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Five Strategies to Improve the Quality of Data – Business Operations Performance Management

Five Strategies to Improve the Quality of Data – Business Operations Performance Management

Without improvements in the quality and completeness of data captured at source, changing the processes and systems will have little impact. Good data is the lifeblood of any business and requires effective management like all other assets – Excerpts from the PWC report: Put data first.

There is a lot of focus in businesses today to adopt a data – driven culture. The management expects accurate and reliable information faster and more efficiently to enable data-driven informed decision-making. And with good reason – a focus on data can transform the business. Following the path of data to information, information to insight and then insight to action can help increase revenues and decrease costs (and risks). Recently, I have been struggling with the first step – source of data. No matter how advanced the business intelligence tool used is or how well the analysis is done and presented, unless the quality of the source of data is good, it is a case of Rubbish in – Rubbish out. Unless data used and presented is seen and believed as trustworthy, the whole purpose of the exercise is defeated. Instead of spending time analyzing, gathering insights or identifying the actions, a lot of time is spent in arguing over the accuracy of data, explaining gaps on perceived discrepancies or doing complicated workarounds to ensure reporting is not impacted while data quality issues are sorted out.

Based on my experience of what works and what does not and insights gained from the lot of reading I have been doing on this topic, here are five strategies for getting a handle on source data quality and making data quality improvement an ongoing, productive exercise:

Strategy #1:  Create a cross-functional data governance team – This is an important first step to set the right structure, authority and accountability for the data improvement initiative. The intent is not to get into the “death by meetings” scenarios but to break the data “silos” and bring the right people together (across the end-user, creator, administrator and analyst groups) to make informed decisions about the who, what and how questions. The team will define the processes, business rules, roles and responsibilities involved in the creation, management and consumption of data across the organization. The team will also serve as a forum for assigning priorities and escalation point for data issues. This ensures that data is being cared for across the organization and balanced decisions are taken.

Strategy #2:  Identify the broad level root causes – There are many reasons why the source data could be wrong – it could be related to extracting data from different source systems with conflicting information, errors at the time of manual entry of data, unclear understanding of what data needs to go where or which business rule/logic is the right business logic to be applied to a particular set of data. The more you dig, the more possible sources of error you could find and in enterprise scenarios, the steps you take to fix root causes today may rise tomorrow as a multi-headed monster with a whole new set of root causes. Hence the suggestion to identify the broad level root causes. The way to do this is to not attack the whole set of data in one instance – apply the 80/20 rule and select a few segments of data to dig into. This will increase your chances of isolating the causes better and resolving the major issues faster.

Strategy #3: Sustainability – Systems and People – Cleaning up the source data cannot be a one-time exercise. We are constantly adding new data or changing existing data. So it is important to keep in mind whether the solution to the problem is sustainable in the long run. A temporary flurry of activity and a few tweaks in the systems will do just that – fix the issue temporarily. We know that the more you reduce manual intervention of data, the better your chances are to reduce errors. This is where automation comes into place – the aim should be to have automation solve identified data discrepancy areas. The higher the percentage of automation, the more sustainable and efficient the initiative would be in the long run. And in the short term, training and constant communication to build awareness among the creators of data will help reduce errors. Tools and best practices training sessions should be an integral part of the data improvement strategies.

Strategy #4: Forget Perfection – It is not going to happen – Remember that perfect data by itself is not the end objective. It is the insight that data is used to generate that is the main goal. Don’t drop that ball by not moving forward on analysis till all imperfections in data are sorted out – ship out the data once you have reasonable confidence that it is accurate within a certain range. We have to balance efforts and time (to improve the accuracy of data) with the outcome needed.  If your data is off say 5-10%, it is “good” enough to start using for analysis and the next set of actions. Data quality improvements have to be considered as a work-in-progress iterative process.  As Jim Harris says here – “A smaller data quality emphasis SOMETIMES enables bigger data-driven insights, which means that SOMETIMES using a bigger amount of lower-quality data is better than using a smaller amount of higher-quality data.”

