The Two Reasons why Your M.I. is Always Wrong

My 4-year-old daughter is learning to count.  She is obsessed by it.  She counts everything:

1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. 5.. 6..

Everywhere we go.

Most of all though she counts steps.  Particularly in castles and cathedrals (which is fun) and car parks (which when you are laden with bags full of shopping… that you just want to put it in the car… before your arms drop off… is less so).

In truth she isn’t very good at counting.  If we are counting the steps to the top floor of a car park her number and mine never agree.

There are two reasons why she is wrong (and I am right):

1.  She makes mistakes:

Counting is difficult:

  • Fifty seven
  • Fifty eight
  • Fifty nine
  • Twenty
  • Twenty one

You get the idea.

2.  She isn’t clear

3 steps up and 1 step down makes it 2 steps high (Daddy logic).

3 steps up and 1 step down makes it 4 steps (yes but it is a step Daddy, I just stepped it).

Adults like to count as well

We count a lot, just not steps, we count calls and customers and jobs and money.  We call it management information.

Of course management information isn’t information if it is wrong.  So we obsess about making sure it is right, that the numbers match, that we have a single source of the truth.

But expecting a single truth is naïve.  If two people count the same thing they will count it differently and you will get two different numbers.

1.  We make mistakes.

We count complicated things.  Imagine working out the number of calls that come into a call centre that gets:

  • Sales calls
  • Quote calls
  • Service calls
  • After sales calls
  • Out bound calls
  • Calls from customers
  • Calls from people who aren’t customers
  • Calls from staff members
  • Transferred calls
  • Chase calls

All those calls are recorded on different databases, at different frequencies, using different technologies.

The more convoluted the thing we are counting the more likely we are to get it wrong.  And we all love complexity.  So we get the numbers wrong all the time.

Nobody is perfect.

2.  We aren’t clear

We all define things differently; when is a call a call?

  • Are we talking sales calls or service calls?
  • What about a service call that lead to a sale?
  • Are internal calls calls?
  • If a call is a wrong number, should you count it as a call?
  • How about ring backs and outbound calls?
  • Do you want Monday to Sunday or week commencing Saturday?
  • Should you count a call from the second it starts or the second it finishes?

The answer to these and a myriad of other questions often depends more on the reason you are counting calls than the fact that a phone rang.

Please don’t be naïve

Don’t obsess about the precise number.  Stand back and look at the bigger picture.

But most importantly of all, ask yourself why you are counting this thing in the first place?

Do you really need to know how many steps there are in Trinity Square car park?

When the lift is broken the answer is plenty.

It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong~ Carveth Read

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Counting steps

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  1. Love it… great analogy… and great message!

    Annette :-)

  2. Hi James,
    I get the funny feeling that we could apply this to the whole ‘Big Data’ industry and debate.

    Stepping back to see the big picture and to ask questions is where the real value is.

    It worries me that with so much number counting and crunching going on, that firms are not seeing the big picture and asking the Qs. Rather, they just getting stuck in the weeds because they don’t have the courage, wit, wisdom, experience or ?? to know the difference or do different?

    Or, am I being unkind?


    • James Lawther says:

      I think you are bang on the money.

      Very few people appear to be capable of holding their heads upa and asking “what is the problem”


  3. Nice post, kids seem to make every topic more interesting. As you say the most important thing is to figure out what data you actually need. Then use an operational definition so the data collection is sensible.


  1. […] Management Information by James Lawther – “All those calls are recorded on different databases, at different frequencies, using different technologies… But most importantly of all, ask yourself why you are counting this thing in the first place?” […]

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