How to Improve Strategic Plan Facilitation by Reviewing Dashboard Design
The Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) business leader was frustrated. Three years ago, the organization moved to a new system and a big part of the implementation was to make the user dashboards more useable. The problem was not solved, so a year later, he hired a different consultant to tweak and improve the dashboard. The result was the same.
“I need you to bring your industry knowledge to my dashboards," stated the CMMS administrator. “The current dashboards have been developed without the practical knowledge to make them more useful to our staff."
I wish this type of exchange were more uncommon than it is. While my forte is not dashboard development, making management systems more useable to the operations side of organizations is.
“Why do you think you are not showing the most relevant information,” I asked, which was always my leadoff question in this type of discussion.
“Because we have worked for several years to improve the data quality. And we have the visualizations right,” replied the system champion. “The programmers are not tied as closely to the front lines as they should be. They do not understand what the users need to see."
“Let’s take a look and see,” I countered. “Your consultants may not be as close to your staff as they need to be, but that is probably not your biggest problem.”
Dashboards are common to information management and operations management. Senior management loves to have dashboards to keep their fingers on the pulse of the organization that they manage.
A dashboard is a type of graphical user interface which often provides at-a-glance views of key performance indicators (KPIs) relevant to a particular objective or business process. In other usage, "dashboard" is another name for "progress report" or "report" and considered a form of data visualization. (Source: Wikipedia)
By this definition, focusing on big data to produce graphs, detailed mapping of business processes, and implementing a software system that produces a readable report are three keys to success. Or are they?
Unfortunately, the information management world has hijacked a common term. We gain much understanding of what is missing from our business dashboards by examining the old-school definition.
Dashboard: a panel extending across the interior of a vehicle (such as an automobile) below the windshield and usually containing instruments and controls. (Source: Merriam-Webster)
Actionable Items in Front
Look at the dashboard of a car, airplane, or boat. The information directly in front of the driver is current, real-time information used to navigate the vehicle. Historical and non-essential information (like the radio) are on the sides.
I use my own experiences racing sailboats through storms as my acid test. In those situations, I need to know my direction (compass), the wind speed and direction (anemometer), and usually how close I am to horizontal objects (GPS) and the bottom (depth finder). That’s it.
It’s nice to know the information from the last thirty days or the trends over the past four quarters, but I will also look at it when I have the chance. Managers need the information to help them drive the organization today.
One Big Issue
The biggest issue regarding dashboards is whether the managers are using them. After asking, "are you using the dashboard," the next essential question is, "how often are you using it."
Most front-line managers will tell you they are using the dashboard because no one wants to criticize someone else's work. You will find the truth when you get down into the second or even a third layer of questions. The truth in most cases is that they look at them from time to time, which means the dashboard provides them little help in driving their operation each day.
As a facilitator of Strategic Plans, Board Retreats, and management system improvements, I like to include dashboards in my pre-session exchanges. A dashboard, at least in theory, should be a risk management tool. I usually find that senior management is not using them at all, which tells me the executives are using something else to sail the ship through choppy waters. Something else may be their experience or their biases, but it is probably not the best evidence-based information that the organization has available.
To call senior management not using their dashboards as discouraging would be an overstatement. Not using dashboards to steer the organization is simply an opportunity lost. The unfortunate part is that it is far too common. But as a facilitator and a risk & reliability expert, it sheds light on every organization with which I interact.
Dashboards contain the information and controls that we drive vehicles and organizations. We need viable dashboards to manage our organizations daily, especially when uncertainty is high and visibility is poor. If you want to make your dashboard more effective, then focus most on today’s information and less on historical data, business processes, and fancy visualizations.
Dashboards are good indicators of the integration of organizations from bottom to top. If the dashboards do not reflect what managers need to run their work divisions, then it is likely that the organizational data is disconnected from operational decision making. Even worse, if senior management is not using the organization’s dashboards in their strategic decision making, then the head of the organization is detached from its body.
The good news is that dashboards, good or bad, inform facilitators of the potential challenges of identifying and implementing actions of great importance to the integrated whole.
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