Data Collection Is about More Than Just Numbers

Data-driven manufacturing is at its best when it reinforces people-driven manufacturing.


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Writing is a peculiar business. Writing words can be difficult and stressful, especially when the ideas to be expressed are complex and the deadline is approaching. Many times, though, the next step can be equally demanding—deleting some of the words. The result is usually stronger, leaner writing.

Before I completed this article, I removed about 650 words from the original manuscript. One sentence I edited out, however, gave me pause. It noted that Scott Shortess, the company leader, “always looks past the numbers.” I decided that the prior sentences seemed to make this management policy clear and with adequate emphasis. Out with the extra words, then.

Looking past the numbers, however, is a punchy way of stating one of the most important concepts of machine monitoring implementation—a concept that applies on several levels. Where I first inserted it, the quote referred to being mindful that data collected from machines and used to enhance an incentive program had their value in the larger issues of employee morale and a positive shop culture. Elsewhere in the article, the concept was evident in references to evaluating employee performance and working to make it more rewarding to the individual as well as the company. Clearly, the numbers (data on utilization, for example) aid but do not substitute for empathy, mutual respect and cooperation.

Looking past the numbers is the right perspective in other aspects of data collection and decision making. When the first results are reported after a machine-monitoring system is implemented, what do they mean? How valid are they? What actions are necessary in response? What priorities for these actions must be set? Are we measuring the right things? The answers call for judgment, insight, prudence and other “values” that have no numerical measure. Common sense and intuition are still worth consulting. What’s more, these questions need to be asked periodically and answered anew as conditions and perceptions evolve.

Moreover, machine data gives only part of the picture of a shop’s fitness, just as a high-blood-pressure reading tells little about lifestyle, eating habits, exercise and hereditary factors that may underlie this symptom. Effective managers use the numbers to spot problems, but draw on experience and insight to find a remedy.   

It is commendable that Mr. Shortess has in mind both short-term and long-term business goals, to which data from the system provide direction and affirmation. This vision behind these goals make the numbers relevant, even vital. It is the vision that counts, not the numbers counted. In this case, the shop envisions a heightened role for its shop workforce going forward, now and into the future. The skills, work habits and cultural engagement for this path ahead must be bolstered persistently. Accurate, timely data help the shop keep on track.

If we see Industry 4.0, digitalization, data-driven manufacturing and associated concepts only in terms of technology to be applied or as a solution to be implemented, we have badly misunderstood the promise and the challenge of these developments. Ultimately, they are empowering. Both people and processes will get better at what they do. The effect will be synergistic. 

After reconsidering my decision to delete the phrase in question, I put it back in. The effect on the final word count was trivial, and the words were too wise to waste.