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Monitoring systems

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Monitoring systems

Scott Miker

When it comes to systematic improvement, one element that is crucial is the ability to track your progress. You have to be able to see what is happening and know for certain what direction you are heading.

Are you improving or just going through the motions but remaining stagnant? How often are you keeping up with the action steps you designed?

I’ve learned over the years that monitoring systems are crucial in life. The reason is that life is incredibly complicated. Without this tracking, we make assumptions based on how we feel, not on what we actually do.

I experienced this a few years ago. I was working with a team and trying to determine how long it takes to complete a specific task.

The members of the team all gave their estimates for how long it took to complete the task and how much was done in a day. Then they gave variations for each member of the team, ranking them and then giving the “fastest” members a better time.

Everything seems ok so far, but I could see that this was a guess. So I set out to track this to see if it was true.

I had everyone keep a log for the day. That way we can see how long they spent on it and how much they completed. Then simple math gave us an average time per unit.

What we found was that some of our assumptions were pretty far off. We thought some people were much faster than they actually were. We assumed some people were much slower than we thought.

Once we had the data we could then start to see reality. Even after tracking this, we had several members who stuck with their original assumptions over the data. It seemed like they kept forgetting that we determined the numbers and could properly rank each person based on actual performance.

I learned something valuable from this. Most people don’t want to take the time and put forth the effort to have good monitoring systems. They don’t care to put these in place because we assume we can just look and see what is going on.

But proper monitoring systems can be incredibly helpful to know what is going on. Are we improving? Are we getting worse?

We would often use this benchmark data whenever we wanted to make a change. We would have an idea to speed up the process and put the adjusted steps in place. Then we would monitor to see what happens.

Some adjustments were very minute. Everyone agreed that the change in time would be nominal. But because we have this data, we could see what actually happened.

One change that was made had such an impact that it cut down the time across the board by about 25%. Something that everyone thought was negligible was much more impactful when applied.

Sometimes this helps avoid us going in the wrong direction. We added a new step that was assumed to only increase the time slightly, but the benefit was worth it. But then we found that the times jumped when this was introduced and didn’t subside once people learned the process. Then we had to reevaluate our decision to implement it and we used actual times instead of projected times and could then look at the pros and cons and make a better decision.

While this might seem typical in a business operations environment, I have also found that this is helpful in personal systems as well.

I have often challenged my own assumptions because the data disproves what I thought would happen. It could be that I thought eating a new type of lunch or breakfast would decrease my overall weight. But after a few weeks I realized that my weight had increased, not decreased. I went back to my old breakfast and suddenly my weight started to slowly go back to the old levels.

Without monitoring systems in place, we are just guessing. We are using “gut feel” to make decisions. But our emotional response is often flawed. We can easily over-exaggerate or under- exaggerate the results. But if we accurately track areas of our lives then we can always go back to the data to see if our assumptions were off or not.