Chosen KPIs= Better Business Decisions!
I regularly see hundreds of Key Performance Indicators, that aren't
are just 'measures for measure's sake' or low level management data.
of your KPI is to communicate a situation to a particular
person, but almost
every manager forgets this and focuses on what they are measuring. In
we are going to look at the principle of what you should measure, why
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Firstly, let's consider a typical company structure. Normally this is a
Depending on the size of the business it may have more or less layers
in this diagram.
The Ideal Information Flow
Now let's consider the information flow in an 'ideal' business.
Typically this starts
at the bottom with our lower tier managers reviewing detailed
on a day to day basis from their staff but with higher level managers
Let's imagine one of our operational managers monitors our production.
A delay in
our production here (say down to staff sickness) is something she would
know about. If she can see we are behind schedule then she can do
it by moving other members of staff in to lend a hand and get the order
out on time.
Whilst this is a KPI for the lower Tier manager, this is certainly not important for someone higher
up the management pyramid. This manager's job is to manage
this issue; it's
not an upper management issue.
When producing your KPIs you need to 'tier' them. Knowing what kind of data people need is an important part of data management. One manager's
critical Key performance
Indicator is too much detail for another manager.
Consider your audience. Your management
reports should be tiered in a pyramid structure to match your
Detail should be removed as you move up that structure to avoid
and a failure to take responsibility at the lower level.
Ideally you will have a small number of KPIs for each manager to
often produce too many metrics, and often managers end up producing
a clear idea of why they are doing this.
Know the "Message"
Consider that a KPI's job is to tell you one of these three things;
1. Things are OK
2. Things are looking bad
3. Things are looking good
For a key performance indicator to be useful, a manager must know what to do in each of these
Most likely "1" would mean do nothing, but "2" must have an action
it or it misses the point of the performance indicator. Equally "3" may
an action such as "expand with more staff".
Point: A key performance indicator is only useful if you consider
the actions you might take when it tells you something good or bad.
What is the
message that your KPI must communicate?
KPIs almost always have dates.
This may seem an obvious point, but almost every KPI should have a date
with it and as a result operate on a fixed period, i.e. daily, weekly,
quarterly or yearly.
We often see people who forget this.
example, I once saw "Average production
time" for a particular job, but the figure took into account all the
jobs the company had ever done, and was displayed as an "all-time"
average in a single figure, e.g. "2.35days". On the report there was
only this one figure and no previous values were shown. This was an
actual key performance indicator for the company.
Considering one of our earlier points, what actions would this trigger?
As there was only one figure, there was nothing to compare it to, and
no way of knowing whether this average is good or bad. If this metric was shown on a project management KPI dashboard, it would rely on the memory of the reader to give it context. If
that the value last month as lower he/she might take action - Bad
It is always better is to measure a KPI over regular intervals
(e.g. every month) and monitor its progress. Therefore, for "Average
Production Time", you should calculate the average for all jobs for
each full month, starting with January, and save each of these figures.
Before long, instead of one single figure we'll have
a list of figures that we can see a trend from, making our data management a
lot easier and more efficient.
Point: A KPI almost always is periodic i.e.
daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly.
Management Data vs. KPIs
It's easy to mix up management data with key performance indicators. So, what is a KPI? Simply put, they are measures that are reviewed
and shared periodically, and show how your business is performing.
On the other hand, management data is normally just for a specific manager to analyse
and manipulate as it
For example a "support desk case" is profiled with information about
what type of
case it is, say a "printer problem". The database of every support desk
be very useful to analyse and review from time to time. Excel is great
this, and you can often find out some interesting facts and review your
accordingly. However this is not a key performance indicator, but an analysis of management
data. A KPI
is something we measure periodically and compare, so we might produce a
summary of the number of "Support desk case Types", for example:
Jan-14 printer problems 12
Jan-14 software problem 5
Jan-14 training issue 23
Feb-14printer problems 8
Feb-14 software problem 10
Feb-14 training issue 20
This is a standard metric that we can plot monthly and watch for
For example, if "training issue"
increases, we can review and improve our training programmes to
hopefully reduce the number of issues.
