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Data and Processes Don’t Make Your Decisions For You

Business decisions are, by their nature, subjective. Oh, we analyze data to understand exceptions and develop processes to ensure consistency; but, these are only aids to understand and limit risk. It’s interesting to observe so much effort around data analysis and process development, in an attempt to cover all bases. In the end, we have to make a decision based upon the best information we have. People often try to create “decision trees” and processes that lead organizations to consistent decisions. There is also an expectation that data will “give you” the answer. Processes can bring consistency to decisions a majority of the time and data can educate people to understand the existing situation, but there is no substitute for good business judgement and decisiveness.

Many meetings end with the action item to “get the data”. A mature team will define what business problem they’re trying to understand and solve. Unfortunately, this is rare. People use data analysis to identify what problems exist. Teams “feel” that there are problems to solve but they don’t identify specific symptoms and try to understand their cause. This is very normal in high tech product development teams. In the name of continuous improvement they look to the data to identify business problems rather than to their customers and their business activities which are affected. The funny thing about this approach is that, more often than not, the team will disagree with the conclusions and nothing changes.

Process development is another time sink that people use to make decisions. Sure, a process can define consistent behavior of an activity most of the time, but there are always exceptions. People need to know when to make exceptions and think through what must be done. Just last week I was meeting with a team that was defining a process. An initial procedure was mapped out and we believed that it covered about 80% of the situations that might occur. The team then started to try to identify every potential exception. It is healthy to brainstorm ideas in this way but groups must realize when process coverage is good enough (just like when data is good enough for a decision). Process is no substitute for people’s judgement. We all have examples of bureaucracies that are so inflexible that obvious wrong decisions are made because there is no flexibility for exceptions.

When it comes down too it, people have to be held, and hold themselves accountable to make decisions using their best judgement. Processes are often used as an excuse for mistakes. We’ve all heard “just tell me exactly what to do”. This screams “it will be your fault if its wrong”. In the same vein, data won’t identify your business problems, it will only help you understand how big the problem is or isolate the details of the larger issues. Use your judgement and hold yourself accountable for the outcome. Don’t use one of these “decision shields” to avoid taking action.

My Zimbio
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2 comments to Data and Processes Don’t Make Your Decisions For You

  • Bill

    Devin, was a bit surprised when I first read through this post. You of all people railing against data and process, I can only assume you are looking for people to think about data and process as opposed to blindly following them. While I agree 100% that neither data nor process is the end all be all, they are both critical components in business.

    Life without data – biggest and loudest person wins
    Life without process – if you get a ‘no’, ask someone else

    Data when properly collected, analyzed and reported provides valuable insight, prioritization and verification for a team. It not only sheds light on the current offerings it can lead the way to unmet customer needs and desires.

    Processes that are constructed with exceptions and optional paths give teams freedom from making the same call over and over. If everyone knows the rules, understands the limitations and where to go when exceptions hit, they free up valuable time in their day to get real work done.

    As far as your last comment about hiding behind process. This is indeed a sad comment on an environment that punishes mistakes, and rewards the people with an artificially constructed alibi.

  • Devin

    Bill, you are dead on. I strongly believe in the use of data to illuminate and the use of processes for consistency. A friend, who is an applied statistician, says, “People often use data like a drunk uses a lamp post. Its more for support than illumination.”

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