I was reminded of Dr. Wyrick's comment recently when talking to ASEM Fellow, John Whittaker. He said that when he retired from his job as engineering management professor after a 30 year tenure, he began the process of cleaning out his office. Near the end of the task, he discovered a box of paper. It was all the data he had collected as part of his Ph.D. dissertation. It was all really good data that he had every intention of someday gleaning the useful tidbits from and producing information of benefit to all. Since it had sat in his office for 30 years without being touched, he surmised that the odds of ever doing anything with it were approximately nil. He ceremonially picked up the box and dumped it into the recycle bin.
At my very first job at a fabrication plant, we took extra effort to gather data on how long tasks really took. With such data, the idea was to improve our ability to fine tune our bidding and be able to assure profits while keeping margins razor thin. The methods of collecting the data was an ongoing source of conflict with the trades performing the work and some of these conflicts resulted in the departure of workers I felt were top performers in terms of productivity. I felt sad to see them leave and felt it was not for the betterment of the organization. The data continued to be collected until the firm went bankrupt and it also ended up in the recycle bin, unanalyzed.
In the year 2000, I was responsible for maintaining a detailed report on organizational performance including many key performance ratios. It was a sizable document that was originally produced in hard copy but was converted to an online version during my time at the company. When it was a hard copy “book,” I would hand distribute the “book” to the various stakeholders who expressed interest in receiving a copy. Once it was online, I produced a virtual version and deposited it in the assigned folder. As is common practice, I would use the previous month’s version as the template and then modify with the recent data. After a year, my supervisor asked me how much time I was spending on producing the report. I told him zero hours. He was shocked. I then showed him that the report I posted simply had the words “If anyone reads this please phone this number: [with whatever the number was].” I told him that since no one phoned, I did not feel it is worth my while producing a report no one looks at. I had realized this was happening when I went to update the previous month’s report and saw that the one I had completed the previous month had not saved and was a corrupt file. No one had mentioned it and even I had not looked at
it for a month.
A lesson from the ENRON fiasco, however, does demonstrate Tom Peters’ view that the value of reports is in their creation and not in the actual product produced. Forcing people to create reports also forces them to look at the underlying data. With ENRON, if anyone had been producing daily cash requirements reports, they would have noticed the company was headed to default in their payments on liabilities in a matter of weeks. As in all things management, the optimum is a balance between extremes.
Optimal performance comes from understanding what is required and what adds value. There is a lot of anticipation of what will be of benefit once the current panic is over and people have time to stop and look at things in more detail. After 40 years, I sort of think the panic is not going to end.
A decade or so ago, former ASEM president David Wyrick mused during a conference if there could be a paper written on the subject of all the data we collect with the good intentions of someday using it for optimizing some process or learning key details of a subject.
About the Author
Dr. Donald Kennedy, Ph.D., P.Eng., IntPE, CPEM, FASEM is a regular contributor to the ASEM Practice Periodical. He has celebrated more than 1 year in the manufacturing business following a lengthy, but turbulent, career in heavy industrial operations and construction.