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Taming Data with Software

Choosing the right program

Published: Monday, March 20, 2006 - 23:00

Question: Who has mountains of data needing to be tamed into information?

Answer: Nearly everyone in health care, manufacturing, education, basic research, and service industries, including Six Sigma and ISO 9001 organizations and anyone who needs to demonstrate conformance to standards. (Anyone left?)Since the days when data were collected and maintained manually—on cards or in ledgers—to the electronic age, the sheer amount of data generated has increased exponentially. Hospitals and health care providers, for example, must maintain data on everything from prescriptions delivered, to infection rates, to C-section deliveries and Medicare payments. Just as the manufacturing process was simplified by technology during the Industrial Revolution, it’s hard now even to remember the tedious and laborious manual processes that preceded software data collection. On shop floors and in hospital corridors, clipboards and pencils have been supplanted by PDAs, computers, and voice recognition equipment to ensure accurate collection of data from processes.

Collecting data is a challenge; making sense of it is another, even more daunting one. Organizations generate data at a rate commensurate with the complex services they offer and the diverse customers whom they serve. It may be hard to believe that a single software program can create statistical process control (SPC) and other quality charts to analyze complex data from nearly any data source and for any type of organization. However, you’ll find that such a program is available. Time spent in analyzing the capabilities of software programs is well-spent, for with the right program, this effort will translate into cost savings. It’s important, however, to find a program that saves time rather than only adding complexity.

How can one find such a program? Here are some features that are important to those who need to tame mountains of data:

Features: Because you have a nearly endless supply of data, your program must create charts quickly and easily. Importing and exporting procedures can be messy and inaccurate, and consume time and resources. Because you want to extract meaning from these data, it’s imperative that charting is easy and quick, so you can stay alert to changing levels of variation in key metrics and stay on top of your processes. By keeping more people aware of the status of key metrics, you’ll save time—and money—in the charting process.

Nearly everyone has purchased software and found it so difficult to begin using that the package sits on a shelf, unused. Secure a trial copy of the charting software that you’re considering and test it for yourself. If it’s not available for a free download or copy, check the return policy of the provider; it may be that once you use the program, you’ll find that it doesn’t suit your needs the way you had hoped. You want to be sure that you’ll not find yourself paying for something that you don’t look forward to using.

To be useful, the program should allow for customizing the look and feel of charts as well as options related to automated chart generation and distribution. You should have the choice of storing charts locally or on shared network drives.

Communication: With an emphasis on improvement and a commitment to standards, it’s essential that key metrics are communicated clearly throughout an organization. Visual images facilitate this communication, and users can distribute charts via e-mail to those who must be made aware of changing conditions and changing levels of variation. Charting software frees managers to focus on the larger process rather than concentrating only on data collection and chart updating. Because they can see the larger picture, it will seem that opportunities for significant cost savings nearly leap from the screen.

In the interest of meaningful communication about data, it’s imperative that notations can be easily added to any chart, and that authorized users can quickly browse through large sets of data. Before purchasing a charting program, be sure that it has this kind of flexibility.

Technical support: Among the frustrations of learning how to use software and making the most of its potential is that of dealing with technical support. Find out if the provider has an 800 number. Even with questions that demand answers, one can face the frustration of being put on indefinite hold (“Your call is important to us…”) or receiving electronic responses (“For hardware problems, press 9…”). Check the cost of technical support from the software provider and ask whether you can expect access to an analyst without an unreasonable wait on hold. You might call the company’s technical support line and have a conversation with an analyst to assure yourself that support will be available. If the software developer has online help, access the Web site and evaluate the clarity and usefulness of the documentation.

Software evaluation demands identifying your own needs, then examining potential products to see how well those needs are met. The time invested in this process may seem daunting, but it will pay off in long-term success with a program that saves you time and money—and tames that mountain of data that you face.

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