If you’ve read a few of my articles, you know that I love to talk about business intelligence and embracing a data-driven mindset. Still, you may be thinking, “That all sounds good in theory, but how can I apply it to my day-to-day business?” Great question. To illustrate, I'll describe how we apply the power of BI to our own company and how it has made a marked impact on our culture and productivity.
Blue Margin is a professional services company. As such, we're a factory that produces billable hours. We have two goals for those hours: that each hour billed delivers high-value to our clients, and that each high-value hour we produce is billed. It sounds simple, but can get complicated, as any professional services company will tell you.
How do you accurately track your time and make sure that it doesn’t slip through the cracks? More importantly, how do you make sure your people are staying busy and working on the right things? And how do you make sure you have enough staff to do the work, or enough work to feed your staff? If you own or manage a company, all these questions are likely bouncing around in the back of your mind, all before your second cup of coffee on Monday morning.
Not surprisingly, we began tackling those issues by investing in a time tracking tool (we use letsfreckle.com. yast.com is another good cloud-based time tracker), which allowed us to enter times and audit those entries for invoicing and resource-planning at the end of each month, or whenever we found enough time to sit down and analyze the data. The problem was, it was difficult to know if time was not being recorded. After a day or two, any unrecorded time was lost to the wind. And we simply couldn’t get a day-to-day handle on the performance of our consultants. We were reactive, digging into the data and taking corrective action only when we sensed something might be amiss, which did not solve the root problem.
Our ad-hoc solution was to apply a vague and constant pressure on those doing the work, to make sure they stayed on top of their time entries. This was not fun for either party, and was ultimately counterproductive. We consistently worried, and reasonably so, that we were delivering work for which we weren’t billing, producing valuable billable hours for no revenue. (As a side note, to avoid doing the converse, we require that every time entry is accompanied by a detailed account of the work completed, which we review at month’s end and forward to the client.)
We needed a way to see, in a moment’s notice, if the train was on the tracks and heading in the right direction.
Our Dashboard Solution
So here’s what we did. We developed a dashboard on the homepage of our company portal (SharePoint, in our case) that shows the performance of each employee, from the CEO on down, covering not just billable hours, but sales and marketing as well. We wanted it to tell a story in pictures, and we wanted it to be so obvious that even someone from outside the company would know at a glance how we're doing. Plus, by putting it on our home page, we wanted it to be the first thing our employees see every day and the last thing they see before they leave.
So how are we doing this month?
Here’s what I saw our dashboard today. Mostly greens, some yellows, and some reds. From that snapshot, I can see we’re doing OK. I can see how my performance is contributing to our goals, and every other employee knows how they fit in that picture as well. The result is a clear visual of the company's vitals. This picture will drive conversations around our project load, our execution on those projects, and our efforts to bring in new ones. Actually, because of the self-accountability this picture produces, we know that when billable hours are yellow or red, it means we're low on work, plain and simple. We no longer worry whether our guys are logging their hours, because they want to be green as badly as we want them to. Instead of anxiety and pressure, the team is gratified to know what the goal is, whether or not we've achieved it, and exactly what is required to succeed.
Alternatively, imagine the discomfort of not knowing whether you are performing as expected, all the while sensing the looming presence of your manager in the next office as she wonders if you are meeting your goals. Neither of you has a clear idea of how you are doing or a sense of how your performance is affecting the big picture. The result is a big ball of stress, confusion, nagging, resentment, tears… you get the picture. Not a fun situation.
But back to the happy story. Instead of chaos, we’ve made productivity into a sport, and this is our scoreboard (at least part of it; we have another 5-10 charts to tell the rest of the story). Now, instead of individuals battling with the unknown, we’re a team fighting for a common goal: green! (I’m talking about green status-bubbles here, though they usually translate to the other kind of green ;.)
Drowning in a Sea of Spreadsheets
Being in the consulting business, we see, up close and personal, how a lack of visibility hurts decision-making and performance. We recently met with a client who was committed to running a data-driven business and wanted our advice on how he could do better. But after looking over his spreadsheets for 15 minutes, we were still unsure how the company was performing! (It became clear he wasn't completely sure either.)
To be sure, he was committed to collecting data and trying to use it to improve his business. The problem was, it resulted in a significant waste of time, a huge opportunity cost, and frankly, a huge pain in the rear.
The Buried Lead
Yes, BI dashboards really work. But for data to be useful in business, it must be easily collected, and displayed visually in a way that makes sense to anyone. It needs to be real-time, and expose data that "touches the nerve". A spreadsheet can contain all of the right numbers but remain utterly useless if it doesn't communicate ideas that drive the right activities and decision-making.
This is where today's SaaS BI tools come in. With the right tools, once data connections are established, those connections persist. This means you don’t have to waste time repeatedly gathering the same information each week, month, and year. Then, that automatically updated data is displayed in intuitive, graphical representations that quickly communicate what the raw numbers really mean. Your BI toolset should be simple enough that you don't need a data scientist to generate or interpret the results. The insights it finds should be immediately "consumable".
(Just to be clear: We're not saying you're a monkey. But if you were, you should still be able to understand your BI tools.)
If you have been putting a lot of effort into getting the most out of your business data but feel like you’re spinning your wheels, maybe it’s time to check out the new breed of available BI tools.
If you have any questions about business intelligence or want to find out how Blue Margin uses Power BI to drive their business, feel free to contact us here.
Your Colorado Microbrew Recommendation of the Day:
Odell’s Easy Street Wheat
ABV: 4.6% IBU: 15
Now that you’ve solved all of your company’s ills with BI software, you deserve a chance to kick back, relax, and enjoy an Easy Street Wheat. This unfiltered American-style wheat beer gets its name from the idea of the brewers “taking it easy” and leaving the yeast in the beer, resulting in a unique, smooth finish and a slight citrusy flavor. This brew has become a staple in the Northern Colorado microbrew scene, so if you haven’t yet, you should definitely give it a try.