Business in the rear-view mirror

Would you drive your car, whilst looking only in the rear-view mirror?
I thought not…yet this is common practice in business, education, and government, where historic performance data such as quarterly reports and comparisons with ‘this month last year’ are widely held to be meaningful.

The noted US engineer and scholar Dr Myron Tribus famously wrote of this as: ‘-like trying to drive a car by watching the yellow line in the rear-view mirror.’
And I for one would not wish to be a passenger in a car driven that way!

My attention was drawn here by a Tweet: > @kvistgaard RT @tetradian: RT @jdevoo: Walking in Allende’s Footsteps: Cameron’s No. 10 Dashboard nyti.ms/UfOwnv #cybernetics #entarch #vsm

< A recent Civil Service article expresses pride in the achievements of a young fast-track officer, who had created a ‘dashboard’ application for the PM’s iPad.
‘One of her recent projects…was designed to give the Prime Minister, other Ministers, and senior Whitehall officials an at-a-glance overview of everything that’s happening in government and elsewhere…with a few taps or swipes of his fingers, he can see very quickly what important new information has come to light, how certain government services are performing, and a selection of relevant and important news reports.’

I accept that in politics a craving for sound-bite sized facts is a cultural constant, and may be an itch that highly visible leaders cannot leave un-scratched. My complaint lies not with the politicians, but the shallow presentation of data. I’m pleased that intelligent politicians want to track data, but concerned that this format invites incorrect interpretations.

Look at an example: http://publications.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/assets/images/strategy/case-studies/fast-stream/Alice–GDP-ret.png -look solely at the last 5 points in a hopeful frame of mind and you might see a strong rise; but search for an overall trend and do you see an upward shift? This really is just a pretty picture, since no matter how many points of that wiggly line are drawn it provides no explanation.

Since the diagram does not explain WHY things happened, this trace is not helpful to PREDICT what may happen in the near future -which is the main route for those seeking to understand and improve performance.

Without using theory “Perhaps it is a 70-year cycle?” to link events with causes, these snapshots and zig-zag plots cannot tell us any more than that the situation is volatile.
We need users to ask “What happens next?” shifting the emphasis from home-spun guesswork “Yes Sir Humphrey, figures do seem to be rising” –but are they really? –can we tell whether this really is a normal swing, or a fluke? –and does the cause lie inside the work, or is it driven from outside?

Thus an emphasis on prediction has to become a key task for management. Sadly this dashboard is not about prediction –and as a passenger in the car, I’m becoming worried…

Los Angeles and London

On a recent trip to the USA I was delighted to find that the airport shuttle bus from LA International to the Van Nuys bus terminal up in the northern suburbs, worked rather well, coping better (-than I would have done in a rental car) with the immense rush hour traffic, which was frequently at a standstill well into the endless warm evening.

The congestion on the somewhat optimistically named ‘Freeways’ is a titanic struggle between the daily travelling habits of x millions and the bottleneck of road capacity. Yes, even California-size motorways get clogged by the diurnal flow. And although the state of California piolted and still reserves ‘High Occupancy’ lanes for vehicles travelling with more than 1 occupant has helped, the dance of countless US-built, Japanese and foreign cars that I observed was at least twice a day more a still life than a well-choreographed Tango.

Having witnessed this, I am now walking about in the UK’s largest city, and although I see bursts of stopped traffic, sometimes appear to be gridlocked, however the London traffic jam is considerably smaller…perhaps we will collectively awake to the ‘stalled city’ forecast that this comparison invites: and act to avoid the huge cost to society that having millions of cars frozen in their orbit around a city imposes on the lifestyles of its citizens, the environment -not to mention the opportunity cost of their being unavailable for some hours per day?