It might seem odd to focus on the problem with metrics and their use in management dashboards when, in many cases, the problem is that leaders do not use data and analytical tools enough in order to make evidence-based decisions. Although in many cases it is true that there is not enough informed use of the vital few leading indicators by leaders, in my experience the bigger issue is the overuse of “dashboards” of “key metrics” by leaders.
The proper design and use of a set of metrics assembled into a timely dashboard (“dashboard” is an overused and often misused phrase that, for the moment, I use simply as shorthand for a presentation of metrics) is an important aspect of process improvement but this post focuses on perhaps the single most under-used yet powerful source of data: direct observation by a leader of what is actually happening at the front lines of their organization.
“Going to the gemba,” where “gemba” is a Japanese word that loosely translates to “actual place” or “place of reality or truth,” is a core principle of the Toyota Production System. It is an extremely rich and important idea that the best and purest data is that obtained through direct observation. For leaders, it means that rather than relying on the second, third or even fourth-hand data that populates PowerPoint decks, spreadsheets and various automated dashboards, they themselves must go on a regular basis go to see for themselves what is happening in and at the front lines of the organization.
This does not mean a cosmetic tour of the front lines to “wave the flag” or some sort of over-programmed royal visit by an exec, but a way to physically reconnect with the people and activities that actually creates value for the customers and clients of the firm. It is a signal of priorities (where we choose to spend our time is a powerful signal) and respect for front line staff. Indeed, if a leader’s presence at the front line is a big deal, it is a sign that the leader is not going to the gemba on a regular basis and their presence is about as rare as a sighting of a dodo bird.
Every leader that I have encouraged to begin this practice has always reported that they felt energized and better able to interpret the reports that are placed in front of them and to ask much better questions of other leaders and middle management because they have the experience of directly seeing for themselves the reality of what happens at the front line, the issues, struggles and things that real barriers to satisfying the customer.
Yes, analytics is useful, but rather than placing them at the center of your universe you should instead design a set of practices, habits and routines that has spending time in the gemba as the prime activity at every level in the organization rather than preparing presentation decks and attending meetings. In my experience, an operation where the first line management spends more time in meetings and with reports than “on the floor” was almost always an operation that was far from achieving its level of entitled performance. Likewise, an organization where middle and upper management regarded spending time on the floor as somewhat beneath them as “busy” executives was almost always a management culture where many things were important — financial engineering, managing “the street” and the board etc. — but the things that actually created (or destroyed) value at the front line was not one of those things, instead it was delegated.
As a process professional, rather than figuring out how to design and implement a better set of dashboards, seize the opportunity to instead observe and assess the frequency and quality of direct observation of and engagement with the gemba by managers at all levels of the organization and design a new system of mindsets and habits around going to the gemba rather than a new metrics dashboard.