Lifting your productivity by 20%. The reporting log-jam

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Cleared for take-off? In MR there’s generally a log-jam around the reporting process.

The photo above shows hundreds of gannets near a beach where I live, and these birds nest here, grow up here and then take flight to distant nations thousands of miles away. It is humbling to watch them survive on this rock face, and amazing to see how the parent birds always manage to identify which grey hatchling is their’s.  How do they do it? How does this society, this organisation of gannets manage to be so efficient?

I wonder similar thoughts about Market Research organisations also, because in these companies you see things happen that the gannets don’t bother with. The birds hold no WIP meeting, no pep talk, to team building exercises – there’s just the constant cry of their vocal equivalent of the email network. These birds are in constant communication. The parents are task focused (got to feed the young) and the local fishing grounds, with the exception of the occasional Great White Shark, are benign and plentiful. Field work, in other words is not a problem.

But the gannets do stumble at one point. Sooner or later comes the great migration and these rocks will be empty for a season. Yet not every chick is ready at the same time. While some quickly master the art of gliding in the prevailing westerly breeze, others are clumsy, and apt to crash land in an ugly flurry of gangly feathered wings and webbed feet. If this was Heathrow or JFK this would be mayhem.

Now the moment that projects get delivered to clients is similarly full of mayhem.  Some of major inefficiencies  of the typical research company occur at the reporting stage. Deadlines might be met, but these too often involve a weekend or a serious late-nighter. And if that’s the case, then something need fixing.

So here are some suggestions to contribute to my ongoing series about how to achieve an overall 20% lift in MR company efficiency. Twenty-per-cent is very achievable, and really it comes down to find a 4% gain here, a 5% gain there – as well as the courage to challenge a few things that were developed back in the 80s or 90s; for example the production-line structure.

  1. Plan the report at the questionnaire development stage. Presumably you are testing hypotheses, or measuring certain things, or unravelling mysteries – whatever you’re doing there’s going to be a story that gets developed, even if you don’t know how it is going to end. So start visualising the shape of the story and the chapters it will require and the analytics that these will involve. Let the whole team know what the plan is.
  2. Do not pass Go…until you adopt a stringent “right first time” approach to labelling errors and data errors. Test and proof the data before the report gets drafted. Are the weightings correct? Do the labels have typos?  Is the data clean? Measure twice, cut once.
  3. Challenge the multi-stage process behind the survey analysis. Having a DP department develop a whole heap of crosstabs in the hope that something should prove interesting, is just plain inefficient.  If a team is working on the project, then work together in parallel rather than in serial. Start by going through the report structure, and then allocating who works on which part. By waiting in series, the project gets held up by every little random thing and cascade delays and errors can mount up. “Sorry, I can’t work on the data yet…Dave had to go to the dentist.”  You know the …er, drill.
  4. Run these teams top-down rather than junior up.  I recently worked with a j-up style of organisation in which us seniors were encouraged to delegate the production or reports, and then to add “our bits” at the end of the process. I personally found this frustrating because what the reports often needed was much more than cosmetic. The younger researchers, good talent all, hadn’t always “got” the story that the data was telling. So precious hours were spent reworking key chapters of the report.  
  5. Examine and use suitable production platforms.  A good one to try is the Australian product “Q” delivers a combination of SPSS power, Excel level exportability to PPT and delivers slides (complete with Question number, n = size, date etc) at the touch of a button.  It can save hours of needless production time when analysts end up messing with fonts and colours.
  6. Talk to the client during the report-writing process. Run the initial findings past them in the conversation: “Delwyn, we’ve found a high level of dissatisfaction among your core customers…is this what you guys expected? What would be the best way to report this?”  Often those conversations provide a context-check which enables you to get the nuance and tone right for the audience. Delwyn might advise you to go easy with the bad news (because the new initiative was a pet project of the boss) – whereas if you didn’t know that you’d be up, sooner or later, having to redraft the report. 
  7. Monitor productivity and set expectations. I’ve never seen a research company do this. But if a PPT deck looks like it needs 6 basic chapters, and each chapter is going to need around 10 slides, then you should be able to work out how much production time needs to be allocated. Personally, working with my own data, I can put together a slide every 8-12 minutes depending if the project is descriptive or deeply detailed. That includes the analysis time. Yet meanwhile I’ve timed colleagues (they didn’t know this) and they averaged around 15 minutes per slide of descriptive results. About half my speed. The difference I think comes from: certainty of the story I’m telling, a clear sense of structure, and the general tendency to give slides a reasonable amount of white-space. Focus on the main details, don’t present a full tables of results. Each project should discuss the hours spent, after delivery to see where improvements can be found.
  8. Start on the reporting immediately. You may think you have two weeks available to get it all together. So no pressure is applied at the start. In fact, most projects lose time in the first 72 hours – and that puts a squeeze on the rest of the schedule. That’s when errors get made or compromises (we don’t have time to dig deeper) occur. 

Research companies need to ask themselves how much time is spent doing actual research (analysis and thinking) and how much time is spent crafting massive decks of slides. For sure, the report represents the basic deliverable to the client, and – absolutely – it needs to be visually attractive, and tell its story even to non-analysts. But we’ve all seen too many hours wasted in dickering around with the look of the report, or in fixing errors that got woven into the report – and not enough hours spent delivering value to the client.  

 

 

2 thoughts on “Lifting your productivity by 20%. The reporting log-jam

  1. Gannets have multiple relationships Gannets squabble amongst themselves Gannets shit all over the place It is best to be upwind of a gannet colony Definitely relative to market researchers Brian Steel

    1. Yes they’re not the tidiest of birds, but more self-organising than self-disorganising. On those grounds we can learn from them. Luckily our MR colleagues are less smelly,

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