Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Operations Features
Daniel Croft
Noncontact scanning for safer, faster, more accurate, and cost-effective inspections
Ashley Hixson
Partnership with Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division provides employable metrology skills
Krysten Crawford
Stanford researchers designed a program to accelerate hiring for minorities and women
Using the CASCO Toolbox to repair and restore
Peter Büscher
Best practices for fluid sampling in cleanliness analysis

More Features

Operations News
Alliance will help processors in the US, Canada, and Mexico
Strategic partnership expands industrial machining and repair capabilities
Supports robots from 14 leading manufacturers
Ultrasonic flaw detector now has B/C scan capability, improved connectivity, and an app to aid inspection
ASI Construction partners with end users to deliver solutions to production operations
New technology can reduce pollution, bolster energy storage
Algorithms protect data created and transmitted by IoT and other small electronics
Investigating hyperspectral imaging on unmanned systems

More News

Kevin Meyer


Owning Numerical Ignorance

Improvements are impossible unless learning and understanding come first

Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 - 12:46

Awhile ago I discussed the value created by writing by hand. By writing on whiteboards or scribbling in a notebook, ownership, learning, and understanding is created. Similarly, truly understanding numbers creates ownership, learning, and understanding—thereby creating the potential for action.

I’m not talking about statistics or the interpretation of statistics. We all know that different perspectives can be “created” from otherwise accurate data to tell any story. Just ask anyone in Washington, D.C.—from any side.

I’m talking about numbers that don’t accurately reflect underlying conditions, or numbers that don’t relate to the reality of the process owners.

As one example, here’s a recent photo from my local gas station on the central coast of California. As my brother in-law remarked while visiting from Michigan, “That’s not per gallon, right?” Yep, per gallon, typical for all gas stations around here, and yes, far more than most other parts of the country are paying.

Most Californians are used to it, most U.S. visitors from outside of California just look wide-eyed, and most visitors from Europe still go “Wow, that’s cheap.” But how many understand that while everyone pays 18.4 cents in federal gas taxes, each state is radically different in terms of state gas taxes? California’s gas tax, for example, is more than 60 cents a gallon, among the highest in the country. How many understand that California requires a special gas formulation in the summer, which is produced only at in-state refineries, reducing scale and increasing risk from at-capacity refinery downtime, and contributing to nearly an extra dollar per gallon in cost?

My point isn’t whether this price is too high or not. Perhaps our air is cleaner due to the special gas, and perhaps our roads are better due to higher taxes (my brother in law actually thought so). My point is about having the basic information in order to analyze a value relationship. In order to create simplicity, a laudable goal, critical information and knowledge is often lost.

Another example: Home water use is typically measured in “units.” Here’s a recent article from the local paper about water usage in California, obviously a popular subject. What the heck is “25 units of water?” To make matters worse, a unit is different in different parts of the world. In the United States it’s typically 100 cubic ft, or 748.5 gallons. Elsewhere it’s a cubic meter, or 220 gallons.

But who relates to a “unit?” In California, where we’re being asked to reduce water usage by 25 percent, how do we relate to the numbers we see on our monthly water bills? I’m being asked to reduce water use from 10 to 7.5 “units.” Whatever. But ask me to reduce by 1,871 gallons a month, and I start to think about shorter showers, low-flow toilets, changing from grass to a more drought-tolerant landscape, and so forth. Especially if my cost for those 2.5 units is about to skyrocket.

I understand it, I own it, and I can learn how to improve.

One final example: individual income taxes. Mitt Romney stepped into it a bit during the last election cycle by stating that 47 percent of taxpayers pay no federal taxes. A little misleading because all except for 14 percent—primarily the elderly—do generally pay federal payroll taxes for Social Security and so forth—just no direct federal income taxes. Still, the point that nearly half of all U.S. taxpayers don’t contribute to a general expenditure bucket they have voting control over and receive benefits from is an interesting point outside the scope of this post.

But how many of those 47 percent, and even the rest, really understand how much taxes are being paid, and especially how they are being used? For the vast majority of people, taxes are simply lines on their pay stub, generally ignored, and an annual reconciliation effort where they are often excited that they gave a loan to the government and now get it back, without interest. Probably even more so now that paper pay stubs are becoming a rarity, and people have to take action to log into a system to review an online pay stub. How many really do that? How many can tell you how much they pay every two weeks in federal, state, Social Security, disability, and other taxes?

The net amount becomes the reference value. Just like the gross amount is the reference value for gas prices.

Those of us who are self-employed or own companies are a little different, since we have to actually cut a physical check to the Feds (and state) each quarter. Ouch! Now it becomes reality, and you start to be very interested in how much it is, and how it’s used. Although it would be a bureaucratic and compliance nightmare, perhaps everyone should have to physically write a check to pay their incremental shares of government taxes, withdrawing real money from their accounts, instead of simply accepting the net deposit on their pay stubs or annual tax statements. If you have to give up the equivalent of a vacation, a dinner, or even a beer to make that payment, it becomes real.

Ownership, understanding, and learning is created.

So be careful with simplifying numbers. Although simplification is a great goal, too much simplification may remove knowledge and create dangerous ignorance.

First published Aug. 15, 2015, on Kevin Meyer’s blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.


Numerical Ignorance

Your gasoline analogy can spread much further. How many times is it reported, "The XYZ Petroleum Corp made 33 billion dollars profit last quarter." I have never heard "The XYZ Petroleum Corp made 10.2 cents per gallon profit on gasoline last quarter."

I would not expect any improvement until critical thinking becomes fashionable again.

“It is not sufficient to know the right answers. One must also know the questions that produced them." - Neil Postman


The GOVERNMENT(s) actually make more money on a gallon of galoline than the oil companies!  Imagine that!

Imagine the revolt there would be if each tax-paying citizen had to write a check to the government each month for their income taxes.  One person actually told me that he didn't pay income taxes because he got a few hundred dollars refund every year!  I did not argue: As comedian Ron White says, "You can't cure stupid!"