Storytelling with Data

Posted By: Robin Goldman Industry,

By Robin Goldman, MSE

A few times a year, Disney’s team of Industrial Engineers would dedicate two weeks to studying peak period theme park efficiency.  We would descend on every corner of the park, from park open to park close, with our clipboards, stop watches and handheld tally counters.  We would cover all aspects of the theme park experience, from parking to entertainment, and of course all the attractions.  Sure, we could have just looked at dashboards for the data, but we found value in going to Gemba.  (Gemba is a Japanese term meaning the “actual place,” commonly used in lean engineering.) We were trained to tell a story about park operations, not to solely report back on metrics that were widely available.  To reveal that story, we had to be in it and see it with our own eyes.

Storytelling is a powerful tool when it comes to leading change.  Anyone can present a dashboard of metrics and graph trends, but the ability to focus on a few key metrics and highlight opportunities is invaluable.  At the end of those peak utilization studies, we collated all the data, noted all the qualitative learnings from conversations with on-stage Cast Members and assembled a deck for our executive leadership report out.  The essence of telling a story is that by the time you get to your recommendations, leadership has already bought into the changes because the findings and results are so compelling.

How does this apply to patient access?  Go to the ambulatory practice, contact center, or triage area that you are studying. Spend time observing the operation, conducting interviews, and collecting data.  Ask the front-line staff about the problem you are trying to solve; they likely already know the answer.  Remember to follow-up with why and keep digging because that is the core of storytelling. 

Consider involving staff in the data collection – you might be surprised how willing clinicians, nurses, receptionists – and others - are to collect data.  A few days of a clinician tracking his flow in and out of patient rooms and he too begins to see some of the issues at hand.  Need help entering all that data?  Ask occupational health for employees on limited duty – you get extra hands without impacting your budget.

A good story explains why you are seeing a particular trend.  Dig into all the other metrics that might be impacting your outcome and start to weave them together.  Make sure operations sees that same trend and validates your theory. 

For example, if you are studying why Average Handle Time (AHT) has increased, begin by visiting the contact center, shadowing schedulers and meeting with leads.  Share your project with everyone you speak with and gather feedback.  Listening to a few hours of calls will also begin to steer your data analysis.  For example, do you observe frequent call transfers? Dig deeper, who are those calls being transferred to and why?  Is it related to new hires and training, new services being provided, interpreters, etc.?

Alternatively, is Average Handle Time up but call volume down?  Maybe you shifted “easy-to-schedule” appointments to a self-service portal and the contact center is handling more complex calls.  Look at the total volume of appointments scheduled (contact center + self-service): are those totals in line with budgeted volumes? Which service lines saw a reduction in calls handled, does that support your theory about the shift in calls? How does AHT vary by service line?  – Did a migration to self-service drive AHT up? 

A story is not complete until you are able to answer all the “Whys.”  At that point, you are ready to tell it.  The structure I find to be successful when investigating an issue and reporting out to leadership is:

  1. Project Background
  2. Project Approach
  3. Observations
  4. Findings and Results
  5. Recommendations
  6. Next Steps

This approach shares findings in a way that draws the audience and stirs thought – much like telling a good story.  Dr. Howard Gardner, a Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education stated: “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”  Start using your story to successfully lead change!


Our contributor, Robin Goldman, MSE is a Disney-trained industrial engineer with a passion for patient access. She enjoyed being a member of the Patient Access Collaborative while she was employed by Massachusetts General Hospital – and is excited to share her advice as an author.