Do we need dashboards for all?

Aug. 25, 2021
The all-or-nothing algorithms that drive dashboard KPIs can miss important nuances

A fellow controls professional and friend was employed at a refinery up the highway, whose parent company’s troubles had resulted in numerous mandates and audits by third parties. These audits involved not only the usual government agencies, but (alarmingly) a congressional commission as well. While deploying what was then state-of-the-art safety instrumented systems with ample budgets for design, validation, construction and rigorous conformance to IEC 61508—the international standard for programmable safety systems—she was dismayed. “My entire job consists of turning cells on a spreadsheet from red to yellow to green.” While her immediate supervisor had some notion of the care and nuance that went into ensuring her systems were both highly effective as well as “useable” for operations, they were equally hamstrung by the company’s dogged insistence on management by spreadsheet. One might surmise this didn’t result in a workplace that inspired creativity or where innovation flourished.

The popularity of lean manufacturing and other systems promoting visual management has infused manufacturing cultures with a similar focus on key performance indicators (KPIs) represented by red, yellow and green—sometimes on a whiteboard if not on a spreadsheet. It’s become a staple of business leaders who yearn for steady-as-she goes: an uneventful and predictable future that reflects the best days of the past. It’s enlightening to reflect that lean practices originated in factories where the worker was essentially an interchangeable robot performing an often-repetitive task.

These simplistic dashboards fail to acknowledge issues that might leave the red stain of shame lingering for months—scarcity of supply, for example. And so, the staff is bludgeoned by circumstances that are well beyond the capability of their team to influence or control. One individual can make a simple error—maybe he forgets to initial in all the right boxes on a permit—but then the associated KPI is relegated red for months to come, despite the diligence of the rest of the team. Another field is green because the amount of open management-of-change documentation is at a low number. Rah rah for the team, but what this really says is that no one is doing anything.

The typical dashboard aims to be an aggregate of some measures of success or failure, like an overview display dumbed-down for process manufacturing dilettantes. Once leading process enterprises were led by engineers and individuals who cut their teeth in prior manufacturing environments. However, in the three or four decades since, we’ve been ruled by finance men, whose focus is the KPI of the investor and less so the health or vibrancy of their manufacturing plants. With staff cut to subsistence levels (“staffed to run”), employees forced to wear many hats rely on red and green lights to manage their reports and assets.

What dashboards fail to capture is that many times, the most interesting and consequential information is in the nuances of the data. The incinerator is running hot because CO is climbing in the stack, but NOx emissions are unexpectedly low—the hotter firebox should mean higher NOx. What’s going on? If you’re just watching for an indicator on a dashboard to turn yellow, you might miss the opportunity to schedule a burner tune-up or a refractory repair. Oops. As Doug Rothenberg, longtime advocate of abnormal situation management points out in several chapters of his book, Situation Management for Process Control, being alert to “weak signals” could be crucial to avoiding a calamity. “The instrument techs had to contend with some corrosion on a process tap at the reactor;” if you’re just staring at dashboards, you might not think to schedule an inspection to have a look. A dashboard view might indicate that It’s better to deal with unanticipated corrosion in a planned outage than it is to prevent the reactor from spewing its contents beforehand.

Societal lockdowns amid the pandemic-stricken have many executives thinking they want automation and robots instead of humans. Relegating the workforce to be servants of the spreadsheet might be turning us into robots. Will curiosity, creativity and innovation ever be valued again?

About the author: John Rezabek
About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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