The Melky Cabrera Suspension and Why Continuous Improvement Principles Matter

Posted on August 16, 2012 | in 5S, Baseball, Concession Stand, Error-Proofing, Lean Tools, Manufacturing, Quality, Sports, Tickets, Toyota Way | by
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(Photo from Bleacher Report – Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

When I first started to write about lean and continuous improvement applications in sports, I was more focused on the business operations – ticket sales, concessions, stadium upkeep, equipment manufacturers, entertainment applications – than the actual games being played.

However, in the last few months I’ve examined lots of game-relevant opportunities for improvement – steroids in Major League Baseball, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Major League Baseball pace-of-game rules, alignment of Notre Dame football with principles from The Toyota Way, as examples -in addition to those ideas relevant to business operations with sports organizations and small businesses.

Unfortunately, a lot of those examinations have been pointing out what is going wrong, where processes are not optimized, where failures led to potential alterations of sports history.

There are lots of alignments in operational principles between sports and business. There’s an expectation (or at least hope) of fair play among all the players, and there’s some degree of policing to make sure everyone’s following the same rules (for example, monopolies and collusion). Everyone’s trying to maximize different success measures (revenues and championships in sports, revenues and future growth potential in business). One organization is always trying to find an advantage over everyone else while also maintaining adherence to the rules (or at least not getting caught in failing to do so).

All of this brings us to San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera.

Yesterday Cabrera was suspended 50 games for violating the MLB substance abuse policy – he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance. He admitted to cheating and he got caught. The MLB testing program succeeded in identifying a policy violation.

But here’s why his positive test is notable, relative to other policy violations with other players – he was the MVP of the 2012 MLB All-Star Game, was leading the National League in hits and was second in batting average for a club 0.5 games out of first place in the National League West. He was in line for a free agent contract in excess of $50 million after the season.

And here’s why his policy violation and suspension impact the history of the game – he led the National League charge to an All-Star Game victory that gives the National League the home-field advantage in the World Series, all while potentially taking a banned substance (note: I draw no direct conclusions, but his statistics from years past build speculation). Because he is now out for the remainder of the regular season, the Giants will likely miss his production and might lose games at a faster rate due to his absence, thereby falling out of the NL West race.

In addition, had he not been caught until after signing his free agency contract after the season for big money, the signing team would have to suffer the consequences of not having his services for an extended period during the season. According to Buster Olney of and his take on the situation (sorry, subscription required):

Cabrera not only would have essentially been deceiving his next employer, of course, but he could have directly hurt other players in the market. If Cabrera had gone into free agency without a suspension, wielding those huge numbers, then players like Shane Victorino would have been naturally pushed lower down the pecking order, as the older (and less desirable) player.

I look at any player taking banned substances much like a manufacturing machine in production. Think about a machine whose users elected to defeat a built-in safety feature – maybe a prox sensor on a safety door no longer functions properly or an outside metal panel is removed because their existence slowed a process down. Sure, the process of completing a production cycle might move faster but the risk is high that someone wouldn’t get seriously injured. A serious injury is much like getting caught for taking a banned substance – you’re out for an extended period of time and your decisions affect a lot more than just you.

We can get into a discussion about ends-justifying-means and how much his absence matters or whatnot, but that’s all speculation and I can appreciate that. All I’m pointing out is that his cheating and getting caught affects more than just his playing status – it affects his team, it affects other players in free agency, it affects other teams, it affects the Giants’ front office, and it potentially affects the history of the game.

So what does that have to do with continuous improvement? If MLB is serious about having a “level playing field” where no players or teams are getting an unfair leg-up on the competition, then they need to have a process that audits to that level-ness. The process for catching process violators is good – they’ve caught a lot of them over the last few years – but the process is not perfect because there are likely players on the fields today taking banned substances and they’ve yet to be caught.

Melky Cabrera played with fire and got burned. Buster Olney again with a money quote from his article attributed to an anonymous player:

 “There’s more work to be done with the [drug] policy,” a veteran player conceded on Wednesday evening. “I think almost all players want a level playing field — that’s what important to them. If the policy isn’t deterring players, then that’s a problem.”

Having an ineffective process for testing is much like implementing a 5S program without having an auditing process. You’ll fail to sustain results and management will fail to demonstrate its importance. Lean and continuous improvement is about making things better, and that includes better behaviors and decisions on the part of employees and constituents.

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One Response to “The Melky Cabrera Suspension and Why Continuous Improvement Principles Matter”

  1. Pingback: Melky Cabrera's Massive $50 Million Blunder - News Rounder | News Rounder

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