Strategy #5: Measurements and Metrics – Last but not the least, my favourite topic – metrics. Data experts have identified certain standard dimensions that impact data quality – Relevance, Accuracy, Timeliness and Punctuality, Accessibility and Clarity, Comparability and Coherence (some definitions of the dimensions here). Why measure? How else can we show the progress of our efforts and how do we build the business case that justifies investment into the data quality improvement initiative? Through a few simple, “right” metrics.  And what should be the main factor while choosing the metrics? The usefulness and relevance to the end-user – if we can’t link the metric directly to the impact on business performance, then it is not a metric that is useful or relevant.  Anish Raivadera, Data Quality expert has written an extremely useful eight part series on such metrics based on the above data dimensions here.

Data is everybody’s business. Whether we create, share or consume data, we all should be concerned about quality of the data in the organization. Unless this awareness about the importance of the quality of data and the role that each function (and not just IT) plays in ensuring the right quality of data is ingrained into the organization as part of the culture, we cannot tap the full power and potential of the available data.

Coincidentally, today I chanced upon the shareholder letters written by Jeff Bezos, Amazon and I cannot conclude this post without excerpts from there that I felt was particularly relevant to this post.  His 2005 letter was based on business decisions and their dependency (or not) on data:

“Many of the important decisions we make at Amazon.com can be made with data. There is a right answer or a wrong answer, a better answer or a worse answer, and math tells us which is which. These are our favorite kinds of decisions….As you would expect, however, not all of our important decisions can be made in this enviable, math-based way. Sometimes we have little or no historical data to guide us and proactive experimentation is impossible, impractical, or tantamount to a decision to proceed. Though data, analysis, and math play a role, the prime ingredient in these decisions is judgment….. Math-based decisions command wide agreement, whereas judgment-based decisions are rightly debated and often controversial, at least until put into practice and demonstrated. Any institution unwilling to endure controversy must limit itself to decisions of the first type. In our view, doing so would not only limit controversy —it would also significantly limit innovation and long-term value creation.”

So, what do you think? What other strategies would you recommend for improving quality of data? Who is responsible for source data in your organization? I would love to hear back and learn from you.

Picture courtesy : http://www.flickr.com/photos/ocdqblog/5065103584/

Five Steps to turn your Strategic Initiative into Execution Success

Five Steps to turn your Strategic Initiative into Execution Success

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results – this famous quote by Sir Winston Churchill often comes to my mind when I participate in strategy presentations. Beautiful slideware beautifully presented for maximum impact – but hey! Wasn’t this the vision a quarter back, a year back or two years back and essentially the same strategy couched in the latest business buzz words? You may have discovered the same yourself and experienced a sense of déjà-vu – and we are not alone. Multiple business surveys have revealed that more than 60% of corporate strategies never end up getting executed.  The best thinkers and strategists could come together and create a superb vision for an organization but it remains just that – a recurring dream – if not followed by flawless execution. But that is no easy job especially in the current turbulent business environment, globally spread and diverse employees and non-hierarchical organization structures. All the different threads that make up an organization has to be woven together to create an environment where every initiative achieves its objective and on time.

So, how do you take a single line objective or goal in a strategy (say, develop talent in niche areas or target accelerated growth in emerging markets or create a culture of innovation) and convert that into a reality? I have worked on or observed quite a few of these initiatives and the results have varied – some died a quick death, some petered out and a few gathered momentum and achieved the desired objectives successfully. Here are five steps that I believe contribute immensely to operational agility and are critical to turn your strategic initiative into execution success:

Step # 1: Get organized

Building an execution plan is the very first step. The plan has to be doable, well-defined, and realistic with clear objectives and time lines. Break up the strategy into four or five tactical goals (too many leads to dilution of efforts) and define the tasks, accountability and workflow for each of them. A structure and the process within the structure helps answer the how, what, who and where behind the high level strategy and goes a long way into making the strategy actionable.