Another example is Accounts systems, which produce management data.
Normally there will be people in your
business who are expert at manipulating accounting reports with
software. When you want to find detailed information about a certain
invoice (e.g. the amount invoiced), this is best done here. But, we can
actually summarise a lot of this detailed data into KPIs, and use this
data in management dashboards or reports to tell us something
about overall performance. Therefore, you can take the '"Amount
Invoiced" for every invoice in your system this month, and summarise it
as"Total Amount invoiced this month".
The Four Types of KPIs
Each KPI you have will likely be one of the following types. Knowing
the types of your KPIs is important, as each of these types
has good and bad ways to chart and display them. The best KPI dashboard is one where information is presented in a simple, easy-to-follow way. We will discuss this
These are KPIs with a very specific number and where knowing this
number is critical,
for example, a chart in a marketing KPI dashboard showing "Number of leads" [per month].
With many KPIs the number is much less important than the direction
that the data is trending. For
example, "Number of days lost to staff sickness" [per month] in a HR KPi dashboard. Here, the
of days is not that useful as we can't control this, however if the
trend is rising
we can investigate and take action accordingly.
Most often these have a target / budget associated with them, as well
as actions that happen
if we fall above or below this budget figure. For example, if we have
costs" and we also have a budget figure every month, then we will
likely take action if we go over our budget.
Distribution / Category KPIs
Often you want to see the split of various categories within
your KPI metrics, such as in our previous example "What type of
support case types are you receiving?" Again, a shift towards "general
help" could indicate
a problem with your training.
Point: It's important to understand which
type of KPI you need. Remember, they could fit more than one
on the type of KPI, the way that we communicate it on management
dashboards can be very different to ensure that the message is clear.
2. KPI Dashboard Design
There are KPI dashboards where you just can't help but admire the
beauty of their graphics; surely your boss will love you if you show
him a shimmering, shiny black dashboard with gorgeous animated charts.
If that's what you are looking for, then hire a great graphic designer.
Our focus has always been on building dashboards that help manage
businesses and organisations. The definition of a dashboard isn't pretty graphics: dashboards are an easy-to-digest view of an
organisation's key performance indicators that lets viewers spot decisions and act on opportunities quickly. So, while we like to look good, a
dashboard that fails to communicate key messages in your business data is a waste of time,
money and effort.
With modern KPI dashboard software it's really easy to place hundreds
of metrics on a single view, but this creates clutter and can cause you
take your eye off the ball. We want to track "Key" performance
indicators, not "every" indicator we can think of. For example, if you have project management dashboards which you use to keep
track of multiple projects, you'll only want to track what is absolutely neccessaryto keep things manageable. In this case,
any unneeded data on your dashboards is just a distraction.
Try to build a selection of dashboards with overview and detail
views, so that managers can quickly review high level information and
then look deeper only if they wish. If you create an overview, make
sure that everything a manager needs to know to make decisions in in
this dashboard. If a crucial metric is only in a detailed view, it is
likely to be overlooked.
This example of a management dashboard shows an overview of key information. Note the summaries of multiple departments, which can be crucial for decision-making.
Key Point: Don't
try to put too many metrics on one Dashboard. Ease of use is key to management dashboard design.
Understanding the Purpose of Dashboards.
You'll be amazed how often managers start to build a business management dashboard, without
considering what its purpose or objective is.
Dashboards are there simply for the following purposes:
Dashboards by Management Layer
Remembering the pyramid structure of a typical Management team, you
should normally model this structure in business dashboards. However, sharing
your dashboards across the management team can be extremely beneficial
for the management of a company.
