Garbage In, Wheat and Soybeans Out?

Interesting article by Mara Lee on the Hartford Courant website: Big Exports From Connecticut: Corn, Wheat, Soybeans, Oil; Feds Can’t Explain It.  The article provides a wonderful example of just how far one’s concept of reality can become skewed by not following the basic lean lesson…Go to the Gemba.

Apparently, we Connecticut folk are getting pretty good at growing and selling things like wheat and soybeans.  One little issue however…we don’t.

We don’t what, you ask?  Grow and sell wheat or soybeans.  Not in large enough quantities to justify even a teeny mention in any U.S. Department of Commerce report on state exports anyway.  Unless you’re the Department of Commerce.  Confused?  Read the article.

Two things I learned from listening to Dr. Deming back in ’93 immediately came to mind after I read the article and did a little research:

  1. Break down barriers between departments (from Deming’s 14 key principles)
  2. “By what method?” (common saying and teaching concept of Dr. Deming)

It should come as no surprise (God bless you if it does) that the U.S. government is composed of, among other things, hundreds of departments and agencies.  A brief visit to the USA.gov website, shows you the only letters from the English alphabet spared from beginning the name of one such organization (their term, not mine) are Q, X, Y, and Z.

In an attempt to keep from hopping down an unproductive rabbit trail, I will not comment here on what I feel would be a better number of departments or agencies…perhaps another post.  I will mention however, that it is quite apparent to me that there is not a whole lot of communication happening between these groups, and that opens things up for some wholesome reminders on what can occur when we allow irrational and/or improper thinking to fog our lean minds.

“Show me the data”.

Sounds so good, doesn’t it?  We’re the chosen few who have been taught that real solutions are only possible when we can see and hold the data.  We gather the data, we sort the data.  Then, my personal favorite, we create pivot tables.  A few clicks later, out spits what we think is the correct answer.

“Garbage in, garbage out”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for data driven processes; but unless we validate any data we see by physically going to the place it was gathered from, we run the risk of being driven to nothing but frustration or confusion.  Even worse, we buy into misrepresentations of the truth.

As stated in the article, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the #2 export from Connecticut was wheat.  Wheat!  Coming in at #5 was soybeans.  Maybe the headings on the excel spreadsheet were screwed up and we got switched with Iowa?  #6 on their list was oil.  If the crises in Egypt, Libya, and other neighboring countries were not in full swing, I could start a new comedy stand-up career on that one.

I live in the gemba called Connecticut.  I’ve spent over 30 years of my life ‘in the CT gemba’.  You can drive from one corner of our beautiful state to any other within two hours.  You’ll see lots of hay fields, but not any wheat fields.  You’ll drive past quaint grist mills here and there, none of which are currently in production mode, due to the fact that wheat hasn’t been grown in large quantities in CT since 1830 (see the article).  Every so often, one of the local mills puts on a demonstration showing how wheat was ground into flour.  I don’t think we include any of the resulting product in our annual report of state exports though.  Besides, they buy the wheat at Walmart and I think it comes from Canada.  That shouldn’t count, should it?

Driving through Connecticut, you will see a few small patches of soybeans.  Emphasis on the word small.  You sure as heck won’t see any oil rigs.  Not even next to a Walmart.

All kidding aside, it boggles my mind at how messed up data can be reported from very large institutions.  I think it’s safe to say that when information conflicts with other information from within our own organization, there’s opportunity to eliminate some waste.

For example, if the Dept. of Commerce had access to the Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) reports on state export data for the past 5 years, neatly broken out by state and commodity group I might add, they would have quickly realized that perhaps there’s an error in one or more of their pivot tables…at least regarding the state of Connecticut.

From the USDA report:  Commodity group – Wheat.  State – Connecticut.

  • 2005 exports: 0.0
  • 2006 exports: 0.0
  • 2007 exports: 0.0
  • (sensing a trend?)
  • 2008: 0.0
  • 2009: 0.0

As Terri Long, data dissemination specialist at the Commerce Department so wonderfully concluded in the article; “Interesting. Wow.”

Commodity group – Soybeans.  State – Connecticut.

  • 2005 exports: 0.0
  • 2006 exports: 0.0
  • 2007 exports: 0.0
  • (hmm…)
  • 2008: 0.0
  • 2009: 0.0

What’s great about the USDA data is the consistency.  No need to carry any decimal points or divide by the square root of pi.  I came out with a nice clean standard deviation…did you?  And I bet you didn’t even use a pivot table.

Also, their data holds a tight correlation to what you actually see being produced around the state; feed grains (hay, etc.) and broad leaf tobacco for example.

So how did the Dept. of Commerce manage to come up with numbers so far off from their colleagues at the USDA?  Glenn Barressey, chief of the special projects branch in Foreign Trade, offered his views (stunning as they are) regarding some of the issues:

  1. “Maybe the owner of a warehouse in Connecticut accepts shipments of soybeans from states that grow it, and then sends those combined shipments to another state before they leave the country.  The Commerce Department relies on the paperwork exporters fill out about origin of movement. Could someone have reported the wrong state? Absolutely.”
  2. (Barressey acknowledges it’s just a guess)  “You’re introducing logic to a situation where sometimes logic doesn’t work.”
  3. (Near the end of the article)  “We can’t really tell whether exports from a state are increasing at all.”
  4. (In conclusion) “I completely agree, we have that problem with a lot of states,” he said. “It can be misleading.”

With comments like that, I’m simply left with but one thought; “what the heck (revised thanks to WordPress spellcheck) is the value of the Commerce Dept. report?  It can be misleading?!  Shame on me for trying to introduce logic, I guess.

The sad fact is, this kind of fodder (sorry) causes damage.  As Mara reported in her article,

When the government reported last month that Connecticut exports increased by almost 15 percent in 2010, state economic development officials were delighted.

A few news outlets reported that the value of the state’s exports was over $16 billion, more than recovering what was lost during the recession.

Then we all spend countless days and weeks calculating and recalculating the figures, trying to make sense out of data that leaves us thinking, “We can’t really tell whether exports from a state are increasing at all.”

I can’t help but think there’s more than a few ‘number crunching folks’ deep within the walls of our state government buildings trying to figure out exactly where the error is in the pivot table.

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About Steve Martin - theThinkShack

Hey there...I'm Steve. I built theThinkShack...a virtual hideaway about Lean Thinking and how it Connects to Everyday Life.
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3 Responses to Garbage In, Wheat and Soybeans Out?

  1. Mark Welch says:

    Excellent example of miscommunication, misrepresentation of the facts, no gemba observation, and too much government all in 1 swoop! Nice post, Steve! And, yes, as a native and current resident of Iowa I did wonder for a bit if they had confused CT with my state!

  2. Pingback: Data and Facts Are Not the Same « Beyond Lean

  3. Pingback: Data and Facts Are Not the Same « Beyond Lean

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