Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Dashboards Work

There are three ways of understanding a dashboard.

Symbolic. A dashboard simplifies and codifies What-Is-Going-On.

Imaginary. A dashboard creates an illusion of an accurate and comprehensive picture of What-Is-Going-On.

Real. The dashboard always falls short of representing What-Is-Going-On. There is always a shadow - something left over that eludes simple capture and representation, often remaining invisible or inaccessible.

Dashboard design and development often focuses on the symbolic - defining the contents of the dashboard as a aggregation of services and data feeds, defining the events that are to be displayed (for example as warning lights), and setting simple policies that set thresholds of attention for predictable events.

Some people seem to view this as a key element of systems thinking. For example Bas de Baar, who blogs under the name "Project Shrink", identifies Systems Thinking As A Technique To Find Project Problems and claims "If I have the right metrics I can ignore everything around me and focus just on the dashboard." He appears to justify this claim by comparing project managers with fish (Swimming Upstream The Information Flow). Fish may be reasonably well adapted to many environments, but they cannot deal with the complex threats posed by the much more intelligent dolphin, as I pointed out in my blog on Lean versus Complex.
However, an emphasis on the dashboard as a simple collection of metrics overlooks the way the dashboard is used within a socio-technical system. Isaac Asimov wrote a story called Reason in which a robot controlled a dashboard perfectly, while refusing to believe in any system beyond the dashboard, but of course that's science fiction.

If we imagine that the purpose of a dashboard is to support prompt and appropriate action in a wide range of normal and abnormal operating conditions, then it should support as much (human, organizational) intelligence as is required to maintain the viability and safety of the system in a given complex environment.

One of the lessons from the Three Mile Island disaster was that when something goes seriously wrong, all the red lights on the dashboard start flashing at the same time, and unless the people in charge of the system have some way of making sense of the emergency (emerging situation), they may make things worse rather than better. (Deming calls this tampering or meddling.)

The safe operation of the nuclear power plant is not just about the design of the dashboard, or about the training of the operators, but about the whole system producing good outcomes in all circumstances. In the Springfield Nuclear Plant, the risk comes not just from idiot operators (Homer Simpson) but from corrupt managers (Montgomery Burns).

Many dashboards are designed merely to aggregate and push information into a social system that the dashboard designer doesn't bother to understand. Prior to Three Mile Island, this was often true even in safety-critical situations. I trust that the safety-critical world has now learned this lesson, but dashboards in other contexts may not be so conscientiously designed and tested.

In management information systems, a dashboard focuses executive attention onto specific aspects of the business. But there seems to be an important difference between a random collection of KPIs or guiding ratios, and a joined-up view that helps the executive reason about the business as a whole system. The standard dashboard is lacking at least two elements of organizational intelligence: Sense-Making (helping the executive see how the different items are interrelated) and Double-Loop Learning (not just getting better at meeting fixed targets, but setting more appropriate targets).

So a dashboard needs to be designed to perform a clear function within an action-based command and control system, rather than merely a simplistic reporting function.

However, there are two traps here. Firstly the hubris of the designer, imagining that a complete understanding of a complex system is possible, or expecting to produce a perfect shadow-free dashboard. Secondly, the blinkered vision of the operator, staring at the dashboard and failing to look out of the window.

In any case, management-by-dashboard seems a pretty unauthentic and disengaged way of running a company. Perhaps it is ironic that HP, one of the leading technology companies of our time, boasts its co-founder Dave Packard as one of the earliest modern practitioners of the opposite technique - "management by walking around". (HP Timeline 1940s)

This blog is an edited version of my contributions to a discussion on the Lenscraft Linked-In group. Thanks to Aidan Ward, Geoff Elliott and Hans Lodder for their stimulating comments.

1 comment:

Bas said...

Hi Richard, great article. Wow. Did I say that?

I used the dashboard metaphor to explain/to illustrate how we can look at complex systems with our own limited brains (huuuuuge system, small input :) ).

Systems view describes a way to use trends in variables as a starting point to reason with a team about the system behavior.

My goal was to reframe metrics into a context of analysis, explanation etc. instead of "just" reporting.

Will be more clear next time :)