Typically organisational data becomes trapped in its
respective department. But consider this: if the operations department
was aware of an increase in advertising spend by the marketing team
then they could proactively have plans for the extra work load. This
can only occur if business dashboards are shared across departments allowing
managers to see the relationships between interdepartmental data.
Point: Sharing dashboards across different departments can
One table of data - one chart - No!
To report on business data, Most people will prepare a table that collects multiple metrics running
month-on-month, and use this data to create a single chart to display the results.
Whilst sometimes this is OK, very often this doesn't communicate
information as clearly as it could. It's tempting to show too many line
charts on a single axis for perceived convenience, but the result can
be confusing. Equally, too much detail over too long a time period can
result in important current trends being missed.
This chart is too complex to make sense from -
better to split it into several charts
Dashboard Design Tips
- Create 2 or 3 charts from the same data, or even an
dashboard. Each chart has a different viewpoint or comparison to
- If you want a chart with "everything" showing on the same
exact comparison, consider duplicating this chart several more times,
but with the duplicates showing just one metric at a time.
- To show metrics over a long time period, create two charts
dashboard: Create your long range chart, but with the detail removed
(as if you had zoomed out). Remove the detail by grouping by quarters
instead of months or by adding a rolling average. Then immediately
alongside it, show a highly detailed chart but for a much shorter time
frame, say the last 2 months. This way we can see the bigger picture
over the long term, but also get the immediate and recent data at the
maximum resolution. This gives us context for decision making.
Low detail, long time range chart, next to a
high detail short range chart
can, and probably should, create more than one chart per table of data
if need be create more dashboards with less items on them.
There are no hard or fast rules about how to layout your dashboards.
It's very easy to lay out charts and other visual indicators in a grid or in columns, but
sometimes this does not allow enough room to view your performance
values over a longer time period.
Depending on your data, you may want to choose a layout that allows
some charts to be displayed with more width. As a general rule the more
width a "time based chart" has the better, but a "category chart" such
as a Pie Chart generally only needs a square and will be wasteful of
our space if put into a larger width rectangle.
The left hand dashboard is based on a grid, the
right hand had wider areas for viewing a longer time range.
As a general rule you are better to avoid too much scrolling. It's
better to create new dashboards than have too much information on one
dashboard resulting in clutter and potentially information overload.
Dashboard Visual Indicators
"What type of visual indicators should I put
on my dashboards?" is a question that I am
very often asked. Before answering this question, it is important to
understand the following:
- What is the metric and how important is it?
- What is the message, good or bad, that you are trying to
- Does it have a target, budget or threshold value?
- Do we want to measure specific values from the Indicator,
want to review trends or see distribution across some categories?
- Do we want to make any comparisons to other data?
what type of indicator to use, you must also consider the space
available to you within your dashboard. Some indicators can be wasteful
of space and others can have so much information in a small space that
it's easy for the reader to be overwhelmed.
Time-based charts are the foundation of most
dashboards. They allow us to spot trends, measure values and make
comparisons. The time chart is by far the most effective communication
tool for the size that it takes up on your dashboard.
There are so many styles and layouts of time charts that you can
normally represent any data in an easy to read way. To see which charts
can best communicate your message, take a look at our list
of KPI time charts.
charts are totally essential to any dashboard.
Category charts take on many guises, but are more often represented as
Pie Charts. They display the distribution of various categories across
a specific time frame.
Category charts look great, but should not be overused as they do
not show historical or trend information. A category chart is great to
compliment an existing time chart using the same data but displaying a
you display your key performance indicators in Pie Charts or in column charts depends on what
you want to see from your data. Column charts are great if you want to
compare the values for each category side-by-side, and pie charts are
great if you want to see the relation of one category to the entire
value, e.g. the amount that one salesperson contributed to the entire
There are many ways to present categorical data, and our list
of category charts can show you how.
