Mark Graban Interviewed by WFAN Radio, New York

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Bob Salter: I guess this is the point where I come in, right? Well, good morning everybody. This is Bob Salter.

Welcome to our fun fest here on Sunday mornings. We try to bring you interesting guests. We’ve got a doozey of a show both hours this morning. Very pleased to introduce the guest who’s joining us in hour one of our program.

He is someone who has a lot to share with us. I think you’re going to find our discussion to be a fascinating one.

Mark Graban is joining us. Mark is author of a publication entitled, Measures of Success — React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. There’s an interesting idea.

Mark, first of all, good morning. Welcome to our program on The Fan.

Mark Graban: Bob, good morning. Thanks for having me here.

Bob: It’s nice to have you join us today. There’s so many different areas where I want to go in discussion, but I mentioned in introducing you, the book… Let’s talk a little bit about that because the title does intrigue me.

Actually, I’ll say this because I’ve seen the cover of this book. You have an interesting image there. Why that title?

Mark: The image on the cover shows a rollercoaster. Different organizations I’ve worked for and worked with during my career have measures. They’re trying to become more successful as an organization. They’re trying to improve quality.

I work with a lot of healthcare organizations. They’re trying to improve patient satisfaction. They’re trying to reduce cost, [laughs] which might sound surprising, but they are working on that. It’s an important question of, what do we measure? There’s an expression that gets thrown around a lot, “What gets measured gets managed.” I think that’s true, to some extent.

Most organizations focus a lot on deciding and arguing what to measure. They don’t talk about how to manage that measure as much as they could. That’s really what the book is about, and trying to get people off of the organizational swings of rollercoaster emotion, where a number goes up. We get excited. The number goes down. We get upset.

We just get stuck in this cycle where we’re reacting and explaining a number instead of actually trying to improve results. That’s what my book is trying to help people with.

Mark: You just used an interesting phrase, talking about the idea of being reactive, very often that that’s the case. Why is that such a bad idea?

Bob: The problem occurs when we’re reacting to something that’s a relatively small change in a measure. There is a time and a place to react. If there’s a really big change, or if there’s a sustained change over time, let’s say we step on the scale every morning.

If your weight is stable, generally speaking, you’re not trying to lose weight, you’re not gaining weight, your weight is going to naturally fluctuate a little bit every day. You might be up a pound, you might be down a pound-and-a-half.

There’s really no reason for that. It’s just fluctuation. There’s a term used by some statisticians to say, “That’s just noise in a measure.”

You can learn to not get too wound up or too excited, or too upset about small ups and downs. One organization, there’s a hospital health system I’m working with right now, where one of their goals is to improve patient satisfaction. That’s an important goal. They can measure that. They can frame success in trying to make patient satisfaction better.

The trap they fall into, which I think is pretty common behavior, is one month the patient satisfaction scores are down two points. Somebody gets upset. People are asked to explain it. They go running around, and digging deeper into the data, trying to figure out what’s happening.

Then you come back the next month and the score’s up four points. They thought, “Yeah, all right. Good. We’ve fixed that.” It creates a lot of chaos and wasted time looking for answers to small changes.

Mark: Part of the movement where people seem to get hung up on the small stuff, I’m going to phrase it that way, is that to some extent due to… I guess, some of it might be by nature. We’re also in an age where there’s so much information constantly coming at us. It’s hard to ignore that, isn’t it?

Bob: Yeah. I’m not an expert in say, evolutionary science. But there must be some [laughs] evolutionary reason why we’re wired to react. There must be a survival instinct there, something happens, react. There’s a time and a place, especially in an organization, where in a meeting it’s not a life or death situation.

We can take a breath and step back, and look at a number and ask, basically, “Is this change in the number just noise? Or is it a signal that says that the number has actually changed in an unusually large way? Or has that number shifted over time?

We can look for different reasons to react. Instead of reacting to everything, we can better pick and choose what and when we react to. I give an example, there was a headline in New York the other day.

The headline screams, “City school test scores inch up.” Like, “Well, that sounds good. Test scores are up.”

