When I first joined a company, some years ago, I received a monthly HSE e-mail summarising recent performance by week, by month, rolling 12 month, calendar year and financial year. It contained LTIFs, AIFs, MTCs and a vast array of numbers: seventy-eight numbers to be precise. Every year, we were presented with 936 data points because we measured everything. We were great believers in that old management wisdom that if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.
Now attached to that e-mail was a document with the detail in which the devil resided. However, because of a data preparation error, the attachment had contained the wrong information every month for the previous 15 months. It wasn’t a nuance: the title of the main column showed that it was the data from October a year earlier. Every month was now October.
The email went to department heads, all of them diligent, all of them very concerned to manage HSE, but in measuring and reporting everything, none of us were seeing the wood for the trees.
We would spend time in monthly meetings ponderously debating masses of data points without ever really getting to grips with it. The data had become a sledge-hammer of irrelevance.
We couldn’t cope with the 78 numbers, let alone the detail. So in 15 months no one had opened the attachment and noticed the error.
Several years later, a friend was phoned late at night by an Investor Relations Officer about a negative online comment. It wasn’t a Tweet or even in a national newspaper: it was a response to a minor business story in a newspaper in the East Midlands. There was considerable hand-wringing and angst, mainly because the comment was fairly accurate.
“It’s one comment. It’s by someone called Whosyourdaddy and seemingly from Neverneverland. I don’t even know this newspaper. It’s not important,” my friend suggested.
They then spent an hour discussing whether to rouse the CEO, CFO and Legal Counsel, whereupon it became clear that negative online comments were part of the hapless IRO’s KPIs.
So by aspiring to ‘measure everything’ and quantify performance, a man sitting in his pyjamas in Kettering with a broadband connection could impact the bonus of an investor relations officer in a different country.
The madness of endless data analysis extends beyond the obvious 'management by clipboard' and into the very basics of work and leadership though. At a philosophical level, I see some international standards as a way simply to quantify and ‘box’ the way things are done. They seem to be creating an all-too-solid framework for all that data collection. Aren't many standards and protocols essentially a mechanism for allowing the less competent to do a job? I am sure many will cry out that standards ensure consistency of quality, not ability, but is there much difference in many environments? On the other hand, some standards have created a box-ticking industry of no real consequence.
In the early 2000s, many taxis in one Asian country sported ISO9000 stickers and I asked one English-speaking taxi driver about it. With great pride, he told me it was a sign of "great quality" and promptly mounted the pavement and knocked over a parked moped. Too many times in my career I have seen intense debate and scrutiny of the unimportant and irrelevant in the name of either a standard or a measurement. Reality is frequently shoe-horned into something different to ‘fit’. Everyone surely has standards and data horror stories.
Sadly, data and standards frequently also confuse rather than enlighten. For example, hotel ‘stars’ are a mechanism for denoting facilities, not the quality. If you look on TripAdvisor you will see frequent outbursts that “I didn’t expect poor quality service at a four-star hotel!!!” when the four stars are really just intended to tell the guest that each room has a TV and a trouser-press. It may be blindingly obvious, but information should help to inform: it is the means to the end, not be the end itself, and it certainly shouldn’t confuse.
So in our quest to endlessly ‘measure', are we perhaps losing the ability to lead, to manage and to react to ever-changing environments and circumstances?Newspapers report that British teachers complain about the box-ticking data-data-data nature of OFSTED inspections, that hospitals fail because they have a scorecard mentality, and we see that managers can’t find the causes of the accidents because of the mass of data and the analysis of the analysis of the analysis.
Are we focusing on the unimportant and the irrelevant?
Have TQM, Six Sigma, ISOx000 standards and a generation of gurus created an environment where our qualitative and human abilities are becoming diminished?
What role is there now for common sense, reflection, experience or even our ability to speak, listen and learn?
Have we just become hypnotized by the numbers and the need to constantly react to the men in pyjamas?