The use of metrics and kpi's are important in driving performance. However it's not enough to be able to collect data and manipulate it or to analyze and interpret it. The question is what does it tell you? What story is revealed, how does that inform performance and does the story suggest a direction?
Critical observation or analysis is a key soft skill. If you lead a team or company you know already the importance of not having something come out of left field to blind side you. You depend on your group to keep you informed and to highlight potential trends that will help or hinder achieving the team or company goals. So you know the value of a team member being able to decipher the story out of all the data and information that is a part of daily business. Someone who can create an accurate narrative that instructs and provides direction to your company is someone you want on the team.
Let me give you an example. When we talk about performance improvement most often we are really talking about behaviors and the data around those behaviors that either drive or inhibit performance. In his excellent book "The Power of Habit" Charles Duhigg shares an account of how one man discovered the story in the data that no one else saw. This individual was a Major in the U.S. Army and he was assigned the task of finding ways to decrease the violence that would spring up in Iraqi towns. Up to that point what would happen is that crowds would gather throughout the day in the town square, sometimes around a specific event or issue or sometimes it would just happen. Then by evening when curfew was approaching violence would break out. This happened many times with no solution. The Major had an idea. The next time this started to happen the Major asked the town mayor to have the kabob and food vendors not set up to sell food. The crowds gathered, people were restless and it looked as if things might get out of hand but when the vendors failed to show up people got hungry and went home! In what seemed like hundreds of unrelated outbreaks of violence in this region one man was able to apply his power of critical observation and discover the story in the data and a solution.
Of course this doesn't always have to be life and death. In one case a group of operators had been collecting data on a piece of equipment that pumped sand. They had a set schedule to do maintenance on these machines in order to stay ahead of breakdowns. Since no one knew what the operational limits were each and every machine would get worked at each maintenance break resulting in about two to six hours of lost production at about $600 per minute. This was standard procedure until one individual noticed that the machines started failing after a certain amount of sand had gone through them. Once they starting tracking based on that knowledge they would still take maintenance breaks but now instead of working on all the machines each time they could focus on the ones nearing their limit. Maintenance times went down dramatically and eventually they learned to do maintenance when other areas were shut down, further saving on production costs.
Needless to say that particular operator is now a senior superintendent and his critical observation skills are still serving him well.
Critical observation is a skill that you can practice and refine. Instead of handing your boss a spreadsheet, give them a summary and highlight the key issues for attention, along with suggested possible next steps, And by the way, when your direct reports give you that extra bit of effort and provide you with that analysis be sure to practice that other soft skill and recognize them for that work.