Big Problems with Big Data in Continuous Improvement -

Just like with anything, there’s two sides of the coin when it comes to Big Data. We’ve all heard how Big Data is going to transform everything, bringing visibility to even the darkest crevices of your business. Greater visibility¬†and transparency are generally good things – great even. The question is – at what cost to your culture? And how will Big Data impact your Continuous Improvement objectives? This article presents the “other side of the coin” when it comes to Big Data so you’re more prepared to avoid some of the pitfalls that might actually hinder your Continuous Improvement progress.

Here are three big problems with Big Data when it comes to Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement:

1) Analysis Paralysis

The single biggest issue facing manufacturers and Lean / CI teams today is having the capability to turn data into meaningful action. This cannot be overstated. Big Data is only valuable if its coupled with process improvement capability and execution, most importantly PDCA, or the scientific method. There’s a strange phenomena that Big Data presents: it tells a million stories, but at the same time, never tells the whole story. If you’re very data savvy, you can justify just about any course of action given enough information. Likewise, you can rationalize not taking any proposed course of action. For those who are particularly risk averse and biased against action, arming them with more data will just helps them make the case that doing nothing is always better. It’s better to approach data with the intent to take action. Big Data should support effective leadership and not be allowed to stagnate it. Remember that the data represents what has happened in the past, but gives an indicator of what might happen in the future. However, there is always a margin of error about what will happen in the future, therefore the data is inherently unreliable. The best predictor of what will happen in the future is competent leadership and strong execution.

2) Shiny Object Syndrome

Big Data can make you and your teams confused about priorities. You’ve heard the expression “what get’s measured – gets managed”. If you were using only one metric in your factory and everyone had visibility to it, you’ll gradually see decisions become more and more aligned with making that metric look good over time. What happens when you have dozens or even hundreds of metrics out there? Can you imagine the level of mis-alignment among people in your team? You can also probably imagine the internal conflict that this increased variety of metrics drives. It can be easy to fall into the trap of the role of leadership being to “make sure all the numbers look good” instead of “leading the business to a better position in the market“.

The fact is that your business only has a finite amount of resources to invest in Continuous Improvement. It’s important that your people are clear on what’s most important to improve right now. They have to be able to accept that some aspects of the business will fail to meet targets and be okay with that. People will be tempted to put more time and energy against any number that flashes red on a dashboard. Its better to have each person in your company commit to an improvement target that is aligned with the company strategy. Then have leaders coach their teams to success. This allows the company to build momentum in the direction that will help it win in the market.

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3) Undermines Going to the Gemba

Seeing value being created with your own eyes takes precedent over anything that a computer can tell you. Dashboards, metrics, and data are incredibly convenient tools. They can give you a glimpse into the performance of an entire enterprise from your executive office chair. With Big Data, you can drill down on specific indicators, get a historical perspective, and view trends to predict what might happen in the future. This is fantastic, especially for leaders who need to determine where to invest precious business resources. However, there’s one problem: all the data in the world can’t tell you what’s really happening across your value stream or why. For the same reason that a basketball coach can’t lead a team simply by looking at stat sheets, you have to get out there and go see what’s happening for yourself. Data, metrics, and dashboards can give you an indication of what’s happening and perhaps where to start looking; but they don’t expose why – and without understanding why, you can’t get to the root cause and make sustaining improvements.

Secondly, Continuous Improvement is best led by the people doing the work everyday on the shop floor, or the process owner. They spend more time than anyone right there immersed in the action and have a pretty good idea why things happen the way they do. They fight the real issues everyday and are in the best position to develop and sustain winning solutions. Once they’ve been trained to see waste and make improvements, they are ready to lead the way to better results and bring more value to the customer. Couple this with the fundamentals of strong execution and the right motivation to improve, and you’ve got great recipe for growth.

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