Do you remember the first time you boarded an airliner? If you happened to look into the cockpit area, you were no doubt impressed by what you saw; Rows upon rows of dials or displays (showing my age here!), banks of switches and all kinds of levers, pedals, the control yokes and lights, lots of lights. All of the information required to fly the airplane was made available to the pilot and copilot as well as all the controls necessary to act on the information delivered by all of those instruments.
That is what a well-designed dashboard is supposed to do. It should deliver information and provide the means of acting on that information. Unfortunately, some business oriented dashboards fall short in some areas.
Let’s take look at a couple of examples.
Imagine you are driving across the Mojave Desert during the month of July. It’s about 110 degrees Fahrenheit if you happen to be standing in the shadow of a large cactus. Otherwise, it’s closer to 120.
However, you and your family don’t care how hot it is because you’re ensconced in the air-conditioned comfort of the family wagon. Attached to the back of your car is a six person camping trailer. It’s outfitted with a full kitchen, entertainment center and pull-out living room.
In the backseat, the kids are playing games and watching videos. Up front, your spouse sits beside you, and you are thinking that things just don’t get any better than vacation with the family.
Your eyes wander across the dash looking at the fuel gauge and the speedometer. All is well, three quarters of a tank of petrol and you’re doing seventy miles per hour right on the button.
Suddenly, you notice a little wisp of steam issuing from under the hood. At the same time, a bright red light starts flashing on your dash. The word HOT is spelled out in the lens of the red light. The wisp of steam turns into a cloud surrounding your car.
You pull off the main roadway onto the shoulder and stop the car. The contents of your radiator erupt and form a large green pool under the front of the car. Your family and you start to sweat . . .
Another family is cruising across the same stretch of highway. Again, the driver is content with the world. He is a bit concerned because his fuel gauge is telling him he only has a quarter of a tank of fuel remaining. As he drives along, he sees a sign announcing the next exit with a warning that after this point, the next available gasoline is fifty miles further down the road.
The driver takes a longer look at his dash and checks a reading that tells him that at his current rate of fuel consumption he is getting about 25 miles per gallon. Another read out tells him he has five gallons of fuel remaining in his tank. This driver relaxes and settles back to continue driving without bothering with the next exit. He knows that he has plenty of fuel to make the exit fifty miles down the road.
So what is point? What do these two stories tell us? First, both cars have dashboards and both have drivers that dutifully check the dashboard as they proceed along the highway. However, the out come of the two stories is completely different.
The first driver had a dashboard that told him his speed and his remaining fuel. These are two very important values for any driver to monitor. However, this guy was pulling a heavy trailer through a desert in the middle of the day. Engine temperature is critical. His dashboard did not give him the ability to monitor his engine temperature. It only told him, after the fact, his engine was too hot. The critical information was delivered to him too late to be of any use.
The information provided to our driver did not facilitate any possible action to prevent his engine from overheating. The result was a disabled car, his family is stuck in the desert and his vacation has turned into a nightmare.
The second driver has a much different story. His dashboard provided him with actionable information that was germane to the situation he was experiencing. Additionally, the information was delivered in time to facilitate an outcome changing decision.
This driver was able to determine if he would run out of gas prior to the next available exit. He was able to effectively manage his trip by avoiding an unnecessary stop at the first exit and continue for another fifty miles.
This is even true with dashboards reporting production oriented values. Your dash can provide you with reports on all sorts of measurable factors, but, if they have nothing to do with what you do, then they serve no purpose. The information on your dash should inform your decision-making and afford you the opportunity to make changes to prevent or minimize negative results.
From our initial example, a temperature gauge would give our driver the ability to notice that the engine temp was rising long before the radiator blew up. He would have been able to slow down, shut down his AC or just stop for a few minutes and allow the car to cool down. Instead, the light turned on and told him the engine was already too hot to operate.
In the business world, if you were able to see a large order pending before it hit your production system, you might be able to assure parts inventory were ready for the order. Isn’t this better than finding out that, parts aren’t available and that the order won’t ship until after the end of the quarter? That could be the difference between making a profit or a loss.
Dashboards must be tailored to the user and the role of the user within the enterprise. Dashboards must also be linked with the “action controls” that allow the person to react to the information they receive. Imagine a car equipped with a radar detector but no brakes to slow the car down. It makes no sense. The same is true with business dashboards. Data by itself is seldom useful information.