It says the percent of kids who passed the state math exam in the city was at 46 percent, and that was a 3 percent increase from last year. The article says, “They’re now inching closer to the goal of 50 percent.”

What we have is two data points. It went from 43 to 46. It could be inching closer or maybe it’s just fluctuating around a number. I would hate to see the scores go down next year, but it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.

It’s hard to tell. Is a three percentage point increase big enough to really react to? Is it big enough to try to explain? Is it big enough to, let’s say, reward people for that? If it were to drop two points next year, same question.

Is that a big enough jump down where you would try to explain it, or maybe punish or replace somebody? Organizations deal with that question all the time.

Mark: I guess it is, at times, a little touchy in terms of trying to avoid reacting to every fluctuation. As you said, things go up, they go down as it is. This can be applied in so many different areas of our lives. You used the phrase a couple of moments ago, which I want to explore for a little bit.

A lot of people have goals, OK? It could be something related to… You mentioned earlier the idea of people stepping on a scale in the morning. A lot of people do that.

Many people, especially this time of the year, have goals. They will celebrate if they hit their goal. Then some people will be [laughs] completely depressed and mad at themselves if they don’t.

What happens if we pay too much attention to some of those distracting elements when we’re trying to reach a goal?

Bob: Goals are important. One thing that people react to in organizations is comparing their performance to a goal. I talked about the roller coaster effect of reacting to the ups and downs. If you look over time, let’s say, if you look at the last 12 days of your weight, or the last 18 months of a patient satisfaction score, and you look at what’s the average over that time.

Roughly half of the data points are above average and half the data points are below. The number is just fluctuating. Reacting to something that’s better than average might not be significant. The same thing happens when we look at goals. I visit organizations where their goal is pretty close to the average of their performance.

Now they have these cycles throughout the year. Six or seven months might be better than the goal. Five or six might be worse than the goal. The number is just fluctuating.

Sometimes organizations will color code these numbers. Green is good. Green is better than our goal. Red is bad.

They get caught in that same cycle of reaction and explanation. What happens is it consumes time and it distracts people from doing things that could actually improve that number over time.

The one hospital system I’m working with right now, we’re working with a team. They are doing a number of things differently. They’re trying to improve patient satisfaction results. They’re not just asking staff to smile more or to work faster to reduce delay. They’re doing real things that will improve patient satisfaction.

One of the things we’re looking at as a measure of success, if you will, is making sure we improve that number enough so we can say it’s statistically significant. We don’t want to declare victory because, let’s say, we get two months in a row that are above average.

That could be that noise or fluctuation. We want to improve it enough so that we can feel confident that we’ve actually done better for the patients

Bob: A thought that I want you to explore… We’re going to take a pause for sports updates and some messages in a moment. But I want to explore this when we come back.

This idea of how, in the case of businesses — this may apply as well with some of the hospitals and the like that you’re working with and that you’re alluding to too — how this works into the way in which customer service plays out these days. That’d be an interesting area to explore.

He is with us for our entire six o’ clock hour this Sunday morning. His book is entitled Measures of Success — React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. His website is markgraban.com.

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Bob: This is Bob Salter. We’re here at the discussion with Mark Graban this first hour of our program this Sunday morning. Mark has joined us.

As I mentioned, he is the author of Measures of Success — React Less, Lead Better, Improve More is the title of the book. He is joining us.

I’m sitting here and thinking about this with companies, with organizations these days. There’s a lot of focus on customer service. I’m wondering is that being impacted by some of the things that you’re talking about with how success is viewed and how organizations and businesses are even thinking about this?

Mark: Yeah, I think so. You’re right this is more than just hospitals. If somebody is in the hospital or if they have outpatient surgery, they’re going to get a survey afterwards. Tell us how we’re doing. Rate the hospital. You’re invited to give them a 0 to 10 rating.

Almost any business it seems like that you go to, if you stay in a hotel, they send you a survey. If you buy a car, they send you a survey. You buy tickets to a game in some city. That team will send you emails. Rate your experience at the game.

