Actionable business intelligence and your team of data managers
By Mary Sue O’Melia
Transit Information Technology produces volumes of data. The real challenge is to turn this data into information that is useful in developing strategies to improve performance and influence outcomes. This is “Actionable Business Intelligence.” This same information is then used to determine if the actions taken were effective in changing performance. Did you get the desired result?
Actionable business intelligence
Attention is being given to “actionable” performance measurement. The process is to first identify what comprises good performance, measure performance to determine areas requiring action, and then provide enough information to develop a sound strategy for improvement. Once an agency has taken action, the next step is to measure performance again to determine if the action taken was effective.
The real challenge is to come up with and then implement and sustain performance measurement program that includes action plans linked to performance improvement. Who in any organization has enough time, staff, experience and resources for this? One strategy is to designate and train a group of Data Managers. Think of this task as grooming future managers and organizational leaders.
Identifying Data Managers
While multiple departments may use specific data sets (e.g., farebox system, financial system, AVL system, dispatch system, payroll system), generally one or two departments have primary responsibility for each system. And most organizational units have a Data Manager, although that is typically not the person’s job title. You know who these individuals are within your organization. They are the ones you go to for information and reports. In smaller agencies, it may be one person.
The role of Data Managers
The Executive Management team is responsible for coaching, training, and skill development for a performance-based organization. Why not start by grooming a group of Data Managers to get your organization started? The Executive Team would still decide which KPIs to report to the Board, but the Data Managers would start by compiling information and be the research arm of the Executive Team.
Data managers would work as a group on projects to ensure:
• Regular reporting of key performance indicators (KPI), targets, and quarterly board reporting.
• Documentation of data definitions and standardization of measures.
• Provision of quality data and presentation formats that are useful and easy to understand regarding what is occurring, when, where, who, how many and potential causes and conditions.
Just because a Data Manager reports a specific statistic does not mean that the Data Manager is responsible for performance. The Data Manager is responsible for collecting and validating data and helping to present information to management. Data Managers are not responsible for reporting information that make the Executive Team look good. They just report the information and help identify causes and conditions. The team (i.e., entire organization) is responsible for performance.
Don’t quit if you use data as a group and discover that there are errors. Your company just invested significant resources in a system to collect all of this data. Work with your Data Manager team to figure out how to clean the data and/or make the presentation more useful, and try again next month. You cannot use data if it is not accurate, but if the Executive Team never tries to use the data and does not look at it regularly, it will never be good data.
Start with simple questions
As a group, the Data Managers should start by explaining the trends for KPIs. Ask “Why?” Why is this KPI going up or down? Show me data that identifies causes and conditions. Suggest areas for investigation. The Data Managers come back with additional information to define the cause of the observed performance trend. What program or action can be taken to influence performance or mitigate conditions? Practice, practice, practice. As the Executive Team asks questions, the Data Managers learn.
Sounds like grammar school but it works. For example, when discussing KPIs about passengers, Data Managers discussed the accuracy of farebox data. Who knows how to log onto the farebox system? How do the fare keys work? What data is generated when a customer taps their fare card? Do all keys denote a passenger or are some keys just for information? What role does the driver play in ensuring good data? A field trip in your own backyard may be in order.
There are also field trips where you meet with peers at other agencies to see how they do business and perhaps share best practices. Sometimes these are conferences, but it may be a day trip to a neighboring transit agency.
Data Managers are from a variety of departments. As information is shared, Data Managers learn about your organization and the transit industry. They are also learning team work as they contribute to inter-departmental solutions.
An example is in order:
Ridership on Saturdays during the month of September is down 20 percent compared to prior months. Planning states the trend. The Revenue Data Manager notes that fare inspections were conducted on Saturdays during the month of September. Customer Service notes that complaints were up in the month of September; specifically complaints about Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) not working. Maintenance noted that there were a high number of requests to fix TVMs but upon inspection, TVMs were working just fine. Ridership has been going up year to year but revenues have been decreasing. This agency has a fare evasion problem. Work to solve the issue of fare evasion begins.
The exciting part is when the team works for the organization rather than protecting some idea that there are never any performance problems. The lights start going on and the team recognizes that:
A) there is a problem; and B) that they can solve this problem.
Mary Sue O’Melia is president of TransTrack Systems®, Inc., a business intelligence solution that transforms volumes of data into meaningful information for transportation managers and executives to use in planning, strategizing and ensuring optimal performance. Visit TransTrack Systems® at www.transtrack.net.