It’s easy to jump to conclusions and lousy solutions—when you don’t have a clear picture of what’s actually happening. And you can’t have a clear picture if you don’t leave your desk, your office, or your conference room.
Unfortunately, that’s where most leaders live.
Taiichi Ohno was the father of the Toyota Production System, or what is now known as “Lean.” As described in The Birth of Lean, Ohno “never rendered judgment simply on the basis of hearing about something. He always insisted on going to the place in question and having a look.”
Ohno said, “Data is of course important in manufacturing, but I place the greatest emphasis on facts.” You can leave out the word “manufacturing,” and apply the concept to anything in your company or life. Facts are more important than data. When he talked about his preference for facts over data, he was urging people to go and see for themselves. Gathering facts comes from close observation of people, or objects, of spaces.
By contrast, spreadsheets, reports, and anecdotal accounts are not facts. They’re data. They’re two-dimensional representations of reality, which makes it easy to jump to conclusions. Data tells you how often a machine breaks down on an assembly line. Facts—direct observation—show you that the machine is dirty, covered in oil, and hasn’t been cleaned and maintained in a long time.
Data tells you that customers applying for a mortgage forget to fill out certain parts of forms, forcing bank employees to follow up with customers and delaying the underwriting process. Facts—close examination of the form, and direct observation of an applicant while filling out the forms—reveal that one of the forms is poorly laid out and so cluttered that it’s easy to overlook a box.
Data tells you that the employee attrition rate is higher than industry average. Facts—spending a day in the office where people work—show that the office is kind of dark and unpleasant, that there’s no space for quiet reflection, and that the company you outsource facilities services to doesn’t do a good job cleaning the bathrooms.
Data without facts gives you an anemic, two-dimensional, black and white view of the world. Facts without data give you color and texture, but not the detailed insight you’ll need to solve the thorniest problems.
Facts will tell you to clean and maintain the machines on the assembly line, but data will help you figure out how often you need to do it to ensure quality.
Facts will tell you that you need to improve the layout of the mortgage application forms, but data will tell you what the new error rate is, and by how much you’ve improved the materials.
You need both facts and data.
Where do you go to get the facts? The same place that any self-respecting detective goes on a cop show. You go to the crime scene.
Obviously, we’re not dealing with murders or robberies here. The “crime scene” in this case is where the work gets done, and where the problems occur.
It’s where the IT department writes code for your company’s software. It’s the bank teller’s desk where customers open accounts. It’s the warehouse where your box is picked, packed, and shipped. It’s the kitchen where you cook dinner.
Going to the scene of the crime means avoiding the temptation to sequester yourself in your office or conference room. It means that you can observe what’s happening firsthand, ask questions of the people working there, and learn what the facts really are.
You can’t understand a problem when you only see data. Nothing substitutes for direct observation.
Early in my career when I worked at Asics, we struggled with shipping errors. The reports from the IT department showed that our customer service team was making mistakes when they entered orders. Looking only at the data would lead you to believe that the customer service reps were either 1) lazy; 2) incompetent; or 3) poorly trained.
But they weren’t. We sat and watched the customer service reps for an hour while they did their work. We found poorly designed order entry screens that made it easy for them to make errors when keying in orders.
If we had jumped to solutions, we would have either hired new reps who were “better,” or we would have put everyone through another training program. Instead, we redesigned the order entry screens and kept all of our dedicated, experienced reps.
(This article is adapted from Dan's new book The Conclusion Trap.)