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Book Value: The Mental ABC's of Pitching

by John Shook
July 11, 2017

Book Value: The Mental ABC's of Pitching

by John Shook
July 11, 2017 | Comments (1)

With both the All-Star Game and our Lean Coaching Summit approaching, I got to thinking about ways that non-lean books offer insights into coaching and mastery. Back in 2009 I wrote several pieces on this topic and feel that in the spirit of summer reading it would be fun to dust them off and share them here….

One of the books that some readers find curious to find cited in the resources of Managing To Learn, which are apropos to the season, is The Mental ABC's of Pitching. Actually, there are two baseball books in the bibliography, the other being You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting.

The Mental ABCs of Pitching by H. A. Dorfman is a wonderful, simple book that goes through the English alphabet presenting a key word for each letter. Dorfman writes about a wide range of practices and beliefs, ranging from Breathing to Goals to Mantra to Umpires. The book is simple but also unpredictable, in the sense that Dorfman can quote Chekov — “Man is what he believes” — when stressing the need for pitchers to understand what they think of themselves; and on the next page offer advice on how to regroup from giving up a Big Inning.

There are several entries that relate directly and beautifully to specific lean concepts. Be sure to read them all, but I’ll introduce just three here, starting with "A" — for "Adjustment."

As you know, much if not most, if not almost all of "lean" is essentially a matter of seeking in all that we do means of realizing P-D-C-A. Deming's elegant model is another of the many "deceptively simple" dynamics of lean thinking and acting. The "A" stands, of course, for "Act". Lately, many of us add the coloration of "adjust" to explain what happens in the "A' dimension of the cycle.

The idea here is that, based on the trial (Do) that you put into play that is based on your hypothesis (Plan), you must have (should have, anyway) learned something – after all, nothing ever goes exactly according to plan.

That, in fact, is an assumption of lean thinking, "no problem is problem!" So, based on your "Check" of the results of your trial, you will invariably need to make some adjustment. Following that adjustment should come standardization. With the new standard now in place, you begin the process all over again. And again.

Author Dorfman’s explanation of "A for Adjustment" is beautiful in its simplicity and powerful in its implications.

"To make an adjustment is to make a change, an adaptation. In the context of the baseball definition, it presumes a thoughtful, rational assessment of A) what the pitcher was trying to do, B) what went wrong, C) what he must do to fix it."

Here's another perfect lean fit from the ABCs of Pitching: Habits.

"The more a pitcher can develop routines, the more confidence he can have in his preparedness. He will feel a greater sense of control and focus. His routines are formed through choice and consistent expression of the behaviors he understands will serve him well. These routines are the focus of his attention and help him to 'stay in' good habits, so he does not have to concern himself with 'getting out' of bad ones. The habits are developed in relation to directed tasks."

And, finally, "Learning", in which he quotes no less a lean source than Henry Ford:

"Simply stated, the best pitchers are the best learners. Whereas just about everyone in baseball gives and receives advice, the best learners are eager listeners. They know how to evaluate what they hear, and then how to integrate the appropriate advice into behavior. The best learners know that failure, as Henry Ford put it, 'is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.' The best learners instinctively recognize that experience by itself is valueless. What one does with it gives it value."

To those of you whose teams are struggling with their mid-season pitching, try sending a copy of The Mental ABCs to your team’s pitching coach.

Another great book that is ostensibly about baseball yet teaches us much more is Ya Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting. Whiting wrote two books about Japanese baseball. The other, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, is actually my favorite, and is one of my favorite books about Japan, but is very hard to find. You Gotta Have Wa was the basis of the Tom Selleck movie "Mr. Baseball" so will be much easier for you to locate. And the themes and even much of the content of the two books is essentially the same.

There are more books that try to describe, explain, analyze, interpret Japanese culture and society than there are even about lean. Most either oversimplify (and over-criticize or over-praise) or dive so deep into arcane social-cultural historical hair-splitting as to be inaccessible to all but the experts.

Whiting's two books, though, explain almost all of the intricate dynamics of Japanese society that you need to know to understand the cultural underpinnings that gave rise to the birth of the Toyota Production System in Mikawa Japan. But, Whiting explains it all through the lens of baseball, with funny and hard-to-believe anecdotes.

Baseball was transplanted from the U.S. to Japan during the period of mass cultural infusion of Japan's Meiji Era. This was when Japan (at gunpoint) ended its almost 300 year period of self-imposed isolation from the world. By the 1950s, baseball had become thoroughly "Japanized". Baseball in Japan looks the same on the surface as its American forerunner, but the differences are many and illuminating. You may note elements of the Japan-ization of baseball that represent the reverse situation we face in our challenge of adopting/adapting TPS for our American or other cultural environments.

Here are a few gems from the book:

"By the time Japanese professional baseball had celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, it had become a mirror of Japan's fabled virtues of hard work and harmony, and a game that was barely recognizable to Americans."

"This isn't baseball," grumbled former Dodger Reggie Smith after his first season as a Tokyo Giant. "It only looks like it."

"Training isn't just supportive of playing well in the game: 'Training is a religion'."

I invite you to read either of Whiting's books with an eye to, first, gain an insightful look into Japan and how things work there and, secondly, to ponder the reverse transplantation dynamics – perhaps you can find some hints to help with your own situation.

Whiting's books are fun, insightful and often hilarious. No less an authority than David Halberstam agrees with me:

"Far more than a sports book - What you read is applicable to almost every other dimension of American-Japanese relations.”

Whiting defines "Wa" as meaning "unity and team spirit". Usually it's translated in English as "Harmony". The original name of Japan the country (the name they gave themselves) was "Big Harmony". Possibly the best anthropological work on Japanese business was an ethnographic study of a bank, called "For Harmony and Strength", which author Thomas Rohlens borrowed from the banks motto. What's interesting is that, whether baseball or Rohlens' bank or Toyota, harmony isn't something that the group is born with, it's a desired state to be worked toward. If they were born that way, why would they have to train so hard to get there?

So there you have it, baseball and PDCA and science and lean thinking, all mixed and stirred into a fun summer cocktail. Looking forward to both the Major League Baseball All Star Game tonight on tv and the Coaching Summit next week. For those of you in non-baseball countries - most of the world (even though we do call the championship games in October the "World Series") - no intent to disrespect your favorite sport; I do think the game will be broadcast around much of the globe. As for those of you attending the Coaching Summit next week, we can explore together how coaching methods contribute to better performance regardless of the venue: sport or work.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Katie Anderson July 17, 2017

Great article, John. You know I am now a big Japanophile myself since our experience living in Japan and am facinated with how Lean/TPS and Japanese cultural habits are related. I didn't know about either of the books you referenced - I'm going to go in search of the first and order the second. My experience going to a baseball game in Tokyo was completely unlike any baseball game I'd attended in the U.S.! 

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