Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dilbert, sez made up numbers are just as good as real ones

More and more today business is being run by the numbers. OK, that makes sense we all have computers so let's run things by the numbers now. To what extent should we run the business by the numbers? Do the numbers drive the people or do the people drive the numbers? At one point in my career the CEO of the company suggested that the best way for him to reduce expenses in the business was for him to terminate the entire senior management team. That is a pretty extreme case of numbers based management. Part of me wishes he would have done it and I could have been a fly on the wall watching the outcome.

There was a Dilbert series a couple of weeks ago talking about numbers. In the first frame Dilbert is making a presentation and has a number on the flip chart beside him. He says, "studies have shown that made up numbers are just as good as real numbers". In the next frame he says, "so I made up this number". Next frame, someone asks how many studies? Dilbert says "67". As is true with most of the Dilbert comics there is enough truth and absurdity in this theme for it to be meaningful. Hey, is it proper to quote a comic strip character?

Virtually all the numbers used to justify decisions are in some way made up. We all do it. Yes, even Mr. high and mighty Lester has been known to stretch a decimal or two. We don't really make the numbers up we just find the numbers that are friendliest to our cause. I like the numbers that make my case and who could blame me or anyone else for that matter as long as we don't go too far. This is just how it's done and we all know it deep down. How many different ways can a single passage in the Bible be interpreted? The interpretation can be very liberal or very conservative depending on what you are trying to prove. I rest my case.

In my last job we always tried to be as reasonable and true to the cause as possible. We always wanted to make the right decision so we did our best to deliver the right facts. I would bring a set of numbers to my controller for him to look at before sending them on to the board or using them to make a decision and he would always say; "I need a little time to check your math but they seem to pass the smell test". You know what, I can't remember a time when a set of numbers passed the smell test and failed the math test.

In the end common sense has to rule. Whatever we try to make the numbers say they need to pass the smell test or we are venturing into dangerous territory. We all have observers who are checking us out. They may not have the resources to check all the detail when we make a decision and offer a justification but they do have extremely good sniffers. They can tell whether the story and the action fits the situation. This is the root problem that both Bill and Hillary have. They just can't pass the smell test, it all seems a little fishy, we can't exactly put our fingers on it but somethn ain't right.

Our observers, whoever they may be, can smell a snake oil salesman coming a mile away. So I say let's avoid the snakes and the oil and do what we can to improve the aroma of our decisions by floating on the sweet smell of the truth and appropriate facts. We'll all be better for it.

Thanks for reading.

And by the way, I bought the little video camera today. Very cool little toy. My dog looks fantastic in Hi-Definition and he smells better too.

1 comment:

C said...


You have identified the absurdity and the some of sources of it. Now, cricket, you must learn to relax and enjoy it. Very difficult and, of course, if you do it is the end of your blog.