Step # 2: Get Executive Sponsorship

Most often, implementing a strategy involves working across different functions in an organization and you may or may not have control over their actions. Office politics, inter-personal dynamics, conflicting priorities could ruin your plan even before it gets off the drawing board. So get the full support of the heavy weights behind you – you will definitely need it to enforce discipline and collaboration. Get the full buy-in of your top management to make sure that they support not only the strategy, but also the specific plan you have prepared to execute it. Don’t even bother to start without this – you will get nowhere.

Step #3: Get the Right Talent

Build cross-functional teams around each initiative selecting each team member very judiciously based on ability, personal interest and the special skills needed for the particular initiative. Through this, not only do you get the right talent but also create a shared sense of ownership and responsibility thus spreading the commitment with the organization. This will help in building momentum to sustain the initiative from the planning to execution phase.

Step #4: Communicate, Communicate and Communicate

Communication is the life-giving oxygen at every step of the process. The rationale behind the strategic initiative and the implementation plan, the benefits that are expected as outcomes from the initiative and the impact of failure of the plan all need to be made transparent to the teams. Provide information, invite feedback and conduct training sessions to increase engagement and improve collaboration. Turn passive detractors into active and enthusiastic drivers of the process by using this powerful tool.

Step #5: Track and Measure

Set up a steady state tracking mechanism and a schedule for review with the key stakeholders. Choose the performance metrics that best measure the progress (or regress) of the goals of your initiative. It is important to track and measure so that you know if you are winning to celebrate (publicly) or not winning to do course corrections on the execution plan (again publicly). This underlines the seriousness of the initiative and helps overcome the “this too shall pass” mentality in organizations. And of course, what gets measured gets improved, so you end up increasing your chances of execution success.

Transforming a dream into a reality in business or in life is not easy nor is it guaranteed. But then who said business operations was easy? I have seen initiatives succeed using the above steps (and all of them are important for successful execution) and as Marcel Telles said – A company can seize extra-ordinary opportunities only if it is very good at the ordinary operations. So the journey may be tough but the rewards would definitely be worth it – at the very least, you would not have to sit through the same strategy being presented for the umpteenth time in a new shape.

Tell me what I have missed out and where I might be wrong. How do you turn your strategic initiative into execution success? I would love to learn from you and get better.

Five Tips to make Working From Home work for You

Five Tips to make Working From Home work for You

Working from home is a privilege that a few enjoy. It is usually perceived by both employer and employee as a perk of the job and is an important aspect of workplace flexibility. Many organizations are slowly realizing the benefits of a flexible/remote work policy and the win-win situations of implementing such policies (http://mashable.com/2011/10/10/remote-workforce-changing/). You may be your own company or a cog in the wheel of a large company; from experience, I have found that it is quite possible to be even more productive working from your home-office than from a cubicle. Distraction-free environment, commute, office politics, flexibility of schedule all contribute to enhanced productivity but the focus of today’s blog is how to get the best out of yourself when you are working from home :

Tip # 1 Integrity: You are in a position of trust and with Trust comes Responsibility. As Oprah has said –”Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” Self-discipline is key to ensuring that you are at your productive best. You are your own manager in this scenario and have to take ownership of your work output. Set daily, weekly and monthly goals and STICK to them come what may.

Tip # 2 Time Management: It is very easy to lose track of time when you don’t have to punch in time and out time. Having more flexibility in your schedule is great, but it also makes it harder as there are more options on balancing time slots between personal and work time. Create your work hours based on what works best for you, your customers and your team. These hours may change from time to time but it is important to block them. For example – I work best late night, so I schedule my highest priority tasks that need my concentration the most for my time slots in the night. You may want to use a timer initially to keep track of time and reward yourself when your timer goes off with a short break. You will find yourself less distracted. And know when to stop – don’t let work takeover your life! Find the techniques that work best for you in tracking your most valuable resource – time!

