Data Versus Common Sense


In the comments to my recent post, The Naysayer Personified, Michael Baudin and I traded thoughts on the notion of common sense. I agree with his latest comments entirely. Common sense, I would suggest, is the most asset a business leader can have. It is the basis for decisions when the data needed to make a decision is lacking or of dubious accuracy – which tends to be the case in just about every decision.

The thing about common sense is that decisions which are a matter of common sense to me are apt to be a complete mystery to you … and vice versa. The old writer Samuel Butler hinted at it when he said, “Academic and aristocratic people live in such an uncommon atmosphere that common sense can rarely reach them.” The point is that our idea of common sense is based on our “atmosphere” – the tiny corner of the world we live in – and our upbringing, education, experiences, the people who have surrounded and influenced us.

The holy grail of manufacturing – all business, for that matter - seems to be perfect data; all of the numbers needed to make decisions. The academic folks, with their ‘manage by the numbers/professional manager’ philosophy seems to think that goal has been reached. The computer peddlers and ‘Big Data’ idolizers have a vested interest in agreeing with them. They will have us think that good management is simply a matter of gathering, organizing and interpreting the existing numbers in some back room or in the bowels of a big enough black box and making decisions. They couldn’t possibly be more wrong.

In fact, some aspects of manufacturing are numerically known with a great deal of precision; some aspects are only vaguely known but are routinely expressed in numerical terms creating the illusion of accuracy (think standard costs); while vast reaches of what goes on is not known numerically at all.

When I wrote, “the biggest problem with management is too much “science” and not nearly enough decision making based on the very unscientific notions of common sense and core values,” I meant that, in the quest for management by the numbers too many folks take the good data and the bad, ignoring the sketchiness of the bad, and pay no attention at all to those considerations for which no data exists, and make decisions. What they should do is to put faith in the good data and use common sense to leaven the sketchy data and to fill in the gaps where data doesn’t exist … then put just as much weight on the inputs to the decision that are fact based as the inputs that are common sense based.

The challenge with using common sense in equal proportion to numbers is the skewed version of common sense we all have. Butler could have easily written, ‘Accountants live in such an uncommon atmosphere that common sense can rarely reach them.’ Nothing against accountants, but if the tiny corner of the world they live in and their education, background, experiences and influences have been dominated by debits and credits and lacking in the physical realities of machines, products and customers they are likely to make decisions that make perfect common sense in their world, but are absurdly out of touch with the customers’ and employees’ perceptions of common sense.

Common sense is the big wild card in management. Anyone can make decisions with perfect data, but the difference between good management and bad is very much a function of the common sense applied without it. Broader background and experience leads to a more sound version of common sense … and better management in a world in which data is always lacking. A narrow upbringing, a narrow education and a narrow career path lead to a more skewed perception of common sense. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it when he wrote, “Do not be bullied out of your common sense by a specialist; two to one he is a pedant.”

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