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Quality Remix: What is the Purpose of Data?

October 5, 2010
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I ran into a statement the other day that really got my attention: “The value of data and statistics is not in the numbers or the charts, but in the conversations we hold around them.”

I ran into a statement the other day that really got my attention:

“The value of data and statistics is not in the numbers or the charts, but in the conversations we hold around them.”

I found this statement in an article by David Shaked called “Creating a Bridge Between Deficit-based and Strength-based Problem Solving: the Journey of a Six Sigma Master Black Belt.”

What got my attention is that this is one of those simple statements that emerge on the other side of complexity.

I’ve sometimes erred on the side of complexity. I’ve written a lot about the value and cost of data. You can take a short, eight-question evaluation of how well your organization uses data. You can find lots of case studies of how people use data to make better business decisions and make huge improvements to business processes and products.

All of these are great tools and topics, but sometimes they may make it harder to see the forest for the trees. Shaked’s statement encompasses all the complexity and opens the door for a new set of questions. It takes you through complexity to simplicity.

The Data Cost – Data Value Matrix describes four aspects of data value: Product Control, Process Control, Continuous Process Improvement, and Data Visibility & Transparency. These first three describe specific types of conversations we can have around the data in our business. Each represents a level of value that we can get from data. In other words, if the only thing we use data for is to control product, then we’re having a fairly limited conversation about our business.

On the other hand, if we’re using data for process control or continuous process improvement, we’re having a much richer conversation about our business – and we’re getting a lot more value for our data.

It is that third arena that Shaked really begins to push the boundaries of traditional Lean Six Sigma (and TPS / TQA / CPI) thinking. In this article, and in others published on his site , he begins to introduce a strength-based approach to problem solving. Built on the subset of Organizational Development called Appreciative Inquiry, Shaked turns the burner up on Continuous Process Improvement by asking “What is it we really want more of?”

Appreciative Inquiry is a rich theoretical and experience-based approach to organizational change. It is based on the fundamental principle that organizations move in the direction of their questions. In other words, if you ask positive questions you move in a very different direction than if you ask negative questions.

So if we ask “Why do we have such poor employee morale around here?”, you’ll move in that direction and you’re likely to increase poor morale. On the other hand if you ask, “What examples do we have to excited, engaged employees who are giving their very best of their unique strengths and capabilities?” you’ll move in a very different direction.

Shaked argues that the same holds true when we’re talking about defects and problems. In other words, if we really want Continuous Process Improvement, wouldn’t it be better to talk about the times when we are getting exceptional performance, rather than the times that things are broken? Peter Drucker famously said: “The purpose of management is to create an alignment of strengths so the organization’s weaknesses are irrelevant.”

For me this opens some interesting questions:

  • What examples exist now where continuous improvement is focused on increasing yield or throughput, rather than reducing defects?
  • Does a shift in focus impact the way people think about and attend to process improvement?
  • Are we collecting the right data for moving to what we want, rather than moving away from what we don’t want?
  • Do we need to think about data analysis differently? Do we need new tools, or just think about the tools from a different direction?

    What about you? What questions (and comments) does this trigger for you?

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