We get bombarded with surveys. These surveys, they must go somewhere. The numbers get looked at and they’re averaged. There’s this real risk, again. I think of leaders and organizations overreacting to the ups and the downs. The subtitle of my book, Measures of Success, React Less, Lead Better, Improve More.

My point in saying don’t react to small changes in the numbers, it’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to improve. The customer satisfaction or patient satisfaction might be lower than you want it to be, but what the methodologies that I’ve learned and now that I’m using and teaching and writing about, what these methodologies teach us is that the answer to how would we improve patient satisfaction or customer satisfaction.

The answer to that question of how do we prove is not going to be found in asking why was the number worse last month or why was the number better this month. To really improve your business means understanding the needs of your customers. It means digging deep in a more thoughtful and systematic way instead of just being on that reactive rollercoaster ride.

Bob: Following up on what you just said, how do we then know if something really is worthwhile paying attention to and even when a trend might be something that’s troubling or worrisome?

Mark: There’s a couple of methods we can use. For one, visualizing the data over time. Drawing a chart. You can use a spreadsheet. It’s not real glamorous, but a lot of organizations just look at lists of numbers. It’s like looking at the stats on the back of a baseball card. You see a big list of numbers. You can apply this idea to sports statistics too, which is fun.

Instead of looking at numbers, actually just draw a chart and see how that line and those data points are moving over time. Visually, you can really tell, huh, it looks like it’s just fluctuating, or it looks like it was fluctuating and now it’s taken a big jump up or down.

Now the question of what’s a big jump, or what’s a signal in the statistic or the number you’re looking at. There’s a little bit of math involved, of doing some relatively simple calculations. I’ve outlined this in the book. To do a little bit of math so that you can tell if a move in the number is unusual or not.

We can look at home runs in Major League Baseball. Anybody following baseball knows the teams that are on pace, the Yankees and Major League Baseball in general, the Mets too. They’re all collectively hitting the most home runs ever.

Saying something is the most ever or the lowest ever. In this case, it really is. Because if you chart home runs per season, and I’m looking at a chart of this right now, going back to 1994, even with the Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa era. The number of home runs in Major League Baseball was pretty much fluctuating around an average.

A Strong Signal in the Number of Home Runs — and a Surprising Special Cause

Then starting in about in about 2006, there was actually a drop down where compared to the baseline years, you had eight consecutive years of below average number of home runs. That’s one of the rules that we’re looking for. It’s not just fluctuating, but having eight consecutive below average years is one of these statistical signals.

2014 was particularly low. When we do the calculations around a metric, whether it’s your weight, or customer service scores, or the number of home runs per game we can calculate, you can think of the as guard rails or what are called lower and upper limits around the metric. If the number goes above that upper limit or below that lower limit, now that’s a time to react.

After 2014 Major League Baseball, the number of home runs started going up where 2017 was a year above that calculated upper limit. 2018, the number of home runs dropped a little bit. Now 2019 is again another signal.

It’s not only the highest ever, but the reason I would react and try to explain, and Major League Baseball has done this, the reason I would try to figure out why that number is up is because it really is a statistical signal that something is different in the game.

Bob: You used the term visualization or visuals before. I know visuals you regard as being very key to the way of thinking, which is looking at the big picture. Is that something that’s easy for people to grasp?

Mark: It is. It’s funny. It’s easy to grasp once you show them that this method of just drawing a chart, calculating an average, calculating some limits and visually laying out with a couple of simple rules, it becomes obvious in hindsight, but this is generally not a method that’s taught to people in business schools. It’s generally not taught in management classes within an organization.

I’m fortunate that I learned methods like these when I was an engineer. I had some exposure to that. I had some exposure to people who are using these methods more in the realm of management, not just engineering.

When I think of somebody I taught in a class a couple of years ago, she went back to the health system she worked for in Florida and tried introducing some of these methods. People weren’t interested because they thought the way they were managing was fine. They would put one or two data points up on the wall. They would color code it red or green, and they would react.

She had trouble getting their interest. Then what she decided instead of asking for permission, I’m going to just create some of these charts in this format for my book. It’s a method called process behavior charts.

