Numbers have power, if you have the courage to use them powerfully. Take these two stories from opposite ends of the 20th Century.  The first story is about a man in a steel mill. The second is about the crash of a giant.

Charles Schwab had a mill manager whose people weren’t producing their quota of work.  “How is it,” Schwab asked him, “that a manager as capable as you can’t make this mill turn out what it should?”

“I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I’ve coaxed the men, I’ve pushed them, I’ve sworn and cussed, I’ve threatened them with damnation and being fired. But nothing works. They just won’t produce.”

This conversation took place at the end of the day, just before the night shift came on. Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk, then, turning to the nearest man, asked: “How many heats did your shift make today?”


Without another word, Schwab chalked a big figure six on the floor, and walked away.

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When the night shift came in, they saw the “6” and asked what it meant.

“The big boss was in here today,” the day people said. “He asked us how many heats we made, and we told him six. He chalked it down on the floor.” 

The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out “6” and replaced it with a big “7.”

When the day shift reported for work the next morning, they saw a big “7” chalked on the floor. So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift did they? Well, they would show the night shift a thing or two. The crew pitched in with enthusiasm, and when they quit that night, they left behind them an enormous, swaggering “10.” Things were stepping up.

Shortly this mill, which had been lagging way behind in production, was turning out more work than any other mill in the plant.

The second story is more tragic.

A little after noon on a Texas country road, a small car veered off the road and crashed into a tree. Neither Candice Anderson, the driver, or her boyfriend Mikale Erikson were wearing a seatbelt. The airbags didn’t go off. Anderson went through the windshield, lacerating her liver, breaking most of her ribs and suffering severe head trauma. Her boyfriend wasn’t so lucky — he died.

The story gets worse. Three years after the accident, Candice was convicted of criminally negligent homicide. According to Candice, “Even before the persecution, I was persecuted in my community. I’ve been told a couple of times point blank to my face that I was a murderer. That I killed him.”

She was found to have 0.12 milligrams of a generic version of Xanex in her system, and served five years of probation, 260 hours and community service and $2,500 in fines.

Candace Anderson’s story is the human part of GM’s $10 billion class action lawsuit for faulty ignition switches.

6 was the important number in the first story. But it’s not the 0.12 milligrams, 260 hours, or even $10 billion dollars that are the important numbers in the second. Its the conversation inside GM.  More importantly how that data was presented, and the culture that prevented any incisive action for ten years.

The Valukas report, commissioned by GM to look into these failures, spell it out:

Eventually, in December 2013, the proposed recall made its way to the Executive Field Action Decision Committee (the “EF ADC”), the GM committee that considers recalls and whose members include three GM vice presidents, including its chief engineer. Still, no action was taken, because the chief engineer questioned the data demonstrating the problem and EF ADC members were not presented with fatality information and therefore felt no sense of urgency to make a decision.

The culture at GM was characterized as the GM salute, and the GM nod.

One witness described the GM phenomenon of avoiding responsibility as the “GM salute,” a crossing of the arms and pointing outward towards others, indicating that the responsibility belongs to someone else, not me.

According to their new CEO, Mary Barra, the GM Nod, is when everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action, but then leaves the room with no intention to follow through, and the nod is an empty gesture.

The steel mill story tells how numbers can shape a culture, the GM story tells how culture can shape numbers.

Numbers have power. They change the conversation. They can change the culture. Numbers — data — change how people think about things, how they see things, what they are willing to do.

Will the data set you free?

More and more, businesses think of themselves as “data-driven”.  It’s a wave that smart organizations are riding. You may collect data on key indicators — GM and Charles Schwab did. But the interpretation and sharing of that data is more important. Is your organization ready? Consider these questions.

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Take a look at the sketches above, and think how you compare. If you’ve found that your organization is mostly down the right hand side, i.e. you collect a lot of data, you know how its aligned to the strategy and goals of the business, data is used to test thinking and disrupt assumptions, and is presented in a way that stimulates planning and action, congratulations, you’ve embraced data into your culture. If not, fear not. This quick test can begin to show you the first steps on a journey to a data driven culture.


This cross-post is part of a collaboration on the intersection of Data Visualization and Culture by Gavin McMahon and Stephanie Evergreen. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Stephanie is a worldwide data presentation consultant and author of Presenting Data Effectively. She blogs at You can follow her on twitter @evergreendata.

Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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