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  • Esther Er

Big Data, Be Warned!

I love Statistics!


I started my career with one of the Big Five accounting firms in 1986. I was working in the Management Consulting Division, and reported to a Master Statistician who came from one of the elite universities in England. I would consider him as one of the most brilliant persons that I have known! He was also a very tough supervisor, pale in consideration to what you would even call the worse supervisors’ today.


On his bad days, you could probably even feel tremors at your workstation, even if you are sitting 30m from his office. I once saw him threw a stack of my colleagues’ report into the trash can and told him that, “this is the worse possible report that he had read in his life”. He was brutally aggressive on us, but it toughened all of us. I have never served in the army, but I could imagine he would fit right into the role of a drill Sargent of any commando training unit.


Putting his male hormonal balance aside, I learn to appreciate statistics from him. I learned so much from him how he was able to take massive amount of data, chopped them down into discrete parts, and then the ability to draw inferences from them. He once told me that statistics allows you the ability to deliver either a good or bad story at the same time! Later years, I also learn the phrase that you can describe a glass as empty or filled with air!


Big Data


Fast forward three decades later, advancement in technology has enabled us to make real-time decisions with real-time information. Welcome to the world of “Big Data”. Take, for example, in the world of manufacturing; machines now have digital monitoring devices. These devices transmit and store real-time information in the cloud.



Based on advanced mathematical formulae and logic, today’s advanced system can provide artificial intelligence on giving you the precise heartbeat of your entire supply chain operations. This information will be made available on big screens where we make decisions on them.


Golden Years of Total Quality Management


I would deem the period between 1960 to mid-1990s as the “Golden Years of Total Quality Management. Those who grew up in Singapore would remember Productivity Standards Board (PSB) that was instrumental in galvanizing the entire nation to focus on quality improvement to ensure that we continue to provide the best product and service to our customers.


During those golden years, PSB was instrumental in producing some of the best quality improvement specialists in the region. Throughout the whole of Singapore, both Public and Private Sectors would send teams in droves to compete for Quality Control Circle (QCC) national competition. There were also Work Improvement Teams (WIT). There was so much hype, and it was one of the best examples of how a nation gears up the entire citizens to be data-driven. The love for Plan-Do-Check-Act is the beginning of appreciating statistics. The love for statistics is the foundation of big data application.


I guess the movement did not gather momentum as it takes a lot of effort in collecting, compiling, and then analyzing the data. People were juggling with their day job, and at the same time, the need to be involved in various projects. Soon the acronym WIT stands for “wasting individual time”. Those companies that got it right were the ones who asked their people to work on a project that matters! Projects that is directly impacting them, and thereby reducing the effects that they are doing “more” work.


I am sure scattered all over Singapore today, we have a group of “old dogs” who are itching to be part of another wave of change, that of digital transformation. I often wondered how we could use this “untapped” human resources that can be deployed to coach and mentor the younger generations.


The “old dogs” could learn the new technology from the young, and the young could gain “basic statistical” knowledge from the “old dogs”. I am very confident that some of these “old dogs” still have got a couple of tricks in them, notably wisdom!


Go to the Gemba!


Years ago, I was working for a company that had two canteens in our factory. One was serving halal and the other non-halal. As part of my employee engagement, I would meet up with at least half a dozen workers in my office for lunch. It was always McDonalds! It took me quite a few years to go back to McDonalds after I left this company.









You will always expect them to bring up that they were sick and tired of the canteen food at each session. After more than six sessions, this was a real issue coming from the floor. We need to take action. Over the period of six months, we have been conveying the feedback from our employees to our two in-house canteen operators. It seems that our feedback was not taken up seriously judging from the feedback from our employees.


At the leadership meeting, I announced to the leadership team that we have to now start to look for a potential replacement for our canteen operators. Both of our canteen operators have been with us for more than a decade. I shared with the leadership team that this is a real hygiene issue of our employees.


After two weeks of this announcement, one of the leadership team members came to my room to give me a stack of the petition from the operators. There were at least 70% of signatures from our 500 employees saying that they don’t want to change our canteen operators. The petition was undisputable information for the leadership team. These were actual signatures from our people. The decision was then taken not to pursue the matter as “majority has spoken”.

The next month after we made the decision not to change operators, I had another meet-the-people session. I was surprised that they started to complain about the in-house canteen operators again! I was puzzled. The data suggested that the majority of the employees don’t want us to change, and yet why are they complaining about the in-house canteen operators!


I then went into my cabinet and took out the stack of signatures to show them. I told them that we wanted to help them, but since the majority of them voted not to change, we have to live with the current operators. One of the workers spoke up, “… this was not what was ask of us to decide”. I was puzzled. He then shared with me that the company has decided not to have anymore in-house canteen operators because of their complaints. That being the case, they were signing to have the existing in-house canteen operators rather than not having one at all!


That was a precious lesson learned for me. I learn from this episode that people can all be “Master Statistician” to skew the arguments in their favor. They can produce a report that can tell you the glass is empty or filled with air! What is very important is to do a thorough investigation. Go to the gemba. Talk to the people, validate the facts, and you might find at the source it is an entirely different picture!


People are still needed!


People are still needed even with the introduction of advanced artificial intelligence machines and systems. One area is to make sure that you are always in control of your system, and not the other way around! The combination and permutations of your business are changing in real-time. It is never at a fixed point.


People are required to continuously make sure that throughout the entire value chain, it is a continuous discipline of ensuring everything stays “relevant”.


At the leadership level, the need to have a global mindset. In some countries, when you received feedback, you can take it at face value as you would expect people to write it in “good faith”. In other countries, you do not make decisions on them, you proceed to do a thorough investigation. In some parts of the world, twisting the facts in their favor is the norm.


Once you have conducted the investigation, you might realize that the report is far from the truth. Failure to understand these distinct differences can potentially lead to the wrong decisions taken at the highest level.


Here is where the HR organization can play a very critical role. HR practitioners must always be acutely aware of the mental models of each individual, and to identify the necessary interventions to help people to stay aligned with the organization’s vision and mission.


Raymund Chua, Advisor, Heart 4 HR

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