Back in the day…

It was a rainy day, several years B.E. (before e-mail), when the CFO proudly unveiled his new month end package of reports. Pointing to a stack of paper about 3 inches high, he enthused about the 20% reduction in the number of reports: “Think about how many trees we’ve saved.”

Once I stopped laughing, I remembered that I was part of a team performing time and motion studies for this organization. Over the next month we followed the distribution and usage of the monthly report package. Fourteen percent of the pages were reviewed briefly by clerical employees. And 6% of the pages were actually used by management. The remaining 80% of the paper stack was filed without ever being looked at. And I know this for a fact – because one month we substituted blank pages for around half the reports, and yes, those blank pages were dutifully filed as well.

We distilled the reporting package down into a handful of detailed reports, and eliminated the remainder in favour of a few exception reports. Other than financial reports for committee meetings, nothing was printed unless it varied from pre-determined norms. So instead of dumping a detailed list of all training course transactions, for example, a report which used to run to over 50 pages each month was summarized onto a single page. This was supplemented by one page for each course that qualified as an exception – typically no more than 3 or 4 per month. The 3 inches of paper had been trimmed to less than a quarter inch – and every single page printed was in fact used. Oh, and the CFO was replaced for medical reasons (paper cuts).

Fast forward to the present…

It is now so easy to create reports on any and every piece of data in an organization. And we don’t have to print the reports any more – we can save them electronically as PDF files, and we can email them. We can have automated reports emailed to us at regular intervals. This seems like a great idea, so we start with one or two time-sensitive reports weekly. When that seems to work well, we expand the process and soon we’re receiving a couple of reports by email every morning. By the time we reach 15 reports flying into the inbox every day, we’re almost back at square one: we get the reports, but there’s too much information and not enough time, so we end up ignoring most (or even all) of them – they essentially become internal spam.

Here’s what you can do: define the (very small number) of key metrics that you absolutely need in order to perform the most important parts of your job.  Now determine which of these are only relevant when they fall outside of normal limits, and turn those into exception reports. For the remainder which require regular review, decide on how frequently you really need them, and obtain those reports at that frequency. Now cancel all other reports, and review this strategy regularly (as these requirements will evolve over time).

Bonus hint: if a report gives you information about which you cannot take any action, it’s probably not a useful report.

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