Technological Damnation 84: Dashboards

This is another damnation that should not be unexpected, as the doctor has been proclaiming the dangers and dysfunctions of dashboards since 2007. As per the doctor‘s classic post, a dashboard CAN NOT tell you how well you’re doing. It does not, and can not, know everything your organization is not doing well or how much the lack of efficiency is impacting overall organizational performance. As a result, it can not report on this ever important metric.

As the doctor said in his classic post, the best [a dashboard] can do is capture the data it’s been programmed to capture, roll-up the metrics it’s been programmed to roll up, and do the built in calculations of efficiency based on those roll-ups. Whatever went undefined goes undefined and stays undefined. The best that a dashboard can do is provide an upper bound on how well you’re doing — and this is useless. In particular, a dashboard that says you’re warehouse efficiency is 98% when it is only 92% is useless as it is totally unactionable. (the doctor can tell you that your efficiency is at most 100%, always be correct, and he doesn’t need an overpriced software hack to tell you that!)

And it’s not just the doctor who has this view. About five (5) years ago, Robert D. Austin, author of Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations, penned an article in Intelligent Enterprise on how metrics can lead [us] in the wrong direction which echoed many of the doctor‘s concerns. Mr. Austin states:

Kaplan and Norton’s cockpit analogy would be accurate if it included a multitude of tiny gremlins controlling wing flaps, fuel flow, and so on of a plane being buffeted by winds and generally struggling against nature, but with the gremlins always controlling information flow back to the cockpit instruments, for fear that the pilot might find gremlin replacements. It would not be surprising if airplanes guided this way occasionally flew into mountains when they seemed to be progressing smoothly toward their destinations.

It’s as the doctor said. Not only will your staff be lulled into a false sense of security when all of the gages in the dashboard are in the “safe” zone (and not look for the faulty wiring about to spark a devastating explosion), but, and this is especially true if their compensation is based on those numbers, they’ll start to perform dysfunctionally if such behaviour improves the score. For example, many call centres once thought (and some still do) that number of calls processed was a good metric. The result? The reps, who do their best to get you off the phone as soon as possible, don’t take the time to understand the true nature of your problem and instead focus on a “quick fix” to get you going again (even if such a fix, like “reboot”, doesn’t fix the issue and will only result in the problem re-occurring again and again). As a result, not only did the number of calls processed a day increase, but the total number of calls processed by the organization increased, because people have to call multiple times to get their problem solved. Not good. Not good at all.

And while an integrated view is necessary, the doctor was right when he said that integrated dashboards are deadly. Common issues are inconsistent views, propagated errors, and the overconfidence they instill. Despite the fact that they always increase risk, dashboards do not always improve visibility. Unlike a top-of-the-line spend/data analysis tool, dashboards do not give you real intelligence. You should ditch the dashboards before they are your downfall.

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