Ergo Moneyball

Go after base hits, recruit undervalued players and play the game differently

By Davana Pilczuk

In 2002, the Oakland Athletics were the third-lowest salaried team in Major League Baseball. They had one of the lowest payrolls in the league at approximately $40 million, compared to the New York Yankee's $120 million. General Manager Billy Beane had a difficult task: Build a top-notch Major League Baseball team on a shoestring budget.Ergo Moneyball 

What Beane did would make history and change baseball as we know it. The story of the Oakland A's was first made famous by author Michael Lewis in the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game, which was made into a box office hit in 2011. It is a true story about how sometimes, in order to win, you have to learn to play the game differently.

Ergonomists can empathize with how Beane must have felt. Creating a successful ergonomics program can feel like a monumental task, and many times we are asked to do a lot with a little. Studying the A's story and how Beane overcame these challenges can teach us some great lessons in how we can overcome some very common hurdles faced when developing corporate programs and creating culture change.

Ergo programs seem to face three common hurdles. The most common complaint heard is "lack of buy-in." Management seems to miss what ergo is about and how it can benefit their business. The next issue is not having a large enough budget to fund projects, conduct training and do all that is involved with program development. While budget is always an issue for any program, funding for ergo programs often appears to be especially tight for some strange reason.

The last most overwhelming hurdle always seems to be the workload. With most companies hiring just one or a small handful of ergonomists to tackle the work, success often feels impossible.

Fear not, there are ways to win.

Lesson 1: Go for base hits, not home runs

The A's needed wins, and the way to get wins was by increasing runs. If the team could focus on getting players who could get on base and score runs, their odds of being successful were higher.

So that's just what they did. They didn't focus on home runs. Instead, they focused on base hits and other ways of getting on base, which would lead to runs, which would lead to wins. By focusing on getting on base, the team started winning game after game until it was on a record-breaking winning streak.

Both young and established ergonomics programs can benefit from this technique. Going after easy wins and low-hanging fruit is key to building momentum for your program and to gaining management buy-in. Too often, companies focus on fixing complex problems. But these ergo issues are extremely difficult to fix and will require capital expenditure and engineering redesign.

My colleague Stephen Jenkins, an ergonomist at Cintas, refers to these types of problems as "historical problems" because they've been around for years. They have yet to be fixed because of the high degree of difficulty required to fix them.

Base hits, on the other hand, are low-cost, easy-to-implement ideas that often have widespread impact affecting large numbers of workers. It's shocking how many ergonomists go after the hard problems and completely skip the opportunity for the easy wins.

Easy wins have a huge benefit: They have a powerful impact on programs. They make everyone, especially management, see that ergo is doable. When something seems doable, people are more apt to do it. Easy wins also save a company money by simultaneously reducing risk (i.e., potential injuries) and using low-cost solutions that barely dent the budget.

Another great thing about easy wins is that they can be used to help so many people. Think of all the people who have to push, pull or carry something in their work areas. If you focused your time on putting wheels on all items that are moved manually or designing carts people can load so they no longer have to carry items manually, the risk you could reduce would be enormous, and buy-in would shoot through the roof. Figure 1 details a variety of easy-win solutions, while Figure 2 shows the benefits of base hits to building your nascent ergonomics program.

Lesson 2: Recruit undervalued players

Beane couldn't afford expensive players. Home run hitters and famous names always come with a price tag, one that Beane knew his payroll couldn't support. Instead of looking for the Barry Bonds and Derek Jeters, he looked for undervalued players who other teams dismissed.

He signed differently, picking unorthodox, past-their-prime and even injured players that his scouts vehemently opposed. Yet Beane saw value in them and had a hunch they'd pay off.

Many ergonomics programs use teams to help drive change. Often the teams are made up of technical specialists, such as engineers and EHS (environment, health and safety) professionals. The thinking is that these individuals have a technical skill set in ergo and thus are best suited to lead ergo teams or comprise the majority of the team.

