How to Make Data Quality Improvements Stick: Expert Interview with Mark Eaton

How to Make Data Quality Improvements Stick

with Mark Eaton

In this interview, change management and Lean expert Mark Eaton from industry specialists Amnis explains the process of improvement and gives some practical advice for embedding long-term changes within the organisation.

Data Quality Pro: How do you describe the typical phases involved when organisations embark on an improvement initiative?

Mark Eaton: There are really 3 main phases involved and these can be broadly defined as preparation, implementation and embedding.

  • During the preparation phase the organisation is getting ready for improvement, setting down the objectives of the improvement programme and putting in place the resources to implement the changes.
  • The implementation phase is fairly obvious, this is the physical processes involved when implementing the change and obtaining the initial improvements.
  • The embedding phase is really a transition phase from ‘this is a new way of doing things’ to ‘have we ever done it any other way?’ This is otherwise known as the transition from having changed processes to the point of changing behaviours.

Data Quality Pro: How do organisations typically make transition between these 3 phases? Is there a further breakdown of activities?

Mark Eaton: There are typically 6 transition points or crisis points as shown in the following chart.

Each point in this chart represents a critical stage in the improvement process.

The 6 transition points are:

  1. Decision to Improve
  2. Strategic Planning
  3. Preparation to Implement
  4. The Noise of Implementation
  5. Adoption of Improvements
  6. Improvements Embedded

Data Quality Pro: It is quite common for people to react negatively to data quality improvement. In your experience, what kind of negative reactions are common at each of these transition points?

Mark Eaton: During the Decision to Improve phase the typical reaction is that ‘this is not the right time’. There is often confusion about what needs to be done and therefore mixed messages from leaders which can lead to a drop in productivity

Strategic Planning often results in managers attempting to derail the process and move the focus from their own areas to other areas. There may be a lot of disagreement about the content of the strategy and attempts are often made to alter the scope and duration of the improvement programme.

During the Preparation to Implement phase, concern may start to grow within the organisation, although this may be partly balanced by some excitement about the change process ahead.

By the time we reach the Noise of Implementation phase some things will have gone well and others not so well. The ‘nay sayers’ will focus on the failures and some managers may often have a crisis of confidence that may lead to early termination of the programme.

During the Adoption of Improvements phase those not involved, or not positive about the implementation approach used, will try to undo the work done. Bad habits that existed before will still be there and will further degrade the achievements made if not effectively managed.

Finally, the Improvements Embedded phase will occasionally witness snipes by ‘nay sayers’ but broadly there is neither the will nor often the ability to go back to the old ways of working by this point.

Data Quality Pro: A recurring theme I hear in our industry is the situation where initial improvements have been made but gradually the gains are lost as old patterns of behaviour re-emerge. Why do so many improvements fail to embed themselves within the organisation?

Mark Eaton: In identifying the negative reactions you will encounter during the improvement transition points, the following quote may be of use:

“There are four things that hold back human progress; ignorance, lethargy, committees and inflexibility.”

This quote is adapted from from Charles J C Lyall’s “There are four things that hold back human progress; ignorance, stupidity, committees and accountants.”

Ignorance is often accompanied by fear of the unknown. It can be tackled through effective (and ongoing) communication, involving people in the process of improvement and giving them the skills to know how to embed the improvements after they have been put in place.

Lethargic improvement programmes can result if there is not an effective ‘pace’ put on the programme. A lack of pace is normally indicative of unclear objectives for the programme and a lack of a sense of urgency from the senior team. In the words of Will Rogers, “Even if you’re on the right track you’ll get run over if you just stand there.”

Group thinking and committee domination needs to be avoided. Encouraging individual initiative and empowering leaders to make decisions and deal with issues (and then supporting them when they do) is the key here. If individuals feel threatened or at risk, they will not support the change.

Inflexibility to adapt the improvement strategy is a common cause of failure. The approach you started with may not be the most appropriate six months or two years later. Being blunt, there is no one single approach to making improvements work. Being prepared to experiment, learn from experience and broadly keep going is the key to success.

Data Quality Pro: How does the environment and culture of the workforce and organisation affect the progress of improvement and change?

Mark Eaton: It’s absolutely critical and so often ignored.

There are environments that do not ‘allow’ people to comment constructively on the changes going on around them. Teams may operate along tribal lines with poor communication between them. In these situations the probability of success is very low, and both of these issues are directly related to the management environment that the organisational leaders have established.

The way leaders at all levels behave will also affect how teams react to the changes that have been implemented. Leaders who show no interest in the new ways of working, who actively push the team to work in the ‘old way’ or who, through words or actions, show that they disagree with the vision and objectives for the improvement programme are likely to lead to improvements that just slip away.

Where you might feel the desire to ‘by-pass’ difficult people and teams and perhaps implement the improvements without involving such people, I would refer you to the following quote,

“Without involvement, there is no commitment. Mark it down, asterisk it, circle it and underline it. No involvement, no commitment.” – Stephen Covey, author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’

Data Quality Pro: You and your team help large organisations implement successful change, what are some of the success elements that make this happen? Why do some organisations succeed where so many others fail?

Mark Eaton: Several years ago we were involved in a research project to examine exactly why organisations failed to implement successful Lean initiatives. We identified eight areas that now form part of a diagnostic that we use to measure the readiness of organisations who are about to embark on major improvement initiatives.

These 8 phases form the acronym CRITICAL:

  • Communications: Organisations tend to under-communicate both prior to and during the implementation.
  • Resources: Improvement projects that have not succeeded are often found to have failed to allocate the right resources at the right time.
  • Involvement: Failure to engage people in the improvement process and the failure to pass over ownership for the improvement to them are common issues.
  • Training: Organisations often offer extensive training that results in people receiving information overload or they want to minimise the training and get straight into action.
  • Implementation: Quite often implementations can cause upstream and downstream issues. Other problems relate to speed of delivery, either too fast or slow.
  • Compass: Organisations that fail to implement improvements often state that they should have been clearer about what they wanted to achieve, how fast, with what resources and how they should engage and inform their staff.
  • Achievement: Most people respond favourably to something that physically demonstrates the aspects of improvement that the organisation wishes to achieve.
  • Leadership: This often includes a failure to show interest, deal effectively with ‘snipers’ or a failure to create the imperative for change. Difference of opinion amongst senior leaders is quickly identified by front-line staff as a reason to pull back from the improvement.

Mark Eaton, expert in Lean and Change Management

Mark Eaton, expert in Lean and Change Management

Mark Eaton

Mark Eaton is managing director of Amnis Ltd, a consultancy which specialises in innovation, transformation and organisational improvement, helping clients plan and deploy strategies for successful transformation. 

Their goal is to help clients not only deliver sustainable change but also to develop their capability to tackle their next challenges.

Providing both consultancy and training services, Amnis’ team includes specialists in Lean/Six Sigma, organisational development, strategic planning, change management and systems thinking. He can be contacted via markeaton[AT]