The Story In Your Performance Data

by Stacey Barr |

Your performance data is trying to tell you a story you’ll never hear unless you can ask it these 7 questions.

Data flying off the pages of a book. Credit:

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Your performance data is trying to tell you something. Something deeper and more insightful than just whether or not you’re on track to hit your target. Something richer and more actionable than just whether or not this month was better than last.

Can you hear it?

Probably not, unless you’re adept at asking the following questions to pull the story out of your performance data.

The 7 questions that help your performance data tell its story…

It’s a measure that we want to understand and improve. We can ask our KPIs these seven questions to dive more deeply into the story they are dying to tell us:

QUESTION 1: Which other KPIs or measures are characters in the story?

No performance measure lives independently in a vacuum. It will always be directly related to at least two or three other measures. Some of those other measures will be companions, triangulating to give a more reliable understanding of our goal. Or they might be in a conflict or cause-effect relationship with our KPI, but give us valuable context.

For example, Staff Turnover is not a sufficient indicator of staff engagement, but combine it with measures like the percentage of staff intending to leave within the next 6 months and staff satisfaction with their worklife, you get a less biased picture.

QUESTION 2: What are the roles played by these related KPIs in the story?

KPI stories aren’t revealed if we just hop from one measure to another, in series. Instead, when we need to think of all our measures as important characters in the same performance story. This means we’ll get deeper into the story if we compare and contrast patterns in the measures with one another, to understand how their relationships affect each other.

For example, don’t you agree that optimising On-Time Delivery and Workplace Accidents is much wiser than trying to maximise each of these, independent of the other? Well, that’s because these two characters are in a conflict relationship, where improving one of them greatly risks making the other one worse.

QUESTION 3: What other quantitative angles can help us understand the story more deeply?

We can – and should – look at our performance data in more ways than one. A single statistic only describes one feature of a KPI. The average is only one small part of the plot. Other quantitative angles include:

  • the median or mode, to compare against the average and see how skewed the KPI’s data might be
  • the distribution of the KPI values (like a histogram), to see what’s typical and how far out the outliers sit
  • the pattern in KPI values over time (like an XmR chart), to see the locations and sizes of changes over time
  • the amount of variability that’s normal for the KPI (which the XmR chart also does), to understand what’s typical and what’s abnormal for the KPI values

For example, a fuller understanding of Customer Satisfaction comes from examining the variation in satisfaction ratings, the change in satisfaction levels over time, the correlation between satisfaction levels and revenue – not just the average satisfaction rating.

QUESTION 4: Is there a qualitative dimension to give more richness to the story?

KPIs and performance measures are, by definition, quantitative. They are built with numbers. But qualitative indicators do exist. They are built on images or words or sounds. Alongside our quantitative measures, they add more life to the story of performance.

It’s just like using a series of video case studies or photos of smashed up cars to give sensory context to changes over time in a collection of road crash severity metrics.

QUESTION 5: Which business process provides the setting for the story?

At this point, we should have a pretty solid understanding for the topic of the story, who the characters are, and what those characters are like. No story, however, can unfold without a setting. And for performance measures, the setting is most often a business process: the flow of activities, from start to finish, that impact the result of our KPI measures.

For example, when customer research showed that a KPI of Customer Satisfaction with Billing was on the dive, the billing team needed to figure out where to work. So they flowcharted the end-to-end billing process to create the setting for the story to unfold. (Full case study here.)

QUESTION 6: Where is the story’s plot likely to go?

If we just look at our KPIs alone, all we can know is what they are doing. But the real story comes from learning why they’re doing it. To understand why, we use cause analysis and diagnostic analytics. Basically, we ask our data questions to draw out more of the story.

For example, if we’re worried about KPIs relating to budget performance, we might ask our data questions like these, to direct our analysis:

  • Why aren’t costs staying within budget?
  • Which parts of the budget are blowing out most?
  • Where is budget being managed well?
  • How are we spending the budget (on what)?
  • What if we cut back spending on this, or that?

QUESTION 7: How will this story end?

We don’t just seek to know, with our KPIs. We seek to discover what actions should happen next, ideally so the KPI story has a happy ending. To discover what next, from the causes we identify, we can form some hypotheses and test them through change initiatives.

For example, if our Policy Advice Timeliness is blowing out, then we can find out the events that likely triggered the shifts in cycle time, or find out on which policy process activities most of the cycle time is being spent. If we learn that consultation takes up too much time, we can design an experiment to test one or more new ways to get the right input on policy development, in less time.

Stories can engage people to action.

When you think about putting your performance measures to use to improve performance, do what you can to draw out the story in the performance data. Stories engage people, and when it comes to numbers and statistics and measures, we usually have to do all we can to get people engaged!

Start by channeling the late Hans Rosling. Then, think of one performance measure for which you have plenty of historical data. Collate that data, and start asking it questions like the seven listed above, to uncover its story.

Your KPIs can’t tell you an insightful story until you start asking them the right questions.
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