While this logic holds true for complex problem-solving that involves highly engineered solutions, if your goal is to create real culture change, you want people who can naturally influence those around them. Solving ergo problems is actually a portion of an ergo program. Educating the masses and gaining buy-in are probably the more difficult tasks ergonomists face. Therefore, look for natural influencers who you can turn into advocates and teachers. They will get your program on base.

Undervalued players include administrative assistants, interns and co-ops and the shop technician.

Administrative assistants: It always amazes me how overlooked this group always is. Few of us have that golden ticket needed to walk right into the C-suite boardroom. However, admins are powerful allies because they can keep you out or help you get in.

Admins know who's in the know and can point you to the right people you need to access. They are their organization's pulse because they have to know what's going on at all times in order to keep business moving. Put them on your team and arm them with as much information as you can. They can serve as honorary campaign managers, guiding you through the ins and outs of the business, booking you gigs in hard-to-access meetings and protecting you from harm's way.

Best of all, they will get your back and be your voice when you aren't there to speak for yourself.

Interns and co-ops: If there ever was a group of passionate hopefuls, this is them. They are looking for a job and know that they have limited time to prove themselves, so use that motivation to your advantage.

They also are a much more cost-effective hire than a consultant or staff ergonomist. Use them to help teach classes and simple ergo lessons. This will free up some time for you and give them much-needed experience.

To this day, my best ergo team member was a 22-year-old industrial engineer intern who took everything he learned about ergo and spread it like the gospel across his 200-plus-person manufacturing business unit.

It wasn't his years of experience or engineering degree that influenced people. (He was actually a biology major.) It was his drive and ambition to create a place where people didn't get hurt when they came to work.

He was undervalued, but his level of influence with the mechanics was higher than any of the senior full-time engineers in his department. Eventually he was hired full-time and quickly moved up the ranks to manager, all while starting three ergo teams, mentoring several Ergo Cup teams at the Applied Ergonomics Conference and winning the company's internal ergo competition twice.

Looking the other way is costly

LOOKING THE OTHER WAY IS COSTLY

A recent study showed that more than 69 percent of employees had experienced at least one episode of significant back or neck pain in the last year, Gulf Business reported.

This means that companies are losing between 6 percent to 12 percent of their workforce to absenteeism and low productivity, according to the magazine, which covers trade and commerce in the Persian Gulf region. Paying attention to ergonomics, even things as simple as how your office workers sit, can improve their health and productivity.

"Poor ergonomics can over-stress your nervous system and throw your whole body off balance, having a huge impact on your productivity, wellness and quality of life," Tim Garrett wrote.

For example, people with poor sitting postures, who hunch over with their heads leaning forward, breathe through their chest instead of the abdomen. This shuts down the parasympathetic nervous system (relax and repair), disturbs hormone balance, causes fatigue and can affect sleep quality and digestion. These workers will have a lower metabolism and more difficulty losing weight.

Basic ergonomics techniques like sitting with only your lower back supported with your spine in a natural S shape, adjusting your monitor so it is slightly below eye level, and making sure your forearms are parallel to the floor can help.

Technical skills are great, but I will take work ethic and drive over skill level any day when it comes to creating culture change.

The shop technician: If the key to a man's heart is through his stomach, then the key to a manager's heart is through his or her team. One thing you must do is influence the shop floor and gain the buy-in of this workforce.

This isn't always easy to do since sometimes there is an us-vs.-them mentality, and you need someone to vouch for you. Finding a highly influential mechanic or technician who gets what you are trying to do will help immensely with buy-in. You might have positional power from your title, but they have personal power with their group and manager. Personal power has greater influence over how people make decisions, which is what you need when you're creating a culture.

Another bonus is that craftsmen, technicians and mechanics are unusually creative. It's often a very underappreciated talent, but the best ergo solutions I've ever seen have come from the people who actually do the jobs. Learn to tap into that talent, and let them guide you with their creative ideas.

Figure 3 details the benefits of utilizing undervalued players.

