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Dashboard Downfalls

If asked to look at information, I tend to lean towards a spreadsheet - better yet, a dashboard with information succinctly synthesised. For a long time, I considered information that was on a spreadsheet or dashboard as “safe”. My biggest learning on this topic is that data can be massaged, misinterpreted and just plain incorrect. It is everything but “safe".

This problem is not new, and the misinterpretation of information dates back to World War II. One example of this was written in the article “When data gives the wrong solution”, by Trevor Bragdon. Researchers at the Centre for Naval Analysis were faced with solving the problem of many bombers getting shot down on runs over Germany. Looking for vulnerabilities, they reviewed and recorded the bullet holes and damage from each bomber after each mission. The data began to show a clear pattern of the most damage being done to the wings and body of the plane.

See image below:

This image could be the proverbial dashboard.

Given the results, they continued to build a solution. What they neglected to consider or recognise however, was that the researchers had only looked at bombers who’d returned to base. What was missing from the data was every plane that was shot down. The data they had acquired was not futile but having recognised the exclusion of critical information, prior to the resolve, resulted in a solution utilised by the military for years to come.

Performance is a constant theme in our organisation, and the organisations we work with. Consequently, performance dashboards are often at play.

A common problem we have noticed is that the team members that are good with numbers are often the ones required to report. However, this may not necessarily be the person or role that understands performance and the results can be catastrophic.

Andrew Liekerman in his article “the five traps of performance management”, aptly identifies that often people who may not be natural judges of performance but understand the language of spreadsheets are appointed to report. He summates that this could hurt companies as a mass of numbers and comparisons are shared, but they provide little insight into a company’s performance.

It is evident, to us, that dashboards may be a huge area of risk for you and your business. However, if applied correctly it can empower the organisation beyond measure.

Angé Baard, from our team, so appropriately summarised a dashboard as a sense check - in a nutshell, are we on track, or are we not? Likewise, Paton Raman used the metaphor of a car - where are we going, how much fuel is there and is the car okay?

Dashboards used correctly, in our experience, can change the trajectory of your business. One such example, shared by Paton, was the creation of a dashboard for a well-known retailer:

  1. The problem: a slow sell thru rate on shirts and suits, a core category for the business.

  2. The solution: a dashboard created by Paton for a shirt and suit competition.

  3. The result: an engaged team, healthy competition, and an improved sell thru.

Another experience was (and is) the lack of visibility customers have with their online stores:

  1. The problem: Not knowing what moves to make to increase profitability.

  2. The solution: Shopify, an e-commerce product, has analytics and reports that give you the means to review your store's recent activity, get insight into your visitors, and analyse your store's transactions.

  3. The result: Understanding customer demands and aligning it to product supply, which resulted in increased sales and profitability.

If you are creating a dashboard, I'd suggest that you do not reinvent the wheel as there may be resources out there that can do what you require. And, avoid analysis paralysis: zoom out, summarise and simplify this process for yourself.

If you are reading a dashboard, I have adapted an old technique to understanding art written by art historian Erwin Panofsky as a guiding principle on how to read dashboards:

  1. Look

  2. See

  3. Think

The first two require you to use your eyes however, "look" merely means casting your eyes on something. A first observation. "See" means to notice and become aware, this is where your rear-view mirror should come in play. An observation for measurement. "Think" is where the magic happens, draw on what you know and creatively interpret what you have observed.

Bottom line - a dashboard can be both friend and foe, it depends on you.


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