Something I can understand

A colleague involved with a scientific conference convinced me to take part for a brief time. I said, "What can I possibly get from being there?" but the colleague wouldn't take no for an answer.

"You oversee a health profession at the university, and this conference is about a health topic, so you need to come. Just stop in at your convenience because the event is right on campus."

I did stop in for a couple of hours during the second conference day. Thinking I wouldn't get much out of it, I dutifully accepted the lanyard name tag plus the participants' schedule booklet. Easily finding a seat, I opened my portfolio to take a note or two, and the presenter's huge PowerPoint slide filled the room with this message: "Without data, you're just another person with an opinion" — so said W. Edwards Deming.

Data. Oh, no. I enjoy words much more than numbers, but there's beauty and purpose in both.

The next slide said "Metrics." What was I thinking to say yes to attend? The presenter focused on what she called a "living metrics model": Any industry needs to understand its own risks, what makes its products successful, how to manage risks from those products, and how to know if a product is safe. Think medications that could be in a pill form, a liquid, an injectable, or an IV.

I kept listening and scribbled a few notes.

"Data aggregation can be in so many forms, such as dashboards, bar charts, line charts, heat maps showing low risk to high risk, and more," opined the confident and data-experienced presenter, who went on to share that such metrics can involve many problems, including assumption errors, not measuring the right thing, having unreliable data, or choosing wrong indicators.

Then I actually understood three PowerPoint slides that went something like this:

Slide 1: You need to use the correct tool. You wouldn't use a microscope to look at the stars.

Slide 2: Think of quality metrics like a sandwich. If the bread is too big or the cheese too thick or the meat invisible or the lettuce piled too high, you don't have an enjoyable sandwich. The perfect sandwich has the exact right proportions and combinations of ingredients.

Slide 3: The quality process is like a car in a garage. A car that's too large for the garage door opening won't go in. A car that goes in but scrapes the sides of the doorway isn't good because it takes too much effort to be perfect each time. But a car that goes in the garage easily with wiggle room all around is what you want.

Stars, sandwiches, and cars. I get that. Who said this metric and data business is difficult to understand?

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati.]