Customized Work Environments : Let’s Play Baseball

Everyone Knows It’s About Winning

“A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for awhile.”  Bull Durham

it's about winning

“Most of what I know about leadership and management I learned from playing baseball.”  I said this to a very good friend of mine, Brian, when we were working together helping to “build” a new healthcare company.  I then proceeded to give examples of what I meant by that statement.  Over the course of time, as we faced new challenges, I would offer up yet another example.

At that time Brian encouraged me to write it all down as a sort of “ultimate sports analogy leader guide”.  Of course I didn’t do it – being distracted by all of the “very important” work I was doing.  I had breakfast with Brian last week, and the subject once again came up.  I think it’s time, let me know what you think!

So, I’ll start with lesson one: Goals.  It’s a pretty good place to start, because as Lewis Carroll said in Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”.  Goals – knowing what it takes to win – are fundamental to any sport.  They are also fundamental to any business.  Goal clarity, alignment of people around the goal and execution is what winning is all about, whether in baseball or business.

The goal of the game of baseball is very simple: score more runs than the other team. Period.  Every management decision and every player action is focused toward achieving this goal.  Every action, by everyone involved is designed to achieve this goal. It’s simple, the game is about winning and you win when you score more runs than the other team.

When I was in the restaurant industry, I translated this to a very simple goal: attract new customers and keep them coming back.  That’s it. Every management decision and every crew action was focused on this simple goal.  People could judge their performance by asking: “Is what I am doing right now attracting new customers or giving them a good reason to come back?”

It covered every aspect of the daily operation: cleanliness of the facility, quality of the food they checked in from the vendor, food preparation, courtesy, promptness…  If someone was busy prepping food and a customer walked in – attention immediately shifted to the customer.

Though the food needed to be prepped, the immediate need was care of a customer as that was the behavior that would “get them back” and “keep them coming back” was the goal – it was “winning”.

If the above sounds simple, it’s not.  It’s not simple to score more runs either.  It involves continual adjustments by management and employees.  If there’s not enough time to take care of the customer and prep food – a management decision about staffing or staff utilization needs to be made.  You cannot not take care of the customer and expect them to return!

Nor can you run out of prepped food and feed them!  That’s the challenge of a restaurant: provide a quality product in a pleasant environment with exceptional customer care.  If you do that well, you attract and retain customers and you “win”.

Stay in the Baseline

The rules of baseball are pretty simple: three strikes and you’re out; four balls and you walk; don’t balk; tag up if you advance after a caught ball; and, stay in the baseline or you may be called “out”!  These are rules that are easy enough for a seven year old “t-baller” to comprehend.  All involved in the game understand the rules. Base coaches coach.  Umpires make the calls.  The rules create fairness and provide each team an equal opportunity to win.

employment rules

Rules in employment should be the same: simple, understandable and created to ensure fair treatment and equal opportunities.

When I went to work for Nordstrom, this simple notion was a reality.  On my first day, I was given “THE Employee Handbook”.  It was a card.  On one side it said:

“Employee Handbook” Welcome to Nordstrom. We’re glad you’re here. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them, so our employee handbook is very simple. We have only one rule…”

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Side two said: “OUR ONE RULE”: Use good judgment in all situations. Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager or Human Resource office any question at any time.

At Nordstrom, the role of umpire was left to the regulatory folks who meticulously spell out the rules in their legislation and court opinions.  The role of management was to manage (the workplace) and coach (people).  All management were on the ‘coaching staff’, including Human Resources – the group that in some organizations likes to take on the role of umpire.

What I particularly liked was how it worked.  This philosophy was realized in customer loyalty created by truly service-oriented employees – people who visualized their own names on the door of the store and on the branding of the shopping bags; a worksplace of fairness and opportunity where management took the more challenging approach of using sound judgment instead of quoting the “rule”; and, consistent recognition on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For (Nordstrom is a “Hall of Famer” on this list).

I have yet to work for an organization that takes the path “treat all people as individuals with a collective sense of fairness” that ran afoul of the law.  When management uses good judgment in all situations, the benefits to employees and the organization are far greater than benefits afforded by legislation.  The key: use good judgment!  The “easy” path of umpire just doesn’t quite get the same results.

You Have To Work On Your Game to Make it to the Show

“Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is?  It’s 25 hits.  25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks.

