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The Drucker Difference

Japanese Baseball and Management Revelations

Last week's official start for Major League Baseball brought with it some of life's most joyful sounds: the crack of the bat, the snap of the mitt, and the flutter of the printed page.

For Opening Day invariably means not only a new season but also a shelf full of new books about the game, including this year's MVP (most valuable publication): Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, by James Hirsch. For those whose tastes run more to the business section, meanwhile, there is an improbable title bound to pique even their interest: What If a Female Manager of a High School Baseball Team Read Drucker's "Management"?

Currently available only in Japanese, the novel has become a sensation overseas. It has sold more than 300,000 copies in just a few months, and currently sits as the No. 3 best seller on Amazon's (AMZN) Japanese list. There is talk of an English translation. (The book's author, Natsumi Iwasaki, is donating some of the royalties to the Japan Drucker Workshop and the Peter F.Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management; both are affiliated with the Drucker Institute, which I run.)

Corporate executives, more than diehard baseball fans or curious teens, have proven so far to be the primary audience for the narrative, as they consider its key lessons. One crucial insight: "The organization starts with the customer," Iwasaki told me. Or as Drucker put it: " 'Who is the customer?' is the first and the crucial question in defining business purpose and business mission. It is not an easy, let alone an obvious, question. How it is being answered determines, in large measure, how the business defines itself."

Management Story

In Iwasaki's story, a student named Minami Kawashima unexpectedly becomes the manager of the baseball team at Tokyo's Hodokubo High—a position in Japan that's roughly one part clubhouse attendant and one part team caretaker. When she assumes this role, she doesn't know much about the job or the players with whom she must now work.

What she quickly realizes, however, is that they're a bunch of underachievers, talented athletes who are unmotivated and not performing up to par.

Then one day, Minami stumbles across a version of Drucker's 1973 classic Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. She devours it and begins taking action. Among Minami's first steps: setting clear objectives, just as Drucker prescribed. "Objectives are not fate; they are direction," Drucker wrote. "They are not commands; they are commitments. They do not determine the future; they are means to mobilize the resources and energies of the business for the making of the future."

In Minami's case, her ultimate goal is for the squad from Hodokubo to claim Japan's high school baseball crown, the Koshien National Championship. To get there, she embraces a number of Drucker's basic principles, all hinted at by the names of the book's chapters: "Minami Addresses Marketing," "Minami Tries to Harness People's Strengths," "Minami Takes on Innovation," "Minami Thinks About What Integrity Is."

Primary Customers

Many readers seem to be inspired by the protagonist. Even though Minami is a young woman—not exactly a position of high stature in traditional Japanese society—and occupies a lowly position within the organization, "she found a way to make a big difference," says Emi Makino, who is studying at the Drucker School (and who served as my translator when I chatted with Iwasaki). "It shows that anyone can be empowered to make a contribution." Perhaps the biggest revelation for the team comes about when Minami helps them figure out who their primary customers are. The answer: the boys' parents, a realization that spurs them to live up to their abilities.

"They first have to give back a sense of satisfaction to the parents," Iwasaki explains. "That's what those customers value: touching moments" on the field. The team then "galvanizes around that mission, and the wheels start turning."

The 41-year-old Iwasaki is a relative newcomer to this way of thinking, having discovered Management in 2006, a year after Drucker died. At the time, the online gaming enthusiast was trying to figure out how to more effectively organize people to play. A blogger noted that he was reading Drucker to help him with this, and so Iwasaki decided to do the same.

He soon found that he wasn't just interested in Drucker's ideas; he also was deeply moved by them. "Management is really a work of art, a historic achievement," says Iwasaki, who himself has written for Japanese television and produces comedy events for stage and screen.

Sense of Community

Iwasaki suggests that his book's popularity may reflect a change in Japanese culture. After a period in which people became "scattered all over the place" and "lost a sense of community," he believes that a collaborative spirit may be coming into vogue again. "There are signs of people wanting to work together," Iwasaki says. "In that context, Drucker's words really sink in."

As crazy as all this may seem, Drucker would have very likely appreciated Iwasaki's book. He loved Japan and had a close relationship with some of the nation's leading companies for many years. He also loved baseball. In the mid-1980s, Drucker advised the Cleveland Indians and helped revive the then-struggling franchise.

Through the exploits of Minami Kawashima, Iwasaki has put the two pieces together, a literary double play.

Rick Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University.

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