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Dashboard Trifecta: It Helps to be Brainy

January 17, 2011


The crux of creating a great dashboard is to correctly answer the question:  What to measure?

While it sounds technical, this question is actually extremely personal.  Let me break it down for you:  When you are the one tasked with creating the dashboard, what this question really means is “What am I going to illustrate to my executive as important?”  What you present on this dashboard will reveal to the senior executive the range and depth of your perspective toward the particular process/product/initiative being measured.  And sadly, when managers pull together dashboards, the most common critique is that the dashboards lack “big picture perspective.”  That can mean anything from having too much detail to focusing on the wrong stuff to not capturing enough of the right information.

So how can we make sure we don’t fall into the trap of missing the big picture?  Well, one well-meaning advice I’ve gotten over the years is to “think like an executive,” which sounds right on.  But for those who can’t readily channel their “executive-ness,” this piece of advice is too vague to action.  For a manager who’s involved in the day-to-day execution, the biggest pitfall in creating an executive dashboard is the approach of leverage all the detailed information at the manager’s disposal to build it from the bottom up.  Actually, a much safer way is to temporarily ignore what you know and go top down instead.  I am going to show you how.  And when you do this, you will be thinking much more like an executive.

  • Don’t put up barriers before you start. So you have a day or two to whip up a dashboard. It’s tempting to start inventorying all measurable statistics and then cherry pick your metrics from there.  While the strategy seems practical and efficient, resist the urge! When you start to go down that path, you are right away establishing a bias.  At this point, don’t limit your choices by focusing only on known statistics. Allow your mind the luxury to just think about what should be measured (mindset = what is important?) and not what can be measured (mindset = what is available?).  Of course, ultimately the dashboard cannot display something that is not measurable.  But keep reading and I’ll show you why this mindset is important.
  • How do you decide what should be measured?  Well, the dashboard measures progress towards a future state, right?  So, describe the outcomes of this happy future state.  For example, here is an outcome scenario from a project to boost a company’s customer collections capabilities:

Days sales outstanding (DSO) is fewer than 30 day. We treat our customers firmly but with respect. The staff workload is balanced, and the receivables and collections employees are proud to lead a best-in-class department. Hooray!

Now, write down how your dashboard can tell you whether or not you are progressing toward this outcome.  Using the example above, I would want to measure DSO. Easy.  Also, my customers and employees are important, so I’d also want to know that I’m not treating them poorly.  This is an example of something that is important to measure, but the metrics may not be in my initial inventory of available data. Yet we know that customer satisfaction and employee workload can be quantified, so now I can work on how to get that measurement.

  • One of the biggest confidence boosters is to compare your initial metric selection with a leading practice or a standard to see what others have deemed as important. But your dashboard will almost always require some customization due to your organization’s unique circumstances and focus. For example, if an organization is struggling with a particular issue, I will always design more coverage on the dashboard for that issue (e.g., select more metrics, select metrics that are one or two levels deeper, etc.) regardless of the industry standard measurement.
  • Be Fair.  Being fair means telling the story from both sides. When selecting an efficiency-related metric, also consider metrics that are accuracy-related. Processing volume should be compared with workload, dollar savings compared with user satisfaction, etc. Following the second step well should cover this. But if you are unclear, take the dashboard and complete this sentence:

I see a lot of focus on __A__ in the dashboard. Too much focus on this may compromise __B__.

“B” may be the quality you want to supplement in the dashboard.

At the end of the day, the dashboard uses numbers to tell a story to the executive, who will use that story to make decisions. So, it’s imperative you tell that the story right by:

  1. Not limiting yourself before you start.
  2. Knowing the future state outcome and design the dashboard to show how close the organization is to achieving it.
  3. Gut checking against (but not blindly following) leading practice or industry examples.
  4. Being fair with the information presented

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 10, 2011 4:18 pm

    Don’t put up barriers before you start – This call to be careful about grabbing the easy stats or building in a bias is spot-on! The article mentions ‘(mindset = what is important?)’ I would put it this way- ask ‘what is the most effective driver?’ and ‘what item is operationally controllable?’, For these key effective metrics investigate the different units of measure and the way-points in a process in order to find ‘what is the best underlying benchmark’?

    The summary of points at the end is a great checklist. Here’s some complimentary phraseology added at the end of each line-
    …So it’s imperative you tell the story right by:
    1. Not limiting yourself before your start [Get out of the box]
    2. Knowing the future state outcome and design the dashboard to show how close the organization is to achieving it. [Visualize success!]
    3. Gut checking against leading practice or industry examples. [Validate it]
    4. Being fair with the information presented. [Be truthful]

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