Gauges and Dials
Gauges are a long-time favourite of the marketing manager of Dashboard
applications. They look glossy and great and present the current
situation to a reader. They work best when combined with a target
value, for example, showing a real-time display of a call centre's
"number of calls waiting" but in my view they offer a poor method of
communication to the reader.
The big problem with a gauge is that it takes up a lot of
does not tell us anything about the past. So take the example on the
right hand gauge above. Is "154 Emergency Repairs"
[done on time] good or bad? It's above the target... but what if..
- 3 months ago performance had been awful, but since new
into place month on month performance has improved to the current
- For the last 3 months performance has been getting worse
viewing the trend would suggest that next month we would fall well
Can you see how a
gauge fails to communicate these two situations (one
good one bad)? The point of a dashboard or management report is so that
we can foresee problems and deal with them before they become a big
issue. With a gauge the chances are that you will not see the trend and
your customers will be telling you that your performance is poor well
before your gauge turns red.
Gauges are not a favourite indicator or mine. I believe a time
chart in the same square inches of space is a far superior management
There are a few different types of gauges which can serve
different purposes for your data. Our list
of gauges will give you a breakdown of each.
Key Point: To use
gauges effectively, you should pair them with other time-based charts
to get not only an immediate snapshot of your organisation's status,
but also some trend data to give it context.
Spark Lines and Trend Indicators
spark line or trend indicator is a clever way to put numerical
information into some context. They are small and compact and can
easily be included in tabular and numerical data. Their purpose is
simply to "indicate" the trend and in my view they are a welcome
addition to dashboards of any purpose.
Score Cards or Progress Tables
If you would like to get a lot of information into a small space then
developing a scorecard is a good bet. Scorecards combine both
numerical and graphical information in a very compact display. This is
great for an overview or a dashboard where you want to display the "big
What you put in a scorecard depends on how you would like to use your
data, but typically you might have:
- Current values
- Previous values for comparison
- Percentage change up or down
- Target value of your metric
- Percentage on or off Target
- Addition of spark lines can also really help place the
figures in context.
If your metric is best compared to the same
period one or two years ago (e.g. Christmas sales) then a comparison
chart is the best approach here. It provides good clear communication
of the comparison as long as you don't add too many years, making it a great choice for performance management dashboards.
use a column chart if you want to compare values, or line and area
charts if you want to see the trend more easily. If you want to see
which is best for you, take a look at our comparison
Often forgotten in visual dashboards is the raw data. Sometimes it
helps communicate the message if the numbers are combined with the
visualisations, so you should consider short tabular summaries.
Take care not to put too much tabular data on a dashboard. Reading
large tables of data may not be so easy on a screen,
it summarised and short.
Choosing the Right Chart
Which Chart, Gauge or Indicator do you use on your dashboard
Dashboards must communicate a message, so before choosing charts and
indicators for your Dashboard you should consider this:
"What is the message and action that this KPI should
Also, remember you don't need just one ultimate, all-fulfilling chart.
several different charts on the same dashboard to present different
messages from the same data.
Point: Before picking the chart, think
about the Message you're is trying to communicate.
Recall how we previously divided KPIs into 4 types, depending
on what they communicate.
These are metrics with a very specific number
and where knowing this number is critical. For example, "Number of
sales" [per month].
These are metrics where the direction of travel
is more important than comparing values. For example, with a KPI such
as "Number of days
lost to staff sickness" [per month], knowing if the number of days is
going up or down is more important than the actual values themselves.
These KPIs usually have a target/ budget
associated with them, and an action that will happen if values fall
above or below
this budget figure. For example, if we exceed our budget for
"department costs", we'll likely take some form of action to address
Often you want to see the split
of various categories within a performance indicator. For example, "Type of support case
types received?" A shift towards "general help" could indicate a
problem with your training.
Each of these data types requires different types of chart to
communicate their message, and we will consider this in more depth
later. But by way of example, here are 4 charts that are each ideal for
four types of metric.
