Decisions and Numbers

Make sure the data used to make a decision tells the whole story.

Business is Personal” has been a thing for almost 12 years now, and here in the Beacon for about nine and a half years. While many things have changed in that 12 years, the nature and impact of good and bad decisions remains the same: the difference between success and failure.

Those are the words of Captain Obvious, you might say. Perhaps, yet your decisions continue to be the single most powerful (or weakest), positive (or worst) impact you can have on your company and your team.

The information and process you use to arrive at those decisions makes all the difference.

Demonizing the numbers

On a number of occasions, I have suggested that you start gathering metrics – even if you start with a single number and a yellow pad. Your data gathering might be more sophisticated than that, but it won’t matter if you aren’t using the data to make decisions.

It’s easy to demonize the numbers. They make it easy to make “impersonal” decisions, right? They tell us that Marta (who has only been here for two years) is producing twice as much as Jenny with fewer quality problems. Yet Jenny has been here for 10 years and must be loyal to the company.

The impersonal numbers say Jenny should be sent packing, or should find another job, or should be moved to another role in the company. Should we ask her if she’s bored, or needs a new challenge or is struggling with (whatever)?

Maybe Marta has more ambition and bigger goals than Jenny, who may only be here for the paycheck and is happy as long as that continues. Or maybe Jenny doesn’t realize her volume and quality are down and would change whatever is necessary to improve her numbers if the data told her about the problems.

Numbers don’t lie and don’t care about circumstances. They’re demonized because they seem to provoke decisions to be made without regard for the people impacted by them.

Data provokes questions. Is the data misinterpreted? Is there more to the story about why Jenny’s volume and quality are down? Is the data incomplete? Is the analysis incomplete? Like any tool, metrics can be used badly.

Ignore some of the numbers at your peril

The data indicating Jenny’s apparent lack of productivity and quality might be affected by the machinery she’s using. Is her equipment operating at full speed?

Do the metrics take into account that she is the subject matter expert in her department? Does whoever evaluates the numbers know that thanks to new hires in the last quarter, much of Jenny’s time is spent training new employees on the equipment?

Do the metrics reflect that her machine was down for 12 hours last week and that while her machine was down, she made service calls to pick up the slack for a sick staff member?

Decisions are personal and impersonal?

What data often does is reinforce decisions that you’re afraid or unwilling to make. Sometimes data tells you things you weren’t the least bit aware of, but be sure that these surprises are well-researched. There are often multiple factors affecting a single metric, and some are not always obvious.

When the numbers are ignored, decisions are delayed or not made at all because of a personal bias or a desire to avoid “hurting” someone. Meanwhile, the numbers keep telling you what you need to know to make the decision that’s best for the everyone.

When complete, a metric provides you with the information needed to make decisions based on what’s really happening in your company. Yet almost all decisions are personal to someone. How do we make personal and impersonal decisions at the same time?

We don’t.

Even if the decisions aren’t personal, the impacts usually are. Make sure the data used to make a decision tells the whole story. Make sure that both the directly and indirectly impacted understand the context of the decision. You might feel these things are none of the employees’ business, but that breeds the attitude that they shouldn’t care because, after all, it’s none of their business.

If the decision is best for everyone at the company, show them why. You’re responsible for making the company as productive, profitable, secure, and resilient as possible. Your decisions should reflect that.

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s sitecontact him on Twitter, or email him at