Home » Metrics » The Magic of Just Putting a Spotlight on a Problem

The team’s mission is to design policy interventions based on a scientific understanding of human behavior. Recently, for instance, hoping to fight antimicrobial resistance, they tried to persuade some prescription-happy doctors to go easy on the antibiotics. GALLAGHER: We had a very simple intervention, which was to write to those doctors who were prescribing the highest amounts of antibiotics and just let them know that they were in that top cohort, and things that they could do to avoid over-prescription. It was primarily about feedback, about where they sat compared to their peers, but also a set of specific actions that they then could take. DUBNER: And how effective was it. GALLAGHER: It was very effective. Over the six-month period of the trial, GPs [general practitioners] who received that specific letter prescribed an estimated 73,000 fewer antibiotic items than those who didn’t receive the letter. Freakonomics.com, Big Returns from Thinking Small, March 29, 2017.

I’m a great advocate of finding numbers that help to characterize the performance of our team or project. All too often, once we get such numbers, we see not only the good but also the not so good in a team’s activities. The nice part about getting these numbers is that just seeing what is going on often results in improvements without further management intervention.

A process improvement team of mine showed up to evaluate how a development team was doing. The manager of that team complained that he had no warning and he didn’t know what we would be looking at. He could have improved things he argued if he had known we were coming and knew what we would be looking for. I told him that we were doing this to everyone and besides we were more interested in helping people to improve than we were at pointing out problems. Think of it this way, I told him, he’ll show greater improvements this way compared to if he had been able to raise his baseline before the evaluation. His eyes lit up and we were now best of friends. He did well in the evaluation and also in the follow-up on how much his team was able to improve. Simply letting someone know how they performed resulted in improvement without anything more than a short visit that didn’t disrupt the team too much.

In another case, a manager blasted out how his team had sped up product builds and how now the software development managers needed to pick up the speed that their teams completed their development. The development teams, he argued, were now the reason for the slow overall product cycle. I was a bit surprised at this claim and so crunched the numbers I had been collecting on the performance of the teams. The manager had been right, his team had picked up the pace smartly but it turned out that so had everyone else. The percentage of time his team took in the development cycle had, in fact, remained the same as everyone sped up. I confidentially showed him my numbers and he was surprised but he actually appreciated the insight. He asked if I would regularly update him on the cycle times. We also came to discover that the overall speed up was normal at that point in the lifecycle as we looked at previous projects and noted a pattern of slower then faster cycle times over the duration of each project.

A final example was when we were trying to get rid of excess and unused computer equipment. Departments had equipment stuffed to the ceiling in closets and in spare rooms. Everyone was too busy to do the government required paperwork to dispose of the unneeded equipment after some major equipment upgrades. This problem had been festering for years when I joined the organization. I had the frustrated lead equipment manager provide me a slide showing the count of excess equipment in each department. At the next senior staff meeting of all department heads, I simply popped up the slide showing a simple bar graph of who had how much equipment. Each department head could see their total and how it compared to the other departments. I heard that more than one department head took the chart and handed it to their equipment manager and said variously “fix this,” “make this go away” or “this better go down by next week.” Within a few months, the vast majority of equipment had been appropriately disposed of. When I had finished my assignment at this organization the CIO commented that he would never have believed that one person could bring about so much progress in such a short time. I’ll take the credit, but it was simply the magic of finally giving people the information and insight they needed to then get their jobs done.

What data are you showing your team that should help them do a better job without having to further push them?

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