Thanks for this post John. This is the part of Deming’s teaching that I often struggle with (understanding variation). I read Wheeler’s book Understanding Variation and it helped me with the concept, but I am challenged trying to apply it where I work. I often am not sure what to measure and if I do, I’m not sure how to measure it. Folks appreciate my burn down charts showing trends, but this is about the best I’ve been able to do. Do you have any recommendations on where I can look to help me get better at this?
Getting better at using data is a bit tricky, so struggling is fairly common.
Probably the easiest thing to do is to stop reacting to normal variation (caused by the system) as if it were special. This isn’t super easy but it is the easiest step. And it does make a big difference even if it doesn’t seem very exciting.
The idea of actually using data properly provides big benefit but it much trickier. Don Wheeler’s book is a great start. Making predictions and evaluating how those predictions turn out is also valuable. And in doing so often (though not always) it will also spur you to collect data. This process of predicting, figuring out what data to use to help do so (and to evaluate the results) and considering the result of the prediction and how well the predictions overall are working can help.
You learn what data is often useful, you experiment with real data and real processes and you learn what needs to improve. If you are at least somewhat close to using data well then just doing it and learning from your experience is very useful. If you are really far off the experience might not help any 🙁
The links in the post above I think provide some useful tips (and the links within the posts they link to…).
More: Measurement and Data Collection
If you don’t have an answer for how you will use the data, once you get it, then you probably shouldn’t waste resources collecting it (and I find there is frequently no plan for using the results).
It isn’t uncommon that the measures you would like to have are just not realistically available or are hard to determine. How to get started in this is one of the tricker pieces in my experience. It is a place where consultants may be very helpful. If that isn’t an option another possibility is just to ask others at your workplace for ideas for metrics (there are issues with this and a big one is that many metrics will more likely to lead you astray than actually help).
This can also be an area where seeing what others are using can be helpful. Because it is hard to think up what are great metric seeing what others are doing may provide insight. Of course, the ideas must be evaluate for whether they would work for you (even if they are right for others they may not be right for you – and many are not really right for others it is just a thing they measure and while they have associated it with good things maybe they are wrong (correlation but not causation]).