Tip # 3 Work – Space: Keep aside a specific space – a room is best – dedicated as your work zone. It helps change the state of your mind from “I am at home” to “I am at work”. You work-space should be sacrosanct – no distractions allowed, enforce a “closed door” policy if needed. Keep your desk uncluttered and surround yourself with stuff that helps you focus – maybe fresh notepads and pens, work board, good lighting, coffee maker, music.

Tip # 4 Tools and Infrastructure: When you work from home, you are your own IT, admin and HR helpdesk. Even if your company is not paying you for it, good infrastructure and tools are totally a great investment to help you overcome irritations and productivity loss. A comfortable office chair, power backup, a good speakerphone, a printer/scanner and copier, headphones and microphone are some essentials. Do maintenance on your laptop/desk top regularly to ensure best performance. Back up your data and use a good antivirus solution.

Tip # 5 Communication and Collaboration: This becomes even more critical when you are working remote – you have to make up for face time by consciously increasing your interaction with your team and peers through intensive communication and collaboration. Pick up the phone and talk to people more, take every opportunity to collaborate, create mailing groups to inform and be informed – just because you are not physically present in the office doesn’t mean you can’t be a present and active member of your team. And ultimately remember that your work has to speak out loud for you, be “visible” through excellence in your work.

Finally I leave you with these words from Abraham Lincoln in a letter he wrote in 1851 :

If you intend to go to work, there is no better place than right where you are; if you do not intend to go to work, you cannot get along anywhere.

— Abraham Lincoln

What strategies have worked for you in increasing your productivity when you work from home ? Do share.

Five Secret Killers of Company Growth – Business Operations Performance Management

Five Secret Killers of Company Growth – Business Operations Performance Management

I have been a part of and have observed many start ups and big organizations on their growth trajectories. It is interesting to see how some businesses outperform themselves year on year while others suddenly start declining and eventually die. How and why does this happen ? What are the major Killers of Company Growth ?

Here are some of my thoughts and supporting images from Tom Fishburne, THE Marketoonist :

Growth Killer # 1 : Goals (or Lack of) – A company needs a clearly defined goal to bind the team together for consistent efforts towards success. This may be an obvious fact, but very few companies drum the goal into the hearts and minds of their people every opportunity they get – Vision is important but not as important as the Mission. State your mission, define it clearly and revisit it every chance you get.

Growth Killer # 2 : Hierarchy (or too much of) – While organization charts are important to set a structure to the company, it becomes very limiting when bureaucracy sets in and meritocracy is overlooked especially in today’s dynamic business environment. If every new idea or initiative has to go through ten layers of approval and justification, people just stop having bright ideas and acting on them.

Growth Killer # 3 : Square pegs in Round holes (or vice versa) – You land into this performance killer when you start a dangerous trend of creating positions for people and not finding people for positions (right fits). You then have great people in completely wrong roles – is it a wonder that they are not great contributors to your growth trajectories anymore ?

Growth Killer # 4 : Fear (or Risk Averseness) : Where there is a culture of fear, no matter how much you motivate or engage your people, they definitely will not step up or out of their comfort zones. It is as important to encourage “mistakes” as it is to reward successes. Companies need to create an environment where people are not afraid to give and be their best and to challenge the status quo else you can just say bye-bye to growth.

Growth Killer # 5 : Metrics (or the wrong ones) : As often said, what cannot be measured cannot be improved. But it is critical to keep figuring out the right metrics for your company (derived from your Goal). Are you measuring your sales opening ratios or just your closing ratios, your investment in R&D/new offering or only your profitability ? Measuring the “Right” Metrics is critical so that the long-term growth goals are not sacrificed at the altar of short-term profitability.

What do you think matters most for a company to keep growing ? What are your views on the Killers of Company Growth ? What goals are you planning for your company in the year ahead  ? Would love to hear your take.