Reading Between the Lines
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

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“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Reading Between the Lines by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine July 2005

How do you tell if you are improving over time?  Do you simply rely on what your gut feelings tell you, or do you consistently trend process performance over time and try to develop theories about why your processes are behaving as they are?  Unfortunately, the prevailing approach that appears to be in use in most organizations is a mixture of intuition and snapshot analysis – too few companies actually try to use process behavior curves to understand and improve their key systems.

Ironically, the opinion I just stated is actually one that is based more on gut feel and direct observation.  From a fact-based perspective, I can tell you that in a majority of the workshops that I do, a very small percentage of the companies regularly do trend analysis on a balanced set of performance measures each day.  In a more holistic sense however, I can also recount to you story after story of people that I happen to see in airports and on airplanes pouring over table of numbers that simply compare the most recent month to the same month a year ago or to a year-to-date average.  Snapshot analysis appears to be the primary form of performance review in use today.

What’s wrong with using ‘snapshots’ to improve performance?  Sure, a picture might be worth a thousand words, but does taking the time to convert a spreadsheet of data into a variety of line charts actually add value to the performance analysis process?  In my opinion, yes it does.  In fact, I commonly tell people that I would not want to have any form of management responsibility if I was not also allowed to do daily trend analysis on a variety of performance data.  I learned to improve performance by reading between the lines, and I would not want to try to do it any other way.

Dr. Deming often made a simple, but powerful, statement in his training courses – no theory, no learning.  He felt that in order to learn about, and fundamentally improve, systems, individuals and teams had to learn to develop theories about why their systems performed as they did.  This goal could not be accomplished without looking the behavior of each system through the use of trend lines and other forms of process analysis.  Dr. Deming first went to Japan to teach because he had trouble getting people to listen to him in this country.  Almost fifty years later, I am left wondering if he would be any less frustrated with the management practices and beliefs that are in place today.

Why are we failing to read between the lines?  Why do so many companies simply look at black and white numbers on paper and attempt to determine where changes are needed?  Was Dr. Deming simply being over analytical, or are we continuing to improperly diagnose and adjust our key systems in a futile attempt to make our processes more effective?  My short answer to these questions is simple as well – few people have been taught how to effectively analyze and improve process performance.  They are, for the most part, unaware of the tremendous value that can be gained from learning to develop and analyze system performance through the use of the basic seven quality tools.

I had been an Industrial Engineer for five years before I could even repeat all seven of these tools from memory – the companies I worked for did not require me to do so.  It took an additional five years to develop the understanding of these tools necessary to effectively teach them to others.  While I began to realize the value and profound nature of Dr. Deming’s statement as a Production Manager over ten years ago, I did not fully appreciate this value until I became a Plant Manager in 2001.  Challenged with developing a production system that could support an ever increasing mix of customer requirements, I finally began to appreciate the true power and promise of learning to measure the right mix of things, properly chart system performance, and identify the right types of system changes that would both reduce process variation and lead to higher levels of repeatable performance results.  Converting tables of numbers into charts does make a difference.  Learning to read between the lines is worth the time investment required.  Most companies are wasting a lot of time, and possibly causing a lot of stress and damage, by continuing to rely on ineffective approaches to process analysis and review.

I have not mastered this set of skills by any means.  I am still learning new ways to capture, diagram, and analyze system performance.  It is still a challenge to convince others that this ‘alternative’ approach to process analysis is really worth the effort.  I continue to try to hone my skills relative to selecting the right mix of measures and charting different measures on the same chart to allow for even higher levels of systems understanding.  Learning to truly read between the lines is even more challenging than simply learning to interpret what a single line is trying to tell me.

In addition to failing to use trend lines to analyze process performance, many of us are also using process analysis for the wrong reason.  In short, we are using data to look at where we have been, as compared to using it to look at where we are going and what we are capable of.  Dr. Deming used to say that “we are trying to drive our cars with the windshield papered over, using only our mirrors to keep us on the road.”  I unfortunately see this analogy playing out to some degree with essentially every company I interface with.  Not only are we trying to drive our organizational ’vehicles’ with the windshield papered over, we are papering them over with chart-less, snapshot-based performance review reports.

I mentioned previously that one possible explanation for our process analysis shortcomings lie in the fact that we often were not formally trained in the use of such skills.  Similarly, our failure to rely on charts as a primary form of analysis may also be rooted in a lack of spreadsheet usage skills.  I would hypothesize that the younger generation of engineers use (or at least would prefer to use) chart-based analysis to a greater degree than the older generation does.  I can’t prove this quantitatively, but it is a theory I am interested in exploring further.  Can you read between the lines?  Do you see the value of doing so?  If not, is it possible that there is value to be gained in learning to do so?

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