That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”  — Crash Davis  Bull Durham

In baseball, individual performance is what pays off.  You don’t make it to the majors without a lot of talent, training and results.  The “learning curve to performance” is different for every ball player.  Some rise quickly to the majors and some never make it out of the minor leagues.  It’s not just about natural talent or effort, or even about who you know – it’s about what can you do, and more important, how well are you doing it now.  Baseball is all about merit and results.  There is no “tenure” in baseball.  You must constantly perform if you want to play in the game.  Baseball is about performance.

Companies that are “in the game” know this.  While hard work and positive relationships are valued, in the end success lies in individuals accomplishing results.  People are placed in positions because they get results – not because they are liked by the “front office”.  They are rewarded with promotions, increases and bonuses because of their contribution, not because they simply stayed on the job for another year. These companies recognize the value of “spring training” and provide opportunities for employees to keep current with new technologies and work methods.  They keep people active and busy so that they are prepared when they “step up to the plate”.

In baseball, players know what is required to make it to the show – all have equal opportunity.  Team management provides all players with the equipment they need, constant coaching, work-outs and practice.  To make the team, the player provides the numbers – the results.

In successful businesses, only productive employees have a place on the team and management provides the right equipment, training and coaching to keep them productive.

Cover the Bases

cover the baseA pitcher’s “job” is to pitch.  A first baseman’s “job” is to cover first base. When a first baseman is pulled off the base to make a play, the pitcher covers first base;  when the catcher is going after a bunt, the pitcher covers home plate; and, when there is a pop-up to short right and the right fielder is playing deep, the first baseman moves into right field to make the play.  You get the drift!

In baseball, there is no “It’s not my job”.  Everyone is aligned to the goal: win.  Their “job” is to adapt to do what is necessary to make the play – to win the game.

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It’s really a pretty simple notion, but it involves putting things in place to make it work:

Everyone is aligned and committed to the same goal.  The goal is not about individual stats or personal “convenience”. In business, goal alignment is the foundation of great performance, but it can also be a significant problem when employees are faced with conflicting goals.  Let me give a common example:

A retail business may have a goal that is expressed as “number of sales” and another goal of “customer satisfaction with our product”.  Selling a customer a product that does not meet their needs may satisfy the first goal but most probably will violate the second goal and potentially lead to a lost customer.  If the employee understands that the primary goal of the business is to “attract new customers and retain current customers”, they also understand that customer satisfaction is more important than making a sale.  Think of the purchases you have made where you experienced “buyer’s remorse” – did you remain a customer or promote the business to your friends?

job description

“Job descriptions” (translated: what is expected of me for the good of the business whether in writing or not) include expected performance to cover contingencies. “Other duties as assigned” is not good enough.  “Other duties” in baseball are not random and without purpose.  Players have an understanding of when they must take the initiative to take on “other duties”.  When the first baseman is pulled off the base to make a play, the pitcher covers.  The shortstop routinely covers second or third base. The catcher does not run out to center field to catch a fly!

The same principle should apply in business.  People need to have an understanding of when they need to “cover a base” and be prepared to do so.

Everyone in a restaurant should know how to greet a customer, take them to their seat, provide them with a menu and take their drink order.  In any business, everyone should be able to connect a customer to the service that they need.

When I was working for REI, we implemented a *Customized Work Environments* program.  Basically, people could work where and when they chose: they could arrange their work around flexible hours, teleworking, compressed work weeks, “hoteling”, job sharing, etc.

We worked hard to put very specific performance measures in place to ensure that the program would maintain the same levels of productivity and service while providing employees with work-life balance and generating other benefits: reduction of carbon emissions, decrease in office space requirements, better coverage for other time zones, etc.  People simply did not have to be at their desk in the office to meet their performance objectives. A very good example of how this resulted in overall improved service:

When a person worked offsite or off-hours, they were responsible to ensure that there was no gap in service.  They identified “common requests”, organized their desks for easy retrieval of necessary files, forms, etc. and cross-trained co-workers on the basics.  If someone stopped by when they were out of the office, they were greeted with “Dennis is away from his desk – how can I help you?” Rather than “Dennis is out today”.  In most cases they could provide the assistance needed.  This practice carried over.  When someone was out sick or on vacation, “customers” were met with the same assistance rather than the previously used “Dennis is out sick today”.  People also kept their calendars updated and accessible.  People’s work became more transparent.

Be prepared.  In baseball, players “practice the contingencies”.  Covering another position becomes second nature.  When the need arises, they are in place.  In business, take the time to cross-train and allow people an opportunity for practice.  Service should be second nature. “It’s not my job” doesn’t play – it’s everyone’s job to take care of business and it’s every manager’s job to make sure people are well prepared and rewarded when they play well.

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