Let’s Get This Right

clip_image002The picture on the right is a collection of hand tools that I recently used to put a beveled edge on some 10’ boxes that were built to cover a pair of structural beams. Working with these tools provided feedback regarding the nature of the wood, and helped me avoid tearing out big chunks. This is a trick I learned from an old woodworker about 25 years ago. Coaxing information out of the material in front of us is an art form in the workshop and in the work place. Recently, we have begun building the “analysis” page for our inspections report library. OK, it’s a “Dashboard”, but I hate using buzzwords.

In building this page, we are on a multi-part mission. First, we want to wrap this project up so that we can move on to our next task. Second, we want to complete this dashboard, there, I used it in a sentence, in order to send a powerful message – there is information in content!

In quickly rolling down the side of an inexpensive pine board with a router, I might not notice the small knot that will ruin my profile. Similarly, in quickly looking at the contents of a document library, the head of this department might not notice a pattern in the various dates. In fact, he would probably select a view that doesn’t include the dates. He might miss the fact that tasks appear to be happening out of sequence, or that some tasks are taking longer for some people than they are for others. He won’t do the math, so he won’t know the averages that could help him plan next year’s work better or the ones that will help him build a better training program. Worst of all, he might not realize just what an impressive amount of work his department racked-up in 2011. None of these numbers tell a complete story, but they all tell someone where to look, and they tell them in a single glance – Well, they do if we do our job right.

Dashboards, ack, now I’m getting comfortable with that word, can’t just be a feel good group of statistics on a page. Nor should they just be a stage to show off the awesome power of Data View Web Parts. Dashboards have to be meaningful. We can glean lots of information from the data we have been collecting behind the scenes as our workflows run, but which of that information is actually useful? The larger question is “how are we supposed to know?” We are facing the age-old developer’s dilemma. We have a limited understanding of the way this department works, and the head of this department has an even more limited understanding of what our technology can do. Example: if he doesn’t know that SharePoint has a Calculated Column type, he doesn’t know that you can count the days between dates. If I explore that example a bit more, I come up with a scenario that better illustrates the challenge.

We can calculate the days between confirming an inspection and the date of that inspection. A high number of days might indicate that someone plans well in advance. A low number of days might indicate poor planning, or it might be the result of the inspection having been rescheduled. In any case, the average number of days, however good it might make the manager feel is probably meaningless. Since we know what is considered the ideal lead time for the confirmation, we have a way of displaying this number that will work as a first attempt. As for the number of days between the inspection and the report being prepared, now we might like to see an average as well as something that highlights the outliers. The point is, I can’t simply build a columnar report here; I need to handcraft a report in which every value communicates information that might be passed on to others or acted upon. If you consider a real world dashboard, there is no fluff. OK, having a tachometer on a car with an automatic transmission is questionable, but there’s very little fluff. What we see on our car’s dashboard is important or actionable and it’s presented in the mode that is most useful to us while driving.

We can’t build that type of dashboard yet, but we can make a start. We will cherry pick the most straight forward statistics and show the manager of this department a selection of numbers, graphs and status indicators. If nothing else, our dashboard will let him know what we can do. After he sees that, he can tell us where to draw the red lines and when to flash the warning lamps.