She said, “I’m going to just start making charts and I’m going to start putting them up. If I have to ask for forgiveness, I will.”

Once she put that out in front of people, they realized wow, you actually can see a lot more. You can make better decisions about performance.

Again, here’s the key thing. When you react less and you lead better, you’re not asking people to explain every up and down, you’re not wasting their time that way. When you react less and you lead better, you can improve more.

Bob: As you’re saying that, I’m thinking — and this is no insult to you — this isn’t rocket science.

Mark: No, not at all.

Bob: Part of the reason I asked that question before is I could imagine initially there could be some resistance perhaps to that kind of an approach of thinking. How do you get people past that?

Mark: There’s resistance to new methods. People are afraid it’ll be too difficult, which like you said, the math involving calculating an average and calculating the limits on a chart, it’s elementary school arithmetic. It’s not calculus. It’s not rocket science. That’s a good thing.

People are sometimes stuck in habits of the way they’ve always managed. I think the dynamics were it feels good to react. If someone has become an executive in an organization, they may have risen through the ranks because they reacted to things all the time, whether it was helping or not.

It can be challenging to ask people to consider a new way of doing things. Let’s try it. Let’s create a chart. Let people try to draw their own conclusion about whether this method is better and if it helps them over time.

Resistance to change is a challenge that leaders are always trying to walk through in an organization. But at the hospital system I’ve been working with right now, there were changes that were proposed by nurses and other hospital staff and some of their coworkers were at first resistant to the idea. That’s a natural reaction.

We work with people and help them get through that resistance, whether that’s resistance to adopting this this process behavior chart methodology. Within Major League Baseball, somebody might come into a team and say, “We really need to get deeper into analytics.” There might be resistance to change about something like that too.

A new pitching coach coming in and asking a pitcher to change the grip on their fastball, they might face resistance to change. Even thought they might be technically correct, when we give advice to others, we have to expect that. Again, it’s natural for people to show resistance, but we can work with them instead of giving up on them because they were being resistant.

Bob: I guess it’s part of the way in which… The team concept in the business world exploded in that period of time back in I guess it was the 1990s, late ’80s. This is an adaptation of the growth of that whole movement, isn’t it?

Mark: The methods that I write about in Measures of Success and the methods I learned 25 years ago, these are methods that have been around for making charts like this. It has been around for about 75 years since statisticians helped figure this out.

I think the fact that it’s not a brand-new methodology, that’s fine too. It’s not rocket science. It’s not brand-new. It’s been around for a while for good reason. It’s interesting to just try to find new applications to help open people’s eyes to this.

You’re right. Back to the team concept. Hospitals are doing a lot more of this. They are hiring people from other industries. I started my career at manufacturing. I then focused a lot on healthcare for about 14 years. To bring in ideas from other industries about how do teams work together to improve. How can leaders help people improve.

Measures are important, but there’s more to it than that. There’s the question of how do we work together to be better at improving so we can get better results for our customers and for patients. How can we create a better workplace? That team concept, if you will, is one way we help accomplish that.

Bob: Even introducing or continuing to use that term “team” is a way of encouraging a certain collective approach to success, isn’t it?

Mark: If you look at healthcare, you have a team. You have all these specialists. It’s complex as a college or pro football team. You have all these specialists.

They get training in their specialty. If you look at practices, groups of players, their learning technique. The offensive linesmen are learning different technique than the running backs and receivers. At some point, they’re all learning individual skills.

In healthcare, you have a lot of this. You have doctors getting their own specific training. Nurses getting their own training. Housekeeping staff getting their own training.

At some point, they’ve got to come together and play as a team. Look at teams in any sports of having the most talent doesn’t always translate to wins.

You’ve got to have that team concept and figure out how do all the pieces fit together. Surgeons and doctors, most of them are great people, but some of them get a reputation for being difficult. They might be the stereotypical diva wide receiver or diva quarterback who’s just not liked by their teammates.

Things like that, unfortunately, interfere with providing the best healthcare. Organizations that have leadership that helps encourage teamwork is going to help drive more improvement. It’s going to help us reach the goals that we’re trying to achieve as an organization and as individuals.

