Making Data-Based Mistakes

Making Data-Based Mistakes by Dr. Robert Gerwig

Original Photo by alvimann, Adapted by Author, Available at

The storm clouds were gathering as Bobby Ray was driving to work. This was, after all, Columbia, SC, an area known for its storms. Ray was not Bobby’s last name (or family name), for being a true southerner, while Ray was “officially” his middle name, truth be told, it’s more appropriate to say that “Bobby Ray” was his first name.

Bobby Ray wasn’t concerned about the storm, it often stormed in Columbia. And as a truck driver based out a manufacturing plant in Columbia, he had over 25 years of experience driving in storms. What he didn’t know was that a storm was also brewing at work. Bobby Ray was about to be fired. Terminated. Put out of work. Let go. Canned.

A hundred miles away in the corporate headquarters, Mike was already hard at work. Not driving trucks. Not avoiding storms. He was creating them. He was getting ready to make a data-based mistake. As the VP for the business, it was his job to drive results. Use data. Be metrics driven. After all, this was Corporate America and he role-modeled a “take-no-prisoners” approach to metrics. He held all his employees accountable. And at 6:30am on this stormy Wednesday morning, he was hard at work, scouring the data. Looking for abnormalities. Looking for someone to hold accountable.

I came in at 6:45am (though my “official” hours were 8am-5pm, but well … you know). About 6:50am, Mike came into my office, “Have you fired THAT guy in Columbia yet!” … “Um, good morning Mike, how are you? What guy in Columbia are you talking about?”, I choked out while trying to engage my brain (the coffee was still brewing in our break-room and I hadn’t stopped at our local Starbucks that morning – dang!). “That DRIVER from Columbia who was driving 98mph on I-85 yesterday outside of Spartanburg.”

The company had installed GPS units on all our trucks shortly before I became the director of operations. Each morning, at 5am, there was an automated report that went to all the leadership team showing (from the previous day), a summary on our fleet of trucks: average speed, top speed, map showing their route, idling time, etc. Truly big brother at work. But I have to admit, it was kinda cool. And helpful. Like highlighting a driver who went 2 hours off his route to visit a girlfriend. Yep, really. … Another story.

Mike wanted me to call the plant manager in Columbia and fire Bobby Ray. Now! He wasn’t asking. He was telling. Know what I mean? … I said a quick prayer and told Mike I’d find out what happened and let him know ASAP. Then I called Johnny Lee (the Columbia plant manager) and asked him what he knew about Bobby Ray’s route the day before and what he thought about the 98mph data point. I told Johnny Lee that it didn’t make sense because Bobby Ray was our division’s best driver (by the numbers).

Well, Bobby Ray had been in the SC Upstate the day before between Spartanburg and Greenville when his GPS registered 98mph. Trouble. Mike’s wrath. Termination.

Turns out, his truck broke down. He called our towing contractor, rented a car, and was headed back to Columbia when the GPS’s time-stamped max speed alert registered 98mph. During the time the GPS registered 98mph, the contractor was towing our truck to a service garage and THEIR driver was going 98mph! Bobby Ray had never turned off his GPS unit so it had continued to register.

I thanked Johnny Lee, talked to Mike, said thanks for an answered prayer, got some coffee, and began my day. It was not yet 8am and a lot had already happened. I almost trembled when I thought about the loss of trust (and other negative consequences) from Bobby Ray and the rest of my organization that would’ve occurred if I’d blindly called Johnny Lee and had him fire Bobby Ray without getting the full story. All the data.

Making data-based decisions is important. But so is using common sense. It’s head AND heart. It’s not jumping to conclusions. It’s talking to people. It’s asking questions. It’s being skeptical of data that appears to be abnormal. It about perspective, maturity, and trust. It’s about balancing logic and emotion. It’s about leadership.

Do you have a story to share about a time when someone jumped to a wrong conclusion based on partial data? Or a half-truth? How did you handle it and what was the outcome?

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