And the Data Says…

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By Dave Williams, DMWAustin .com

Data: facts and
statistics collected together for reference or analysis (
New Oxford American Dictionary).

The more I live life and work in organizations, the greater my appreciation for the power of data. This is amplified by the growth of the Internet and computers that bring information to me at the click of a button. Understanding how to collect data, analyze it, and act on it would be one of the essential skills I
would lobby to be included in
The Missing Manual for organizational systems and those that lead them.

This week, my daughter’s daycare class of five-year-olds learned about pizza. She was already a pro at the art of pizza consumption. As part of her class’ journey, they did an analysis of the toppings each of the kids preferred and created a rough Pareto Chart out of construction paper. The chart drove the decision of what pizzas to order for the party at the end of the week. What a great exercise in using data to learn and make decisions.


Photo: Dave Williams via iPhone

Now, picture a conference room.

Dave, your like a broken record,” blurted my client from across the table in response to my question. She had just pulled out a report she receives each day about a core activity in her operation that she was working to improve. Created in a spreadsheet program, the report had columns of data; mostly counts of quantities. So I asked: “Share with me what this tells you about this process? How’s it doing? Based on this data, what changes do you think will make an improvement?” Her response was part frustration, but also a flood of awareness that she was surrounded with data, but that none of it was helping her understand her operations or how to improve productivity, performance, or reduce costs.


Most organizations are data rich, but we frequently struggle to figure out what data is useful for change and how to look at that data so it empowers us to make improvements. Two common issues are: 1) a focus on quantities or counts and not outcomes and 2) looking at data as a single snapshot and not over time.

In the table above we see a common display of data; reflecting monthly totals, presented in a spreadsheet. Also included are a mean and a data point from the same time last year as a reference marker. You see
this a lot on the evening news when they report data. The news anchor says: “It’s 5 degrees warmer today than it was this time last year” or “unemployment is up 2 points from this month last year.” Sounds good, but doesn’t really help you truly understand the data.

One of the simplest ways to make data work for you is to focus on measuring the outcome of the process you want to improve, track the data over time, and then use those fancy charting tools in your favorite office
productivity software (e.g.,
iWork, Google Docs, OpenOffice, MS Office) and chart the data.

In the case of the client example, she was trying to track customer satisfaction. It is possible to scroll across the columns of table data and analyze the success of the process, but not easy. But, if we convert her counts into a percentage and display it over time in a line graph, now you have a quick, visual tool to understand how the process is performing and how any changes convert into improvement.


Data is very powerful and can provide great insights into how an organization and its processes are working. For many (including me), identifying the right data and how to analyze it can be a challenge, but the
results of the discovery are frequently very rewarding and the improvements that come from starting with good data trump any best guess one could have ever have offered.

(1) Measuring the outcomes of processes, (2) collecting data over time, and (3) reporting it in an easy to read line chart empowers you, and your colleagues, to quickly analyze performance and see the results of
any improvement changes you implement. Three simple rules that can change the way you do business.