Leadership Barometer 37 Five Mistakes Using Data

February 10, 2020

The Great Quality Guru, W. Edwards Deming had a lot to say about how managers use data incorrectly and waste the resources of an organization.

It was part of his philosophy of quality which he called “profound knowledge.” He stressed a number of mistakes typically made by managers when handling data. Here are some of the problems along with the antidote for each misuse.

Mistake 1 – Assuming variation is a result of special cause variation when it is really due to common cause variation.

Common cause variation is when a system is in statistical control with small random type variation occurring.

The only way to tell if a system is in control is to consider all the data, usually by plotting it, and finding out if the data variation is within certain defined bounds, called “control limits.”.

If it is in control, then for managers to ask people to explain the variation is simply a waste of their time. People will dutifully go off and try to find out what caused the variation, but the answer will be only a guess and not valid information.

When one or more data points go outside the control limits of normal variability, then there is a special cause. In these cases, it is not only possible but vital to determine what caused the variation so it can be controlled and eliminated in the future.

Most managers fail to determine if a signal is due to special cause variation when they ask underlings to explain what happened. This causes a large waste of effort and time and it lowers trust.

Mistake 2 – Assessing the capability of a process based on the most recent data point.

It is tempting to react to the most recent data and ask people to take corrective action based on that. At home, we might say, it’s cold in here, why not turn up the heat?

But just because it is cold at the moment does not mean the system needs to be adjusted. It may be the low point of the cycle that is in common cause variation. In which case, if we turn up the thermostat, we are doing what Deming called “tampering.”

Tampering is defined as moving the set point of a system experiencing common cause variation in an attempt to reduce the variation. In fact, it can be demonstrated that “chasing” the perfect setting will result in a large increase in the variation of the process. It is better to leave things alone.

Many of us have experienced this when sitting in a meeting. All of a sudden someone will say, “Whew, it is very warm in here” and turn down the thermostat. Ten minutes later people in the room are reaching for their sweaters because they are chilled, so up goes the thermostat.

All day long people fiddle with the darned thermostat and swear at the heating system. The problem resides in the fingers of the people playing with the setting, not the furnace control. They are tampering, which results in roughly double the temperature variation than if they just left things alone.

Mistake 3 – Interpreting two points as a trend

This flaw is ingrained so deeply into the fabric of our thinking that we rarely even realize how stupid most statements of movement really are. Every day we read in the paper or hear on the news something like the earnings for Company X are up by 20%. We think that is a good thing. Rubbish!

All it means is that in comparison to four quarters ago the earnings are 20% higher. It says nothing about the actual trend of the data. For knowledge of how the company is doing, we need to plot the data and consider the quarterly earnings over something like 8 consecutive quarters. Only then we can know what is really going on.

Many advertisements for products are based on the faulty logic that two points make a trend. When we hear that interest rates on mortgages is down by ½ point, that is a symptom of two points equaling a trend. We really cannot use that data to imply what has been happening to interest rates in the past or is likely to happen in the future.

Mistake 4 – Looking for blame rather than root cause

When something goes wrong, managers often focus on who messed up and why rather than what aspect of the system was the root cause so it can be fixed. They think if they can pinpoint the culprit and punish him or her that will eliminate problems in the future.

Actually, the reverse is true. By trying to find a scapegoat, people tend to hide the truth and work to pin blame on other people to protect their own interests. That leads to infighting, conflict, and other disruptive behavior.

Mistake 5 – Too much automation of process data.

This issue is counter intuitive. One would think that data plotted and interpreted by computers would be superior to that plotted by hand.

In fact, data where people have been involved in the process is more useful, because people have the ability to spot peripheral issues and correct them where a computer will just keep logging rubbish.

When people rely on the machine always being right, there can be disastrous results because, at the root of it, the machines are controlled by people, but once programmed, people tend to rely too much on the machine and forget to check for sanity.

That situation is how pilots occasionally fly into the side of a mountain, because they rely too much on the dumb auto pilot and forget to watch where they are going.

When we take the time to use data correctly, we normally build higher trust within an organization, because people are not being asked to resolve a figment or ghost of a real issue.

These 5 mistakes are the most common ones. There are other symptoms of how managers use data incorrectly to the detriment of their organization and the people. The antidote for each of these problems is to make sure managers are educated on these flaws and modify their behaviors to avoid the pitfalls.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Successful Supervisor Part 11 – Learning to See

January 29, 2017

One interesting technique I picked up many years ago while studying and implementing “Lean Manufacturing” is the concept of “learning to see.”

