'Lies, damned lies and statistics'

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Mark Twain penned those words 101 years ago, but they are just as timely today ... perhaps more so. Just glance at a newspaper.

 

When the White House uses statistics to imply that government spending is under control ...

 

 

When the recent stats of pro baseball players are as "enhanced" as their bodies ...

 

 

When the books (the public version) of some companies remain as fudgy as a batch of Betty Crocker brownies ...

 

You get a little skeptical.

What's real? What's inflated?

 

 

The questions go out to everyone, including manufacturers.

 

 

The industry places more importance than ever on metrics. Plant and department statistics are king. They are the basis for awards, commendations and capital investments. They are tied to bonuses and pay raises. They determine a leader's next job or if he or she will have a job in six months.

 

 

On the plant floor, the metrics board is a shrine to graphical growth and greatness. Managers can recite the key month-by-month stats from the past year, but some don't know the names of all their employees.

 

 

With that level of emphasis and pressure, there can be an urge to "cook the books" or play with the numbers.

 

 

By tinkering with the components of a metric, or how the metric is determined or defined, I can, say, improve ________ (fill in the blank) by 10 percent when no progress has really been made. It's easy.

 

 

By "advising" employees to not report safety hazards, incidents and near misses, or by requiring them to return to work when health-related recovery time is warranted, I can tout "injury free" milestones and records.

 

 

What's real? What's inflated? You decide.

 

 

Take the case of House of Raeford Farms, a southeastern U.S. poultry processor. House of Raeford boasts that its 700-employee plant in Greenville, S.C., has gone more than 7 million hours without a "lost-time accident," meaning no worker has been injured badly enough to miss an entire shift.

 

 

However, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer newspaper made headlines in February by questioning the validity of that company's safety statistics. The newspaper, in a series of articles, reported that since 2002, at least nine workers at the plant suffered amputated fingers or broken bones.

 

 

"Managers have kept the streak alive by requiring injured workers to return to the plant - in some cases, hours after medical procedures," stated reporters Kerry Hall, Franco Ordoñez and Ames Alexander.

 

 

One article, titled "Pain behind the streak", included testimony from operator Cornelia Vicente, who in 2003 broke her right arm and had the tip of her index finger "ripped off" when a conveyor belt snagged her hand. She said that hours after undergoing surgery, a House of Raeford nurse told her she was expected back to work the next day. Fearing for her job, she returned to the plant the next morning and was put to work wiping down tables and handing out supplies.

 

 

The paper, citing the company's OSHA-required injury/illness logs, stated, "The Greenville plant averaged 30 injuries per year between 2002 and 2006. All were serious enough to require medical treatment beyond first aid or a transfer to light duty."

 

 

That's a different safety picture than that portrayed by the company. The paper wrote, "Safety milestones were marked by parties, where managers handed out T-shirts and sweatshirts imprinted with the plant's safety mascot, a rooster named Strut McClucker."

 

 

Metrics are only useful to us when they're based on reality and facts. You cannot make chicken salad from chicken droppings.

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