Agile Development and MLB Instant Replay

Posted on November 7, 2013 | in Baseball, Change Management, Error-Proofing, Kaizen, Lean Tools, Poka Yoke, Problem Solving, Sports | by
John Farrell, Jerry Meals

MLB is using the Arizona Fall League as a test site for the proposed instant replay process for regular season games.

Earlier this season Major League Baseball announced a planned expansion of instant replay use, similar to concepts applied in college football and the NFL, with the intent of improving the accuracy of the game on the field while minimally disrupting game flow. MLB instant replay will look to use concepts like limited number of manager challenges and what is/is not reviewable, similar to the NFL style of replay management.

It has not yet been fully approved by all relevant parties like the owners and the MLB Players Association, but there is high expectation that approval will be granted by the end of the calendar year.

What’s even more remarkable to me is that MLB is being very progressive about making sure they get the replay management process right – they are taking advantage of the Arizona Fall League as a trial league for the process. From Mark Townsend of Big League Stew:

Getting the call correct is the most important thing, but game flow and keeping the home viewer’s attention isn’t very far behind. Early returns there might not be as positive, but it’s all in the testing phase right now. AFL managers have been given unlimited challenges to use this week and are encouraged to challenge as frequently as possible to iron these issues out. If the proposed system is implemented in MLB, managers would only get a single challenge for the first six innings and two for the final three innings.

It’s not the apples-to-apples testing I was hoping for, but kudos to MLB for using a little PDSA (that’s Plan-Do-Study-Adjust) with the system before just flipping a switch and saying “it’s implemented, play ball.”

On the other hand, what’s true about the Arizona Fall League is that, well, it doesn’t really count in the grand scheme of MLB – only certain MLB players participate, statistics don’t count toward official records. This is a good thing, as it allows MLB and minor league players to continue training and developing. It’s a big practice league to help take players to the next level (literally and figuratively).

In that vein, Rob Neyer brings up a good point – why just five games? Why not use different iterations of instant replay throughout the entire AFL season?

I wonder if this five-game test — I think it’s five games, anyway — is nearly long enough. Why not use the entire Arizona Fall League season to get a big sample of plays and games, and work out the inevitable (but unpredictable) kinks? I suspect there will be more testing and fine-tuning next March. But there won’t be much time to internalize whatever knowledge is gained during spring training, with Opening Day right around the corner.

What would I like to see? Testing and tweaking of the instant replay process via Agile Development!!

Okay, wait, what is Agile Development? It is a relatively young concept for continuous improvement not too different from Lean. From Wikipedia:

Agile software development is a group of software development methods based on iterative and incremental development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development and delivery, a time-boxed iterative approach, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change. It is a conceptual framework that promotes foreseen interactions throughout the development cycle.

Yes, Agile is mostly applied to software but the point of Agile is the continuous updating processes and testing of systems in order to get closer to meeting customer expectations. The keys are its flexibility and ability to check/test/update/modify inputs to optimize outputs.

Couldn’t Agile development principles be applied to the instant replay system trials in the AFL? If the proposed system was “implemented” in the AFL for the first week, the teams and umpires could test the system and provide feedback on what worked well and didn’t work so well. An updated system could then be “implemented” the second week – maybe fewer challenges, different plays can now be reviewed or others are no longer reviewable, etc. Give that new iteration a shot and provide more feedback.

This could repeat for the duration of the AFL season and by the end of the season a more robust and game-friendly version of instant replay could be the new proposal for owners and MLBPA to review…and they’d know it was game-tested instead of just conceptualized in a board room somewhere.

Anyway, the fact that MLB is using the AFL as a test case is fantastic, but their time constraint is probably keeping them from fully vetting the new system before the big boys return to the field in the spring.

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