Lesson 3: Play the game differently

The A's use of sabermetrics, a technique to measure a player's value objectively, made them stand out. Baseball recruiters had always relied on more subjective measures to determine a player's potential, but sabermetrics made the game more objective.

Beane's approach was widely criticized until the league saw that his theory on how to win actually worked despite radically differing from the traditional methods.

Ergonomists also need to play the game differently if they want their programs to take off. The corporate executives know how important safety and environmental programs are, yet ergonomics seems to baffle them.

As a profession, we tend to blame management for not understanding what we bring to the table. At some point we need to take responsibility for this disconnect and show them that what we do can add huge value to their profit margin.

Here are some ways to play the ergonomics game differently so that you score some real wins:

Make ergonomics the business of economics, not injury prevention. Predicting injuries is hard. Predicting if they will happen, who they will happen to and how much they will cost if they happen is near impossible, so stay away from using it as your main argument.

Instead, talk business when it comes to selling ergo. Business thinking involves return on investment, labor hours, overtime and rework. Those are the terms the executives understand, so start talking their language. Show ergo solutions that have reduced overtime or taken a two-person job down to a one-person job. Give the dollar savings associated to the reduced rework and product damage that were associated with your ergo solution.

These are hard, concrete financial gains for the company that can be measured, and it's hard not to buy into something that can generate real money savings.

Don't make budgets the issue. Ideally, we all want large budgets to fix problems. However, not every ergonomist is lucky enough to have such a pile of money. Don't let this frustrate you.

Sometimes adversity is just the thing you need to stir up those creative juices. Just think "design on a dime" and make the lack of money be an initiative for people to come up with cheap solutions. Challenge your ergo teams with ways to solve problems with a budget of $500 or less. You will be amazed at the creative ideas you get.

I once designed an ergo challenge for a company symposium that had more than 300 attendees. My team and I had been working on a historical problem that was difficult to solve, and we didn't have funding to hire a consultant for ideas. We needed a fresh set of eyes, a person who could see what we were missing. The plan: We would open up the problem to the 300 minds in attendance and offer two tickets to a local theme park as the prize for the best idea.

The result was more than 100 ideas, complete with drawings, instructions and comments on how to implement each idea, all within eight hours and for less than $250. Now that's econo-ergo.

Partner with other initiatives. Sustainability is taking a much-needed front seat in the minds of corporate leadership teams. Customers want green products and expect corporations to behave more sustainably, so going green is getting a lot of attention.

Does this make you green with envy? Don't let it. Remember, if you can't beat them, join them. Challenge your ergo teams and see if they can solve some ergo problems by using reusable materials found on-site. Use items in the warehouse or dumpsters that appear to be trash but are actually a gold mine of raw materials.

Pallets can be broken down and the wood used as risers for workbenches or made into seats. Scrap leather, foam and textiles can be used to soften areas where contact stressors occur, such as on table edges and on hard seating. By partnering with the sustainability initiative, you teach people how to design from a whole brain approach, considering cost, the environment and the person all in one.

It also gives your program visibility since making ergo-green solutions shows you have creativity and initiative and that you are teaching others the value of protecting the planet.

Figure 4 shows the benefits of playing differently.

Break the mold

In 2002, the A's went on to the playoffs and became the first team in more than 100 years to win 20 consecutive games, all because they decided to play the game differently. Beane's method worked, and he was offered a multimillion-dollar contract to lead the Boston Red Sox but declined, choosing to stay with the A's.

By utilizing undervalued players, going after base hits and not home runs, and playing the game differently, your ergonomics program can be successful like the Oakland A's. Just be willing to get on base.

Davana Pilczuk is the founding ergonomist and corporate ergonomics manager for Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. She earned the Creativeness in Ergonomics Practitioner of the Year Award at the 2012 Applied Ergonomics Conference for her unique approach used to create culture change. She has consulted for large companies and teaches universities and medical schools about the value of ergonomics. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of Miami and her master's degree and doctoral degree from Auburn University. Gulfstream's ergonomics program is frequently benchmarked by Fortune 500 companies for its high level of employee engagement and management buy-in. 

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