Quantitative - a column chart showing 'Number of
Sales' and the associated target.
Actionable - a gauge showing 'Number of Sales'
and the associated target.
Directional - an area chart showing the "Number
of Operations" [per month].
Distribution - a pie chart showing "What type of
support case types are you receiving?"
Charts or Gauges
Pictures of glossy gauges sell KPI dashboard
software, and provide the illusion that everything is going great.
However whilst not discounting the use of gauges I am far from being a
big fan of them.
Consider a speedo style gauge showing a current month's value and
a target. If we reach the target then the gauge shows green, and red if
have failed to meet the target.
The problem is that this gauge only shows us a snapshot in
time. It tells us nothing about historical performance - just
the current situation.
If instead you use a chart with a target line, not only can this
give us today's situation but we can also see it in the context of our
We might have missed the target this month by a tiny amount, so a
gauge rings alarm bells, but what if over the last 3 months performance
was steadily improving month on month making it look like it should
smash the target next month - surely this is good news not bad news?
For the same space in a dashboard, and for the same time required
by a manager to review a gauge a chart communicates the same and much,
much more information. It does not look as shiny and cool as a gauge,
but you have a choice of pretty or profitable.
Numbers and Comparisons
A picture tells a thousand words, so
visual indicators are very powerful. But don't forget your audience
will be a mix of people who like to see both the visual and the
Don't forget to make some of the numbers available in your dashboard
alongside your other indicators.
One way of doing this is by adding value labels to your charts.
Another is to add the latest few months' data as a table or to create a
comparison chart in the style of a Scorecard.
A scorecard is a loose term for many different layouts of
numerical data. However, no matter the layout, a scorecard's purpose is
always the same: to
provide useful status and trend information at a glance.
For myself, I think that any scorecard ideally should show the
- The current month's value, as well as the Previous
- The Percentage change between current and previous months
- If appropriate, the relationship our current month has to
Depending on your data, you may also want to make comparisons to the
same period (month) the previous year so that you can make a
Key Point: The
chart type and style
depends on the type of metric you have and the message you want to
communicate. Don't be afraid to represent the same metric in different
chart types to communicate several messages.
In the next few chapters we are going to look in depth at the pros and
cons of the various chart types, and how they work with KPI examples.
Time and Category Charts
Charts have two axes, "X" & "Y" but these can be used in two
simple but fundamental concept is that for displaying each of the four
types of KPIs, there are normally two
different chart types, "Time Charts" and "Category
Category / Distribution Charts
Time charts always have "Time" on the x axis. This type of chart shows
values change over time.
charts are most often seen as Pie
charts, but could also be a number of other chart types including a
column chart. Unlike a time chart, time is not shown on the chart,
instead it is broken down by categories within a specified time period.
The best way to see these two chart styles is like this:
- Time charts: Show Trends
- Category Charts: Show Distribution
Most managers see lots of time charts on a week to
and they are easy to read. However category charts can often be a
little misunderstood, so I'll just spend a minute considering a pie
This category chart is a 3D Pie chart. However it could be any type of
category chart, such as a radar chart or a column chart. Look carefully
at this chart - what does it tell us?
The answer is actually very little, although it does look nice.
The pie chart is broken down by categories, but for what time
period? Here, it's not clear, so as a communication of a performance
indicator this is
If this chart had been titled "Product Sales from Q1" it now becomes
Point: All category charts must have a date range and this
must be communicated to the user.
2D or 3D
I love 3D charts, they look great and never fail to
impress the casual viewer. However if you really care about the
numbers, 3D charts can be very difficult to read, so adding values or
annotations is essential. Have a look some of these examples below.
In the example above, 3D can make it awkward to
read values. On the pie chart below the values are much clearer.
I like the occasional use of 3D charts, if it helps the
presentation. Sometimes round pie charts with annotations do not fit
that well in dashboards and making them 3d will fit more neatly.
