I really like my dashboard. I’ve spent a lot of time curating it, checking it and making decisions based on what I’ve seen. I felt that I knew what was happening in my department just by glancing at the charts. I made sure that it tracked more and more details. All what I did was data-driven. I thought I was clever.
For the past couple of years, I started and finished my day with analyzing my beloved dashboard. Apart from that I would also check it during the day. I even thought of buying another monitor to be able to see it all the time.
Guess what? It made me a worse manager.
In a growing organisation, one of the biggest challenges for a manager is to scale oneself up. The list of responsibilities is always growing, never decreasing.
So what do you do? You start to delegate like crazy. You hope that you are doing great because you give people goals, not solutions. But you never have enough time to properly pass the tasks on and teach your people to be able to do them, do you? This leads to problems. It seems that people just cannot do what they are supposed to do, right? More and more of your time is consumed by just fixing the problems.
You think “I don’t have enough time to deal with all of this, I need to ensure that people don’t make mistakes”.
This is probably a turning point in most management careers. As you realize you can’t fix everything yourself, you start to introduce processes.
It starts with simple ad-hoc processes, then checklists. The system around you is slowly growing.
And one day, you wake up and BAM! You are not a leader anymore. You’ve just become an administrator of bureaucratic processes. Instead of managing people, you manage systems.
And to manage systems you need dashboards to see what is happening.
Been there, done that.
Think about the time before you became a manager. Chances are, that you were a competent worker and you were helping people around you. If somebody had a problem, you went to this person to solve it together. You worked with people. You were a teacher.
How many times did you think that processes introduced by those in the management were just compliance over competence?
No doubt, it’s easier to manage through systems than managing through getting people to solve problems. We can gather more and more data and even have algorithms help us in understanding it. But whatever you do, dashboards are not good at showing people as humans. They, at best, show resources with skills.
Data is clearly important, but even the best reports without direct experience are not enough to truly understand what’s happening.
I’m not advocating to stop using dashboards. But they are just a tool. They won’t show you the most important thing: the real place where value is created and the people who create it. Dashboards encourage you to create processes instead of developing your people. They allow to create an organization where there are a few brains and hundreds of pairs of hands. That’s not a good use of people’s skills.
I’m also not saying that processes are bad. It’s just that you, as a manager, are probably a bad person to create them. It’s okay when people, who actually do the work, create a process that helps them - and your role is to support them and also teach them how to improve it over time.
Probably the most important lesson from Lean methodology: “going to the real place to see the real thing.” So, how to counter the bad side of dashboards?
Make your hands dirty.
There is an anecdote that managers at Toyota have to wash their hands three times a day. This implies that they should go to the factory floor at least three times a day and actually see work (and it’s dirty there!). Whatever your business is, try to see the actual place where the value is created daily.
Assume that introducing a process is your failure as a manager.
This is a bit extreme but use it just as a thought experiment. In a lot of cases, if you need to create a process yourself, it may mean that you failed at teaching people to do their jobs. Whenever you ask people for their compliance, you lose a bit of their brain capabilities (not to mention their engagement) in the process.
Teach, don’t manage.
As a manager, your biggest responsibility is to teach people how to solve problems, not to make them do things. You are successful when your people can be successful at their jobs. Every meeting is an opportunity for you to teach and to provide context and the bigger picture. Take ownership of their mistakes and assume that it is your failure at being a good teacher or you didn’t create good conditions for them to do a good job.
Assume the dashboard is not working.
From time to time try to collect the data manually. Not only you often discover that your reports are just wrong, but you also can learn a lot about the actual work.
Seeing the growth of your people is a lot more fun than seeing your charts grow.
Just remind yourself from time to time that only "great people create great products."