Bob: Mark Graban is talking with us on our program on the FAN this Sunday morning.

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Bob: Well, good morning everybody. This is Bob Salter. We’re in discussion with Mark Graban on our program. He is the author of Measures of Success — React Less, Lead Better, Improve More.

One of the things that has intrigued me in reading and preparing for this discussion today, and also listening to you speak, I’m tending to gather you have a passion for baseball.

Mark: [laughs] I do. I grew up actually a Detroit Tigers fan. I grew up in the Detroit area, if you and the listeners won’t hold that against me.

Bob: [laughs] What period of time was that with the Tigers?

Mark: I was in elementary school when they won the World Series in 1984. That was a big moment for me. Sparky Anderson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, and Lance Parrish. That was a great team.

Bob: The reason I mentioned this is there’s a couple of different things and different ways you work the discussion of some of the things that you were talking with us about today into talking about sports. We’re on WFAN, which was the country’s first old sports station. A huge number of people who are sports fans listen to this program as well on Sunday mornings.

One of the things that was very interesting is this look at Roger Maris’s home run per season and looking at Mickey Mantle, in terms consistency by comparison. Can you explain what you looked at with that?

Mark: Yeah. This is something I’ll give credit to a statistician, Donald Wheeler. He wrote the foreword for my book, Measures of Success. In one of his books, you can take a look at the number of home runs per season and look at it as a list of numbers. Again, the way you might look on a baseball card.

Roger Maris, of course, had his 61 home runs in 1961, playing alongside Mickey Mantle. If you take the number of home runs Roger Maris hit throughout his career from 1967 to 1968, you can a process behavior chart, as well call it. Look at the average, look at the limits of what you would expect his performance to be.

That year, when he hit 61, was clearly an outlier. It was above. It was not only the most home runs he ever it, of course, it was the most home runs anyone had hit in the season that time, but it was a statistical signal. Something was different that year.

That same year, Mickey Mantle… How many did Mantle hit that year? He hit 54, I think. If you look at Mickey Mantle’s performance, he never had a season that was a statistical outlier, a year like Maris did that was above that upper limit. He did have a stretch of eight consecutive above average seasons, which shows not unsurprisingly… That was the peak of his career.

You see that with a lot of players. They have a couple of slow seasons. They’re getting up to speed. Then they have their prime and then they decline. Mickey Mantle, as he was getting older and had injuries, his last four years were, if you will, below average seasons. Maybe that’s not surprising.

I think it’s interesting, if you look at different players over time, Brady Anderson with the Orioles in 1996 had an outlier season when he hit 50 or 51 home runs. That was above this upper limit of what his typical performance would have been.

Barry Bonds, when he hit 73, that number was an outlier. Wade Boggs hit 24 or 25 home runs in 1987. That was a statistical outlier. When we see an outlier on a chart, whether it’s the number of home runs or wins per season or a measure on the scale or in a workplace, when we see one of those outliers, then it’s worth asking, “What was different?”

Home Runs as Tables of Numbers, Run Charts, and Process Behavior Charts

People have their different theories about different players. Wade Boggs, I think, the story was, he wanted to show people he could do it because he was criticized for not hitting enough home runs. He did it for one season, then he went back to hitting 8 or 10 home runs every year, I think even when he was with the Yankees.

Bob: With this book, what are you hoping the people who read the book are going to take away from it or learn?

Mark: I hope it’s eye-opening. Part of the reason I was driven to write the book was to try to expose these ideas and these methods to a new audience. I was really fortunate to be exposed to these approaches, the work of Don Wheeler and others, 25 years ago.

I’ll give thanks if my dad is listening. I’ve learned a lot of this because my dad, he worked at General Motors, where he got exposed to a lot of these ideas. I wanted to write a book that had some more contemporary examples and examples from different industries.

I’ve worked with software companies, organizations in different settings to try to open people’s eyes. Here’s something that I think will make your life a lot easier to get off of that emotional roller coaster. I think when you ask people to pause and reflect on it, they’ll say, “You’re right. We do a lot of reacting, but things don’t really seem to get better.”

