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on pointless statistics

The current reporting of Covid-19 cases started me off on this topic, but it is a classic case of reporting pointless numbers in a way that I have covered here before a few times. As managers we have to report numbers, but what do they mean: Lies, amend lies and statistics is so true.

One of the most crucial lessons that I learned in my management career was the art of numbers. Knowing which ones were important in any circumstance, and why, unlocked the door to the top floor for me and the irony was that I did not know that I had learned that lesson until I had put it into practice pretty much by accident.

People tend to trust numbers, especially if they believe in the source, and numbers that are regularly reported give them a comfort because they can read the changes. As long as they think that they understand what the numbers mean they will believe.

To be meaningful the numbers that are being reported need to be ones that you can use. They should not be presented in isolation, but rather to show trends. If you can see a trend you can plan actions around that. Trends will show you if the actions that you have in place are working or not. They will show you whether or not you are doing enough or too little. With numbers that have relevance you can do something beneficial.

In business numbers tend to be a management thing. The front line might have an interest in anything that affects job security or their pay, but they will have no use for the sort of numbers that managers are pouring over and this also applies to numbers being presented to Joe Public. Totting up the totals number of people who have died from Covid-19 is pretty pointless and comparing to the death toll in other countries is even less use. What we need are numbers that relate to us and the situation here, but none of that is forthcoming because we have got locked into what we started with.

This is so often the case with KPIs as I have written about in these columns a few times. You have to make numbers useful or there is no point in recording and reporting them. The old adage about if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it has a base in truth. The important thing is to measure the things that you need to know about and to report on them in ways that are relevant.

There is another old saying that is worth considering; “When you know that you are in a hole stop digging.” If the numbers that you are using are pointless, stop using them and move on.me

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