Recently, I was in Victoria, British Columbia, providing information quality improvement education for professionals from the various provincial government ministries. During my visit, Bridget Hellyer of the Ministry of Finance shared her personal experience as a "victim" of poor quality information. Bridget has graciously allowed me to share her experience in this month's column. Bridget's experience provides an outstanding object lesson in the high costs of low- quality information and how the principles of information quality improvement can prevent aggravation to your customers and lost profits. Following is her ordeal.

Bridget received a telephone request for a donation to an unnamed charitable organization. (By the end of this column, you will agree that the organization will appreciate not being identified.) Concerned for the cause, Bridget responded with a $25 donation. She provided her name, address, pledge amount and credit card information over the phone.

A short time later, she received a card in mail to confirm the information, and it became eminently clear why this step was required in the process. Out of the eight data fields, there were five errors ­ a 62.5 percent error rate! Bridget's first name was misspelled, as was her last name; the street name was misspelled and the street number was incorrect; and the pledge amount was incorrect.

IQ Lesson 1: Information quality involves quality into processes (i.e., capturing information correctly at the source of knowledge acquisition ­ not by inspection and information scrap and rework). The point of verification of data should be at the data creation point. As this story unfolds you will see why.

In addition to getting the bankcard number and expiration date correct, the unnamed cheritable organization managed to get the postal code correct; however, Canada Post must be given a commendation for getting the mailing to Bridget, as the street name and last name were barely recognizable. She corrected the errors and returned the card.

Subsequent to this, Bridget received a phone message that there was a credit card problem. The phone message, however, gave no indication of the company or source of the problem. She played phone tag with the caller for a number of days, consuming more of her personal time, as well as time of the organization's staff. When she finally made contact, she got to the root of the problem. The MasterCard number had been incorrectly entered. Additionally, the corrected information she sent in earlier had not yet been used to update the incorrectly captured data. Thus, she had to provide the information once again over the phone.

IQ Lesson 2: The customer has now been inconvenienced to provide the same information three times. The organization has incurred the costs of capturing the information incorrectly the first time, the costs of data verification mail sent to the customer and recapturing it a second time over the phone when it was not updated per the returned data verification card. The organization has already spent unnecessary costs of information scrap and rework in sending out a data verification mailing, not using it once corrections had been provided and playing telephone tag with an already frustrated customer.

Clearly, things should now have been resolved. Indeed, Bridget's payment was processed and appeared on her next credit card statement. However, Bridget realized things were not well in "dataland" when she received a second payment deduction on her next credit card statement.

Bridget was back to the phone to determine whether there had been a misunderstanding. Had her single donation been treated as a monthly contribution? She was assured that was not the case. On receiving the data verification card, the charitable organization had reprocessed the donation. Apparently, the organization had no means of knowing that they had already processed her payment the first time. The MasterCard information on file had been corrected and retained; therefore, the payment had been processed successfully. Apparently the organization had "corrected" the already corrected personal information and billed her account a second time.

IQ Lesson 3: Databases must be designed to hold information to support all processes and knowledge-workers in performing their jobs. Knowledge-workers must be able to access that data efficiently when they need it. Data elements and process checks must be in place to prevent redundant work (deducting a pledge two times) as well as the failure to perform work (deducting a pledge accurately one time).

This new information quality problem forced Bridget to provide proof of the double payment to the agent for the unnamed charitable organization. The agent then had to provide proof of double payment to her manager in order to obtain his approval before they could process a credit to Bridget's credit card account.

Bridget asks, "Would it not have been simpler if:

  • I could have made the pledge and provided the information electronically, or
  • The follow-up card had been accompanied by the means to provide payment information or make payment, or
  • The organization had waited for the data verification card to be processed?"

IQ Lesson 4: Yes, Bridget, it is always simpler and less expensive to perform jobs correctly the first time. Information must be verified at the point it is created ­ before it causes any process to fail. It is a gross misunderstanding that it is more productive to do things fast (e.g., minimize time in capturing data), believing inspection after the fact is an acceptable cost. Creating errors that cause the processes to fail, squandering money in information scrap and rework and risking the loss of customers is the most expensive form of productivity.

IQ Lesson 5: Organizations must maintain information with quality that prevents them from invoicing their customers in error or alienating them in other ways. It costs money to resolve errors and increases risks of losing the lifetime value of once loyal but now alienated customers. Bridget's $25 donation cost much more than $25 to process. Additionally, Bridget tells me that this incident cost the organization a potential ongoing donor. She says, "I would rather continue to donate to other causes or other organizations where I know the donation is not going to be swallowed up by poor processes and costs of administration."

IQ Lesson 6: Problems such as this are serious. The proper response is to perform a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) initiative to improve the process. "Plan" by first understanding the root cause of the problem and then defining an improvement to eliminate recurrence of this type of problem. "Do" implement the improvement in a controlled way to test it for effectiveness. "Check" to confirm the improvement worked without creating new problems. Then, "Act" to put that improvement in control and make it "permanent." Doing so will also lower costs of performing work and will prevent alienating sources of funding.

Thank you Bridget for sharing your story.

What do you think? Let me know at Larry.English@infoimpact.com.

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