How to use Lean Data to get better feedback


We need feedback to improve how we do things – but what is a good way to get it?

At one extreme in the feedback spectrum is Big Data – if we collect as much information as possible and feed it into clever machines that can learn and have artificial intelligence (AI), we’ll get deep insights into customers, organisations and systems.

At the other extreme is the collection and processing of information that seems important to people that matter – bosses, shareholders and government.

These focus on output metrics that are important.

In local government, for example, the number of jobs created is the main question asked of any project and so, unsurprisingly, most proposals will bump up the number of jobs projected to numbers that may never be realised.

The Big Data approach has a barrier to entry made up of knowledge and systems.

The output based approach makes the numbers look good but may not reflect reality.

So, is there a middle way that is simpler and cheaper to do?

Sacha Dichter and Tom Adams at Acumen, a non-profit that looks at innovative ways to reduce poverty, and Alnoor Ebrahim at Harvard Business School have used a new approach to measurement that combines lean design principles with quick and inexpensive data collection methods that they call Lean Data.

Lean data has two goals:

  1. Make measurement cheaper.
  2. Increase the value to enterprises of collecting data.

In the non-profit sectors that Acumen studies things change quickly, there is little money, there isn’t anyone in the organisation with deep data experience and the systems to collect and keep data aren’t there.

These problems aren’t limited to non-profits, however. Virtually all organisations will face the same issues.

Acumen have come up with an acronym – BUILD – that we can use to create a measurement system that works.

Such a system will be:

  • Bottom Up: created after listening to customers so that it addresses what they need.
  • Useful: What comes out of it helps us to make decisions.
  • Iterative: We won’t get it right first time – we need to iterate and continuously improve it.
  • Light touch: We need to be able to use cheap tech that needs little time or money to get going.
  • Dynamic: Things will change – and we need to be able to change as they do.

A problem with many management systems is that although they are designed around principles of test and learn and continuous improvement, they quickly degenerate into compliance activity with box ticking and paper processes that don’t match the real world.

A truly lean approach may help us cut through that and look at the underlying reality with fresh eyes.

We are certain to improve performance if we improve the quality of feedback.

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