How “Moneyball” Can Improve Productivity In Your Corporate Culture
Improve productivity–lessons from America’s past-time
The popular book/film Moneyball recounts the unconventional journey of Billy Beane’s transformation of the Oakland A’s baseball team who made a winning formula of recognizing and utilizing overlooked players and using data to measure performance. America’s companies can improve productivity by using some of these same techniques. Because we have a productivity problem.
Given 2/3 of the millions of people who have jobs are unengaged at work, there is a timely and important lesson in this powerful story. Similar to professional sports, in business a relatively small percentage of players in the corporation (with the biggest credentials, title, brain-power or networks) are seen as most valuable, given most of the credit, and often become the “go-to” people in the organization’s attempts to innovate and grow.
Front-line on the line
Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of front-line employees (who are closest to the customer and have great ideas for improving performance) are often left much to their own devices to navigate through tricky politics and bad bosses, and define a career path without abandoning “a life.” Most find it’s easier just to “follow the rules”, do what they’re told (wait to be told), and never speak up about how to make things better. (Typically the ones who have dared to speak up have been politely – or impolitely – told they’re out of line). Creativity is suppressed even further by:
- Poorly run meetings with no opportunity for passionate or lively discussion, meaningful problem-solving, or ideas for “serving our customers better.”
- Decisions which are bounced around the matrix (it’s rarely clear who’s making one) until they lose all meaning.
- “Doing it all” mentalities – rarely can anyone besides a senior executive recite a short list of clear priorities for winning. (At least in baseball that formula is crystal clear)
And this is the cultural environment in which America’s companies hope to innovate and grow our way out of the recession?
Front-line empowerment means growth
In his book “Good Jobs America: Making America Work Better for Everyone” Paul Osterman (Professor at MIT School of Management) proposes that to restore America’s economic health and job growth, we must empower front-line employees to solve problems and focus on customers – really. He cites the examples of Japanese automakers, Southwest Airlines and Google, whose profitability and market capitalization far exceed their industry competitors – in case you need proof that focusing on developing workforces that are 100% passionate and aligned and contributing is the real Moneyball.
Bottom line: Increased health to the bottom line of any business of any size happens by enabling, encouraging, and empowering the masses in your workforce to do great work. All of them, not just some of them.
Old ways in new times–why they don’t work
But outdated management practices in hierarchical companies have a stranglehold on the best intentions to empower people. One hindering factor are time-crunched managers who can’t train or develop people who should be empowered. But the most pervasive force derailing the empowerment movement is a deeply embedded mindset that “People aren’t really accountable.” From this mindset, we coddle our people until they fail and then ridicule them. We do our homework for our kids. We make it easy for people to “opt out.” And, we have effectively decapitated the “head” from the “body” across our businesses by placing meaningful decision-making (the brain) in the hands of a very small group at the top, who are usually completely disconnected from the heart and hands – the employees whose main purpose is to do the work, and the customers themselves.
Growth comes from “Yes, I can help you!”
As a result, effective decision making and accountability are paralyzed in most companies. This is a very troubling phenomenon to us as corporate culture experts – and a significant barrier for companies attempting to grow through organic innovation and mergers. The facts and studies demonstrate without doubt, an empowered (read: accountable) workforce with passionate contributors are the best way to improve the organization’s customer experience and growth. So why does empowering front-line workers feel to most companies like allowing “the animals to run the zoo”? Sure, “engagement” programs are very popular, but most haven’t gone far enough to place real, appropriate power and accountability into into the hands of those who can and want to make things better.
The 2/3 of the Gallup survey’s “unengaged” are a giant untapped well of raw talent and productivity waiting to be unleashed, most of who would love the chance to drive their companies down the field to a winning season. They need and want the inspiration, clarity, and power to make your organization better.
“American firms are gradually learning this lesson, but it is sinking in too slowly, particularly when it comes to lower-paid employees….wages at the bottom of the job market have stayed frozen for some time. Numerous studies show that when low-paid front-line employees get pay raises, their productivity increases, as does the quality of their work” says Osterman.
The proper role of a manager or leader is to:
- Remove obstacles,
- Ensure resources are behind the right projects.
- Control the work,
- Whip people into shape,
- Belittle mistakes,
- Hoard information,
- Assume if the idea didn’t come from you, you aren’t doing your job.
“When you know better, you do better”
If firms can do better by engaging people on the front lines and harnessing their ideas and energy, why then aren’t they doing a better job? In the words of Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.”
Osterman thinks the answer lies in the same reasons illustrated in Moneyball: Old-fashioned thinking and outmoded beliefs by those in power, threatened by what they perceive as “giving power away.”
“Students in business schools are taught they are being groomed as leaders and this means they will make decisions and be responsible for the enterprises’ 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 invisible to those at the top.”
This is supported by a popular Wall Street mindset that “soft” spending diminishes profitability (which is steadily eroding the long-term health of many companies, who lack the courage needed to spend money on training and developing people even if it means lower quarterly returns. Unexplainably, they don’t seem concerned with the costly turnover and gigantic compensation practices of top executives).
Bottom line–use the front-line. Give them tools, power, skills.
When organizations don’t give enough “how to” basic skills to their front-line (eg, what “winning” means in this organization, precisely how we pursue it, what is a good decision, what we do about customer service), it becomes a vicious cycle – you can’t empower people who aren’t trained effectively in “how to” play well. A rookie player with talent, passion, and energy but little experience and coaching isn’t in the starting line-up for a reason.
You don’t need a big budget or fancy program to make a difference in empowering people and increasing their passion to give their ideas and do their best work. Click to get a few simple, tried-and-true methods for getting more from your frontline workers.
As Osterman says, “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. “
My question for you today is “Do you as a leader have the will to change this in your own organization?”
Lisa Jackson is a corporate culture expert and co-author of 2 books including the brand new “Culture Builder Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide for Assessing and Changing Corporate Culture.” She specializes in teaching companies and leaders how to align and transform their corporate culture to maximize profitable growth, productivity, and innovation.
*Gallup statistics on workforce engagement from study conducted in 2009. References to Paul Osterman from USA Today, October 5, 2011, “Moneyball Lessons for the U.S. Economy.”