Data. . . The First Step Towards Knowledge and Then Improvement


In order to come up with a solution to a challenge, the challenge must first be fully understood, otherwise the solution will be less effective. Some of the most important aspects of understanding are the facts, the universal assumptions that should be known. Even when it comes to “breaking the rules” types of creativity, the rules must first be understood before they can be broken. Before we can think outside of the box, we must know the parameters and dimensions of the box.

Most quality improvement experts will tell you that you cannot improve something without data. Even those things that seem to be abstract or are intangible must be quantified, turned into data in some way, so that they can be measured. If you cannot measure something, you cannot improve it.

When educating individuals on the importance of data and management based on facts, I like to remark that there are three sets of data: What we think is going on, what is actually going on, and then there is what is expected or required to happen. What is expected are the rules, the goals, the quotas, the performance standards, the laws, et cetera. These expected and desired data are the measurable outcomes that when existing we can call ourselves successful.

In a perfect world, all three of these sets of data would be the same. For example, in a manufacturing organization, the production line managers think that the factory is producing widgets at 5,000 per day with 0.001% waste for breakage and other losses. When they

measure to see what is actually occurring, they find that the factory is, in fact, producing widgets at 5,000 per day with 0.001% waste, which is exactly the production quota/goal upper level management has set for their production team. Everyone is happy.

This perfect alignment of the three types of data is not the world we live in most of the time. In our personal and professional lives, there are usually differences in what we think is occurring, what is actually occurring, and everyone’s expectations. Those differences represent our opportunity for improvement.

The first set of data, what we think is going on, is usually based on our own biases or personal history, our opinions or our gut. It is what we feel is going on – without the impartial facts to back it up – before we take the time and effort to measure the situation. I’m reminded of a time when I was a Head Start Director and staff at one of our centers wanted to make a decision based on their gut, but I required them to use their data.

In this case, we had to make a cost cutting decision to eliminate a bus at one of our centers. Having parents self-transport their children to the center meant we saved on the salaries of a bus driver and monitor, the cost of the vehicle, plus gas, insurance and maintenance.

As the costs of running our program increased but our funding did not, we sought ways to cut expenses. Transportation was one of those areas that provided such an opportunity.

We had established an internal protocol when determining which centers and classrooms could potentially lose a school bus if we had to use this strategy to balance the budget. For example, half day classrooms would not be eligible for consideration. Those classrooms or centers that were full-day sessions made more sense, because these classrooms were more for working parents or those in school. Therefore, there was an increased likelihood that the parents were already commuters and it would be less of a hardship to come back and forth when the children were on site for six-plus hours rather than the half-day sessions’ three-hour duration.

The decision was made and approved by the policy group and the affected parents were notified of the change before the new school year began. The staff at the center were not happy. Some of the parents were not happy. Not everyone could adjust to the new set-up. So, we did lose some children. However, the staff informed me that the impact was catastrophic. They claimed it resulted in a tremendous number of families dropping out of the program – according to them, more than usual. They campaigned for me to reverse the decision and add a school bus back to that classroom.

Now, for those who don’t know about Head Start, the process of recruitment, admission and enrollment during the summer months before the school year starts can be a very busy and ever-changing process. Many families whose children are accepted into the program may move before the school year starts, may decide to have their child attend Pre-K or another private preschool program instead of Head Start, or may even have their child stay at home with grandma. Because of these reasons, and because Head Start Performance Standards require us to be effective and efficient in our enrollment and attendance, all programs are required to maintain a waiting list so that emptying slots can be refilled quickly. Those children who left the program because the new bus situation was not convenient were quickly replaced with children on the waiting list.

While the staff was sure in their gut that the new system resulted in a greater amount of upheaval, I was not convinced. So, I asked them to look at their data. I asked them to prepare a report for me of how many children had to be replaced with children from the waiting list during a month-long period: two weeks before the first day of school and two weeks after the first day of school for the last two years and compare it to the current year with the elimination of the school bus.

Guess what the results were? The data showed there was no discernible difference in the amount of turnover during those periods of time for the years in question. Their feelings about the loss of the school bus were impacting their ability to accurately evaluate the situation.

It felt like the impact of the loss of the bus was greater than it was. It took looking at the data to get a better perspective.

The above is an excerpt from the “Blue Imagination” chapter of the book What Color Is Your Imagination? © It is the first of three books by Nadine Owens Burton based on her proprietary quality improvement themes.

Nadine Owens Burton has been a teacher, a university administrator, a non-profit board member, a director of a school readiness program and a Mompreneur. She is the founder and president of Owens Burton Consulting, a quality improvement training and speaking services company. Her book, What Color Is Your Imagination? © is available at Amazon, Bookbaby, Barnes and Noble and other booksellers. It is the first of three planned books based on her proprietary workshops and keynotes. The next in the series will be The Power of CARE™ followed by The Promising Professional™.

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