However, making this type of chart into a 3D version can, when viewed
on a dashboard, distort the perspective of the chart and cause the
wrong value to stand out.
are two fundamental
chart types, "Time charts" that show values over time and "Category
charts" that show distribution of value across several categories.
Depending on your metric, it might be very important to see the exact
values plotted on a chart. Some charts are better at this than others.
The golden rule with most charts trying to communicate values is: don't try to put too much data
on the same chart. This could mean too large
a date range or too many metrics.
By far the best chart is the humble column chart.
Match the chart's volume of data to the amount of space you have
available. Do not over clutter the chart.
The chart can be easily improved with a target or budget line and by
changing the y axis minimum from in this case 0 to 30,000. You might see target lines in a quality management dashboard, where metrics are measured to industry benchmarks.
Side by side columns normally only work if you have 3 or 4 columns
only, otherwise they become not so good: The chart becomes more
and harder to read than using a target line.
This chart shows the same information as the
previous chart but is harder to read
3D is generally a bad idea here and makes a chart even more unreadable.
There are many types of charts for measuring values, but the column
chart is normally the most familiar and the best.
You may find that you can also combine this type of chart with
other types, such as line charts. So for instance, adding a rolling
average line as an
indication of trend can give added insight to your chart.
Side by Side Charts
Sometimes we want to see both recent
values and also view the data in the context of historical data. In
this case you should consider charting the data twice. For example you
could show a "rolling 6 month" chart with accurate, easy to read
values, and alongside it show the same data over the last 2
so the trends
and content are more obvious.
Measurement Chart Tips
- It's hard to beat the humble column chart
- Try to show value labels on your chart
- Do not try to plot too much data
- Avoid 3D as it makes values hard to read from the scale
- Consider two or more charts if you want to plot a longer
time range, to give the data some context
powerful use of time charts is to spot trends. If, as managers, we spot
a trend, we can take action before the situation becomes critical and
our business will run smoothly. Depending on your KPI type the most
important thing might be to illustrate the trend, i.e. the direction of
travel, rather than comparing exact values.
Before building any chart ask yourself,
"What is the message?" What is this chart going to
Trends take many forms, but let's start simply.
This line chart is plotted every month. If you have the space and
the chart is not over cluttered, always try to include the values to
help give the reader a sense of perspective.
Most of the space on this chart is unused, so we can make the
trend more obvious by changing the minimum value of the Y axis from 0
to say, 30,000.
Now our trend is amplified but is still 100% accurate.
Point: Changing the Y Axis minimum can make the trend more
obvious. Be wary of this when comparing two indicators on the same chart
Whilst this line chart is 'OK' we can make it visually clearer by
making this a filled area chart instead of just a line. Visually, a
filled area chart is much easier to spot a trend on than on a
line chart because the volume of block colour is easier to read at a
Filled Area charts are easier to read from than line charts.
The down side of filled area charts is that they can become
difficult to read if you want to plot more than one KPI on the same
chart. This is useful when the data has a relationship.
Combining Chart Styles
In this simple example "Costs" are plotted as a red line and the
"Invoiced" as the green line.
As a rough guide this company's monthly profits are "Invoiced" -
So this chart is very powerful, as the approximate profit is the space
between the green and red line.
Again think about the message. Here we're trying to communicate a
future problem of profitability and deal with it before it happens.
You can see that in April-13 the costs and invoice line begins to
converge - this is bad news, and must be addressed. Let's say that once
team address this issue. Though they may take some
initially cost more money, it will help productivity.
As a result the company briefly make a loss in Sept-13 but they
return to profit after this. Not only this, but as the green
diverge the profit margin begins to increase, which is great news!
You might ask why didn't
we just plot the "profit" on a simple
line or area chart to see the trend? The answer is that
communicates more information to users. Note that the costs remain
almost constant during
the entire period and that it is the falling invoice value that is the
main reason for our profit problems. This chart illustrates these two
trends, whereas a simpler "Profit" line chart would not.
