Friday, April 9, 2010


Have you noticed how data is getting more respect than knowledge these day? How new industries are sprouting out of the insatiable need for numbers to crunch? Why risk making a decision on your own when you can quote data instead, right?

No, not right.

Of course you need data to make an informed decision. Heck, you need data to know if you have the data you need (stop me). But I'm terribly uncomfortable with the way that data has become a cover to hide behind or a curtain that separates groups within a company.

Take Six Sigma, for example. I love the fact that Six Sigma uses a PROCESS to arrive at a conclusion. Oh, I love process. I love Deming. I'm a bit of a geek that way. There's nothing lovelier than a good, solid, clean and clear process. But I see many Six Sigma'ers (what do you call them?) focusing so much on gathering data and then presenting that data in the approved Six Sigma way, that the original objective is forgotten. The data BECOMES the objective - the means AND the end. People fall in love with how impressive the amount of data is and how cool the data looks. Who wouldn't be impressed by a 24 page Excel Workbook full of numbers, graphs and pivot tables? But how do we know the numbers are correct? Where did the data come from? What was the objective of the data gathered? What does it all MEAN anyway?

Okay, okay... take a deep breath.

Not long ago, I read a wonderful article by John Ribbler titled "Analytics are for Cowards." Besides shaking me up with a terrific title (I'm a sucker for a good title), the actual article didn't disappoint me. It was filled with thought-provoking statements such as:

"Without intuitive, creative visionaries, who understand what motivates and satisfies people, there are no products and no customers. Without managers, accountants and engineers, the products do not get built, delivered or serviced correctly. Is it true that the members of the first group are generally daring and the people in the second group cautious? Yes it is. A balance between the two is the perfect order of the business world."

Cool, right? Remember Myers-Briggs? Emotional IQ? I like this guy. Anyway, Mr. Ribbler continues:

"Yet, as a company gets larger the chances increase that it is run by the risk aversive, fearful group, in partnership with financiers — people who have no knowledge of the customers, products, manufacturing, distribution or service. When that happens, they sustain themselves with analytics and statistics, the business world’s universal shield for cowardice."

Wow. Yeah.. We all know companies like that - good, solid companies that lost their way.

I love numbers. I've always loved numbers. And because I love numbers I know that when numbers are generated without fully understanding the assumptions on which those numbers are based, well... numbers can lie. It's not hard to make numbers lie. It's not hard to manipulate data. It's the sport "du jour." And plans based on lies, as Mr. Ribbler says, are "the tools of cowards." "You need insightful business people working with numbers crunchers in order to deliver real solid value."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Right brain, left brain working together towards a common goal. Not at war, but in sincere appreciation for the value each brings to the table. I know we can go there again.

Maybe next time I'll discuss the companion article to the one above - "Less Numbers and More Math." Am I getting too heavy, people?