Can Lean save baseball?

Another season is upon us as the boys of summer take the field for 2018. The hot dogs are getting steamed, the popcorn is popping, and the smell of the damp infield sod gradually wafts into the stands. There’s nothing quite like being at the ballpark on a summer evening. Watching professional athletes do things we could only dream of doing is a unique experience, and as we always say here in New England – this could be the year (that the Red Sox win the World Series). Of course, since the Curse of the Bambino has been broken for a while now, this doesn’t have quite the same meaning as it did when I was growing up, but it still rings true for many Sox fans. Regardless of whatever success we have had or are having, we always half-expect the wheels to fall off at some point…

Usually, that kind of drama and angst helps to drive sales. The chance of seeing an epic failure or an outrageous comeback creates a good vs. bad, us vs. them dichotomy that feeds people’s desires to watch to see what happens. Without a source of tension (like the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, the possibility of a bench-clearing brawl or a seeing a record home run distance being set), the actual game of baseball isn’t all that interesting to watch. Most of the time, out of ten players on the field, there are only three who actually doing anything; all the rest are merely waiting for something to happen before they act. And that’s not including the guys in the dugouts and bullpens. In a Lean sense; it’s a hot mess. You’ve basically got seven guys standing around watching three guys do occasional work on the off chance that something happens (a hit) that predicates them to then take action. Now, even if someone does make contact and puts the ball in play, the fielding of said hit is handled by only one or two of the remaining seven, meaning you still have about five guys standing around doing nothing. It’s not exactly a riveting visual tapestry to behold. In fact, it sounds a lot like watching a town road crew fixing potholes, and I can do that without spending $9 for a beer.

At the end of the day, professional baseball is a game played for the enjoyment of the folks who choose to watch it – that’s it. It’s theater, and in recent years fewer and fewer people are making the choice to tune in. Ballpark attendance and television ratings are both down for MLB, which means that the millionaires who own the teams and the ballparks are not making as much money as they once did or currently expect to, and that’s bad for business. Baseball is a product, and when you hit the people selling that product in the wallet, it tends to get their attention tout suite.

To combat this phenomenon, team owners and MLB folks are putting their collective heads together to come up with ideas to help baseball appeal to the masses again. One topic that I’ve followed with some personal interest is the idea of how to speed up the games. As a Lean guy, I do find it difficult sometimes to sit and watch a game whether on TV or at the park. There’s just so much waste involved in the whole process, I find myself analyzing that more than I am watching the players or the scoreboard. This video from Vox in 2015 breaks it down pretty well:

So, as you can see – the value-added ratio (VAR) is pretty low. It takes a pitcher 23 seconds to deliver a pitch that take .4 seconds to reach home plate? That’s a pretty healthy (and boring!) differential. Imagine watching a process on a shop floor that’s like that!? Now you know why so many people are looking at their smart phones in the stands versus watching the game.

So – what to do? This season, MLB Commish Rob Manfred has instituted a few new rules to help speed the “pace of play”. I won’t list them here verbatim, but the major ones surround the number of mound visits (limited to 6 per team/9 innings), time constraints on resuming play once back from commercial breaks, and the continuation of the “batter’s box rule”, which means batters can’t go for stroll anymore in between pitches, and must keep one foot in the box at all times. There was talk of a “pitch clock” (as mentioned in the video), but we’ve avoided that – at least for this year.

Assuming that pace of play really is an issue that needs solving, the Lean tool of Setup Reduction can help. In actuality, MLB already employs some semblance thereof in the form of the on-deck circle. This is an area specifically designed for the sole purpose of getting the next batter ready before he’s “up”. I’d call that a good external setup measure. The bullpen is another good example. So then, why does the in-process setup/changeover stuff (adjusting helmet, batting gloves, hat, etc.) take so long, assuming that players are “warmed up and ready”? Yes, they have to get their signs to make sure that they’re supporting the goals of the organization (Hoshin Kanri!), but that doesn’t take long, and those don’t change mid at-bat. Basically it comes down to players (employees) just futzing around, wasting time and costing their employers money. Continue on that path, and anyone who’s witnessed it in industry knows how that story ends already…