Since most of us are sighted, it seems like a funny concept to discuss, but once your eyes are opened to the data that is before you, the revelation is startling.

For supervisors, the ability to really see what is actually happening is a vital skill that should be cultivated.

The concept was first revealed to me in a 1999 workbook entitled, Learning to See: Value Stream Mapping to Add Value and Eliminate MUDA (MUDA is waste in Japanese) by Mike Rother and John Shook.

The concept was to have a set of rules whereby one could draw a diagram of any process that showed how the materials and value flowed from one part of the process to the others.

Value stream mapping is not rocket science, but the method is pretty technical and has a language all its own, which takes some time to learn. The end result of a value stream map is a cartoon-like diagram of the entire process on one page.

The benefit of a value stream map is that once you go to all the trouble of gathering the data on various aspects of how the process works, you really understand it. All of a sudden you can visualize or see the way things are supposed to work and flow.

That knowledge is invaluable when the process gets off course, because you can quickly identify the root cause of the bottleneck and usually resolve it. You can also redesign parts of the process so there is higher efficiency and lower waste.

One limitation of value stream mapping is that it does not deal with the level of motivation of the people who make the process work. How people interface with the process and with each other turns out to be pivotal considerations.

I like to extrapolate the concept of “learning to see” into the people part of the business. Of course people are not as stable and predictable as things like inventory or shipping, but the notion of a solid feel for how things should be working between people at work is pretty handy.

For a supervisor, as long as everyone is present and doing his or her job correctly, then everything is fine. However, any supervisor will tell you that it takes a rather amazing alignment of conditions for everyone working on the shop floor to be doing the exact right things at the same time.

Imagine the challenge of trying to get an orchestra to operate in perfect sync if there was no conductor marking the time.

The benefit of utilizing lean technology when working with people is that the supervisor can walk out on the shop floor and “see” very quickly what individual needs assistance or coaching. She does not have to wait until the wheels come completely off the process and there is some sort of calamity before taking corrective action.

A good supervisor will instinctively know that the operator over in cell 7 needs some help now. She will notice that the inspector on line 2 is in need of a training refresher. She will identify that the squabble between Alice and Pete is getting in the way of their productivity, causing a bottleneck, and slowing down the entire operation.

The tricky part is teaching the supervisor how to see. To accomplish that, experience and awareness are essential. The more a supervisor knows her people and the potential pressure points in the process, the more she can be alert to the early warning signs of trouble and step in when correction is easy.

Beyond experience, the supervisor needs to develop a kind of sixth sense that allows her to see around corners. It is akin to the concept of Mom having eyes in the back of her head, so she knows to check things out when the kiddies are too quiet.

A really brilliant supervisor can walk out on the production floor and quickly sense the trouble over in the corner operation. As she moves toward the scene, she takes in data through all her senses, and by the time she arrives on the spot she not only has a good idea of the problem but also the root cause and how to fix it.

Here is where the danger comes in. With that kind of instinctive knowledge, she can easily overlook a condition that is different from the normal fault pattern and start correcting the wrong thing or coaching the wrong person.

Tips to consider if you are the supervisor

The antidote is to take the sum total of historical information into account when diagnosing issues, but to keep an open mind to potential new patterns. Listen carefully.

Pause long enough to be certain the symptom you are seeing is real. It is like the situation where the mother whips around to see why things have gone quiet for the last 30 seconds only to see her two children on the floor carefully working on a puzzle together. Nothing is wrong, and no corrective action is required.

Your ability to handle this kind of complexity and have a decent track record of keeping things going is what makes you so incredibly valuable to your organization.

Keep on the move constantly and try to anticipate issues before they become big problems. You need to live and breathe the process on a moment to moment basis and understand it at a level few others do.

If you are a less experienced supervisor or someone new to a particular area, try to see the entire process operating as one flow, and be sure to include people aspects in your analysis. The more you can do that, the more valuable you will be to the operation.

Once you learn how to “see” your operation well, you will be among the elite supervisors, and that is a pretty satisfying feeling not many people experience. Eventually you will know how the entire process works better than anyone else in the organization, and that knowledge makes you one of the most valuable employees in the enterprise.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763