wrote:

      “Where there is no standard, there can be no improvement. For these reasons, standards are the basis for both maintenance and improvement”

      But Imai learned from Ohno, so Ohno could have said it as well (but the exact phrase isn’t in his books, as far as I know).

      Back to Beane – are you saying the problem was that he didn’t do more to increase attendance, which would have given them a bigger budget to work with?

      I believe most of the money comes from local TV contracts, which gives the Yankees a HUGE advantage that can’t be overcome with ticket sales.

      The L.A. Angels get $120M a year. The Pittsburgh Pirates get $5M a year.

    • Wesley – I think you bring up a good point about attendance. The goal of a baseball team is not solely to win games, or even to win the World Series, it is also to fill stadiums with paying customers and to sell merchandise. Baseball is, after all, a business. So even if you can win more games per dollar spent, is that truly success? If a company wins the sales crown while incurring a negative margin, is that success? Is the most successful baseball team the one that fills seats and sells the most merchandise? What does a baseball fan really buy: games won or the image the team portrays? The ROI for a “big bat” sure seems compelling when you think about filling seats as the win and not what the scoreboard says.

      • Sports is a weird business and the goals are different depending on the owner’s personality and financial situation.

        I can best think of an NFL analogy. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is pretty damn rich from his time in the oil business. To him, the Cowboys and their success is all about ego. I doubt he’s really trying to necessarily break even profit wise each year (plus, he has an appreciating asset in the team).

        The Arizona Cardinals are owned by the Bidwill Family and the team basically IS the family business. If they don’t make money, they don’t have money to live off of, so the Cardinals are blamed for being a really cheap franchise that can’t compete, even though they had the fluke of getting to the Super Bowl a few years back. I’m sure the Bidwills wouldn’t pass NFL ownership scrutiny today, but they’ve owned the franchise for generations. So the NFL and Arizona are basically stuck with them.

        I’m sure there are similar situations in Major League Baseball.

        The “big bat” ROI story seems a bit like a chicken and egg problem – having huge attendance might help you afford a big bat, but without a big bat, you can’t have huge attendance?

  7. Great post Mark, far better than Ebert could do!

    I’m actually studying for a Change Management exam tomorrow here in Ireland but it’s nice to take a break to read this. It was tweeted to me by a third party.

    I had written my own blog with a slightly different take on it. One thing that struck me was that Beane (in the movie at least) only decided to go with the Sabermetrics option when he had hit a brick wall begging for non-existent money from the owner.

    I’m not so sure that he was that prophetic or far-seeing about the benefits of the method (again, basing it on what I saw on the big screen) and he only bumped into the composite character by coincidence when trying to trade players in the regular manner!

    One more thing, employing statistics and the like could be seen as a very hard approach to management. While the older scouts might have been out of touch (I don’t know that much about baseball), what about the tacit knowledge or influence that a less statistically impressive player might bring into the dressing room or to the younger players? How does Sabermetrics measure that?!

    No one, or no one team can be judged purely on numbers alone – surely!

    All the best from Dublin, Ireland – got to get back to my dreaded exam revision!

    Adam Byrne.

    • Thanks for your comment and for sharing the link to your post, Adam. You’re right, Beane was lucky in that he stumbled into the composite Jonah Hill character. I think most people don’t set out to totally reinvent the system… but he had no choice, as you pointed out. So, he combined necessity with some luck (being willing to take advantage of that situation) to try something different.

      You’re right that the numbers-only approach isn’t 100% perfect… the idea is that it’s less error prone than the “we like how the guy looks in his face” approach.

      Thanks for chiming in!


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