Often it's useful to know the trends of
distribution. For example if we sell 3 products it's good to know how
many of each is sold over time, which can help managers make
marketing or product expansion decisions. There are many ways to visualise categorical marketing KPIs and other metrics.
More often than not, a manager will use the Stacked column chart.
This is a very useful chart and shows us the total and distribution
Whilst this is a useful chart, there is a better and little used
way to represent this this data in a much clearer way. Using the
Stacked area chart we can more clearly see the distribution of trend
Just like a stacked column chart the values are stacked on top of
each other, but in this case it is much, much easier to observe how
things change over time.
Trends Chart Tips
- Change the Y-Axis minimum from 0 for values that have a
consistently high value. This helps make trends more
- 'Filled Area' charts are easier to read than line charts
- Multiple series of data plotted on bar charts often look
- Combine different chart styles, keeping emphasis on one
key metric as a
bar chart, but showing KPI targets or other information as less-emphasised
- Stacked Areas charts are often better for showing
distribution over time than stacked column charts
How to Reveal Trends
For a company that sells 1000's of apps per month, they could track
their sales easily on a chart, and the trend would be quite obvious. But
consider a company that sells two or three big deals every month.
Tracking their performance in a sales dashboard and seeing a visible trend is much more awkward.
They might sell 5 projects in January and just 1 in February so any
chart would look like a roller-coaster, without any discernable pattern
Managers often find it hard to interpret the good or bad news in
such figures. Whilst a best fit line could be added to a chart, I
personally am not a big fan because you don't control the mathematical
formula behind that line. As a result, you don't really know what's
it's telling you.
The solution to this is easy...
Smoothing with a Rolling Average
Either simply chart your monthly data by quarter,
so your data
is effectively smoothed out. But the down side of this is that you have
to wait a whole three months to see a change in your reports.
Or, much better, use a "rolling average", often
called a "moving average". This is where we take the latest n
3) values and average them to produce a value. In Excel this can be a
little complex, but tools like Target Dashboard make this possible with
just a single click.
Above - a 6 month rolling average chart
Depending on your data you can increase the damping (smoothness) by
increasing the number of months that you run your rolling average over.
Using this technique your trend now becomes more obvious and it's
easier to take action on what you see.
KPIs where volumes of data are low or fluctuate a lot, consider using a
rolling average to make the trend more obvious.
9. Comparison Charts
charts allow you to compare a value to its equivalent value at another
period in time. For example if our business was seasonal then we might
want to compare Dec-13 sales figures with the previous year Dec-12.
Depending on the message behind your KPI, a reader may want to
measure values from your chart or simply make a visual comparison.
Understanding which of these requirements is the most important will
determine what style of chart you use.
Charting Measurable Values
If you need to see directly
measurable values on your chart, then the best solution is to use a
column chart with a column for every year. This can soon become
cluttered, so you are normally best limiting this to a two year range.
Charting For Comparison Purposes
For the majority of uses
comparison charts are used just to gauge performance against a previous
year. In this instance being able to read the exact numbers is less
important when compared to seeing the visual comparison.
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3D charts don't just look good here but are actually better allowing us
to see the more data than we would have otherwise.
Comparison Charts Styles
It's hard to specify a preference in
comparison charts, and I find it very much depends on the type of data
you have. If your data is increasing year on year then one style will
be more readable than another. Here are some examples:
Comparison Chart Tips
- The more years you choose to show, the harder the chart
is to read
- Pick a chart that most suits your data. Rising or falling
data often is clearer on different chart styles
- 3D charts can help you to see the multiple years more
10. Distribution / Category Charts
you have a metric where values are broken down
across different categories, then you are going to need a Category
Chart to visually communicate the current situation.
