Tryst with Data and Information

It was 1984 and the third anniversary of us brothers joining of the family owned and managed manufacturing business in Pune, India. I was 26 and responsible for day to day operations of the plant.

Excited to be given an opportunity to start working at last, with our enthusiasm and hard work we were able to double output each year. Initially growth came from taking up the slack in the system and then later from some capacity additions.

Our efficiencies left much to be desired. Just keeping pace with volume demand was soaking up all our time, we responded with the main tool in our tool box, ‘HARD WORK’, which comes easy to the young, for youth loves expending energy. However there is a limit, to what senseless hard work can achieve.

Demand was galloping, and there were no more funds available for capital expansion. We had already borrowed to the hilt. We simply had to become more efficient.Further progress depended on adopting a different approach. But what?

Had we not been under pressure we would have been happy to skip along. However destiny was too kind to us, Customers like Bajaj Auto and Ideal Jawa were screaming for supplies and higher quality. Our father along with us brothers made a formidable team as was our peer pressure and support for each other.

I was in charge of production so I was getting a lot of heat from the family. I eventually changed my approach to become more systematic. We learnt to use information as a performance enhancer and achieved excellent results. During the process we also learnt the big difference between data and information.

Many entrepreneurs, owners and managers are very business smart but not so good at managing themselves or their resources. Like the cowboys in the movies they love to run and shoot from the hip. After all who could resist the feeling of being omnipotent, dynamic and a ‘solver’ of problems?

Without information, managements dart here and there, reworking policies and decisions all the time, exhausting themselves and their resources. Some take a few years to tire and some a lifetime, but frustrated they all become.

Nearly 80% of businesses worldwide are family owned and are run even today on hunches, gut feeling, and instinct. Not knowing any better, many people just keep 'hard working' themselves and their organisations till one day, a more efficient competitor comes along and wipes them out of business.

I spend a lot of my time these days helping organisations to improve their performance. In the course of my work, I come across different managements and styles. Most of the time everyone complains about everything and everyone else.

The number one cause of grief is useful information for people to execute their jobs. Mainly it is the absence or distortion of information or even data. Some organisations swim in a sea of data, yet fail to perform, because they lack useful information.

Unfortunately most managements do not appreciate the difference between data and information, and also how to glean information from data. Computerisation is widespread and it can process data, but it requires management capability to extract information. Information permits managements to work much smarter rather than harder.

Hard work alone is not enough, for there is a limit to what hard work can achieve. Success demands strategy and style initiatives. These in turn depend upon how well managements and leaders are armed with relevant information
This post highlights an experience with data and information.

There were reasons to be concerned. The frequent equipment breakdowns at our manufacturing facilities were damaging products and causing supply failures. This problem needed more management focus.

First step I needed information. The maintenance manager was instructed by me to give me ALL INFORMATION regarding breakdowns and maintenance problems.

The next day I received about a dozen thick files containing all sorts of data. Shift-wise records of breakdowns, repairs, overhauls, the time taken, the parts replaced and the workmen and engineers that worked on the equipments etc. for the past six months.

He also gave me a couple of files containing all the indents for materials and spares, with scribbling on them, of what had been received and no idea what was pending. I had no way to know which indents were still waiting to be filled.

The work was voluminous and in several days I had not even covered a fraction of the analysis, when other crisis and fires distracted me and this work was left pending.

Now at every planning and review meeting I had a new concern. I found it increasingly difficult to hold the maintenance manager accountable for breakdowns and maintenance issues. He would say something like, “you are aware of the problems, tell me what else must be done?” This was typical of every function or responsibility area I was supposed to be managing. All the problems seemed to be now in my lap.

I screamed, and yelled, tore my hair out. All the ranting served no purpose except to frustrate and exhaust me completely. I turned surly and rude. This strained my relationships at work and home. My social life was non existent.

This is a classical example of poor management and bad leadership. This situation was not unique to me and I see this happening even today in many organisations. This totally ineffective way of managing can wear out even the best of people and here I was a rookie!

I changed staff and managers continuously, and some left us. I worked even longer hours. The situation would improve somewhat only to lapse as soon as attention was drawn to other areas.

After nearly a year of banging my head I was at my wits end.
Thankfully, my wife dragged me away from work and I took a weekend off.
I had an opportunity to reflect on my work, the issues, and the mistakes in the approach I was taking to solve problems.

I realised that I needed to evolve solutions for which we needed information. I thought I had information, but I was wrong.

I am great one for making lists, so I put my head down and made a list on what I was doing ineffectively and how I needed to effect positive change.

I had a mountain of files and here I was looking for information. Then it dawned upon me, I had data not information. Eureka!

Data is a raw material that needs to be processed and analysed to make it usable for decision making. I needed information not data.

Here is the list;

  • I had a lousy reporting system for getting information.
  • I was being drowned by too much raw data (data that needed to be processed).
  • I was struck with the 'paralysis by analysis' syndrome.
  • I was the only one trying to analyse the data.
  • Since I was the one analysing data, I was responsible to resolve problems.
  • I kept offering solutions and my juniors kept coming up with problems on why the solutions could and would not work. (I wondered who the boss was?)
  • I had people designated to be managers who were technically proficient but quite weak in planning, execution, analysis and control.
  • My manager and staff were simply reporting matters to me like a person giving me a weather report and I as the boss had to fix the situation.

I realised that in spite of the huge problems, I loved the challenge my work offered. Maybe I was the problem? I was young , and youth like to challenge themselves, invest excess energy in actions and in resolving problems.

I started using my head instead of just my energy. I had to differentiate between wasted effort and effective work.

Soon thereafter, we set up a good and effective ‘Management Information System’. This was at the cornerstone of a great and winning strategy to make us a world class organisation.

Having information is a key ingredient of effective management, but by itself is quite useless. Relevant information has to be constantly upgraded, then shared where relevant and finally be incorporated into strategy, plans and actions to be useful.

No doubt Information is power, but only if you can harness it.