I’m trying to propose, here’s something I feel fortunate to have learned. Here’s something that will help free up time because you’re not reacting to every up and down every morning.

Take a breath. Take a step back. Work with a team, as we talked about. Work toward improving your measures and moving closer to success, as you’ve defined it.

Like you said, passionate about baseball, there’s a lot of numbers in baseball. Maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve combined the interest.

You can look at statistics across so many different sports, whether it’s college football attendance, college football playoff TV ratings, a basketball player’s free throw shooting percentage from season to season to answer these questions of, is the number just fluctuating or has something really changed in a statistically meaningful way?

Bob: When you’re looking at this book, looking at feedback from people, I’m assuming you do get feedback on this. What sort of things do people point to? Obviously, you’ve heard some things with us today. You cover somethings that could be use as tools for people along the whole process here.

Mark: As an author, we talk about customer satisfaction ratings. I look at the online reviews for the book, Measures of Success, showing me here on… 95 percent of those ratings are 5-star ratings. That feels good. That’s nice. That number might fluctuate a little bit over time.

The thing that I think most gratifying as an author, it’s not just reviews or a star rating but it’s the emails and people wanting to talk about… It’s not just, “I liked the book and I enjoyed reading it,” but, “We’re actually applying these methods now in the organization and it’s opening our eyes. Instead of just reacting, we’re actually doing something to shift performance upward.”

That’s really exciting to hear about. It’s people in different industries, different countries. I exchanged emails with somebody who runs the Montreal region for a major auto maker. They were looking at their local customer service metrics.

He shared a chart that showed the number had been fluctuating, we constantly reacted and tried explaining every up and down. They decided, basically, “Let’s stop doing that. Let’s react less. Let’s invest that time instead in some initiatives that would improve customer satisfaction.”

They showed me a chart. Sure enough, it made a jump upward. That jump was big enough, where you can look and say, “That’s not just fluctuation. They’ve actually improved customer service.” Things like that are always really exciting to hear.

Bob: In an age where there’s a growing economy, online presence, the brick-and-mortar stores and many cases have been replaced or are in the process of being replaced, is this something that you feel managers will look to more as a way to gauge how things are going?

Mark: You can gauge whatever your important measures are. There’s this idea of, measure what matters and then figure out how do we manage the system, how do we manage our business.

My wife and I, seven years ago, we’re thinking about buying a small local business in Texas. We took the monthly revenue for that business, and I put it into a process behavior chart, because I wanted to see how must does revenue fluctuate. It was basically just fluctuating around an average.

When you look at that and see how it fluctuates and what that calculated lower limit was, now you could start making some assumptions, “Sales are probably not going to ever fall below this number. Can we make the rent and payroll off of that number?” There are some ways you can use these charts to help predict future performance if it’s indeed just fluctuating.

Then one of the things we would have done was try to improve the business, of course. We would have done things to try to increase sales, increase repeat business and customer loyalty. We would have used that process behavior chart to look for a statistically significant increase in revenue. For a lot reasons, we ended up not buying the business.

I think it was more than just a… Charts like this would have been really helpful in that as they’ve proven helpful in other businesses I’ve been involved with.

A software company called KaiNexus that I’ve been coaching on methods like these. The CEO and the marketing director have learned basically to stop reacting to every up and down in their numbers and invest that time in improving the results instead of just reacting and trying to explain them.

How “Process Behavior Charts” Save Us Time and Help Us Sleep Better at Night

Bob: My own curiosity here, if you don’t mind. What type of business was that?

Mark: It was a local wine bar. It was a very customer service-oriented, just a type of retail establishment in Texas.

Bob: Measures of Success — React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, that’s the title of the book, Mark Graban, kind with his time. He’s our guest, this hour of our program on the FAN. He’s shared an awful lot with us.

Mark does a lot of speaking literally around the country. He shared an awful lot with us in this discussion. I want to thank you for being so kind with your time. Certainly wish you the best with this book and your future adventures.

Mark: Thank you, Bob.

Bob: We are going to pause for our top of the hour update. We got another guest joining us here on The Fan.

[outro music]

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