Category charts are designed to communicate the split of various
categories. The most popular of this type is the Pie chart.
charts are normally of limited use in a management dashboard because
show the current situation and don't show any history. particularly
with Pie Charts, Pie charts look
great on a Dashboard and this often leads to them being over used at
the expense of communication.
Key Point: Pie charts
only show the
current situation and do not show trends. Don't over use category
charts; sometimes a time based trend chart communicates much more in
the same space.
Unlike a time based chart which would likely show a "time", say
months, on the x axis, a category chart has no moving time scale.
Instead a category chart is a snapshot of time across a specific date
for example, you might have a pie chart showing product sales by
category for the date range "this year to date".
Key Point: Category chart
must have a date range e.g. "Last Quarter" that is easy to see. This
gives the chart context.
Overcoming the Limitations of Pie Charts
Consider a real
world situation where we use a pie chart to display the quantity of
sales in our key product categories. As the report designer our first
job would be to say "what is the message here?". Well commercially I'd
suggest that we would want to see if one product's sales were growing
at the expense of another product. This might be because more marketing
had been done or a product was reaching its end-of-line.
Two pie charts, each with a different date range
we could show a pie chart of last quarter's sales, but again this is
limiting because it only shows the current situation and the reader
must rely on their memory to decide if what they are seeing is good or
One simple trick to overcome the inability to view historical data is
to display not just one pie chart, but two side by side.
So in our example we can create our pie chart for "Last Quarters
Sales" but alongside it show a duplicate of this chart, but across a
different date range. For example "Rolling last 12 months". So now we
have two pie charts from which we can directly compare, effectively
showing the current split to a 1 year average.
Where do Categories come from in your data?
can only produce a Category chart if your data allows this, i.e. you
must have some categories stored in either rows or columns.
Generally there are two approaches to your data here.
1. Categories come from column names
this data layout each category is a column of data. This data layout is
good if you have a small number of categories. If you have 10's of
categories then the data can become difficult to manage. Note: each
month has one row.
2. Categories are stored in their own column.
If your data comes from a
is more typical of what you might have. Note that there are many rows
for every month. Below we have a column that contains text of each
category type. This format is more complex to handle but allows us to
pivot data and track a category over time.
Point: Categorised data can have
two formats. If you have a small number of fixed categories it's often
easier to manage data using a column for every category. If you have
lots of categories, more complex KPI reporting requirements or your data
comes straight from a database then the second option of creating a
'category' column is best.
Chart Layout Tips
Below are some different examples of category charts, however here I am
going to focus on a pie chart.
- Try to include labels and call outs to make the chart
easier to read.
- Don't have too many segments in your chart. 10 segments
below 3% in
size will be unreadable. Set a threshold and add anything below say 5%
to an "other" slice.
- Sometime percentage figures are useful, but at other
times the raw values or interactive charts with hovers can be useful
- Put two charts with different data ranges side by side
- 3D pie charts look great but really distort the numbers
and can lead to incorrect reading of the chart.
Other Examples of Category Charts
While Pie Charts are perhaps the most well known category charts, you can display categories in many different ways,
including funnel charts (as you would see in a sales kpi dashboard), donut charts, and bar charts (a basic yet incredibly useful variant).
Horizontal Bar Chart
11. Filtering and Pivoting Categorised Data
If you've stored your categories in a single column, you can use
Filtering and Pivoting to display your individual categorical KPIs in
time-based charts. These are really useful tools for seeing how each
category is performing, and also for comparing the performance of
your data simply means that you only display a certain portion of
your KPI, 'filtering' out the data you don't need. For example,
take a look at this data table.
you were to create a time-based column chart of this data, you would
simply see the overall sales value for each month. By filtering it, we
can see how each salesperson is performing.
I recommend that you include the option to quickly choose which
category you want to display. This means that users can quickly flick
through each category and get the information they need.
If you'll recall the previous section, we talked about store categories
in your data in two ways:
Including Each Category as an individual column in your
data table (e.g. Jane's Sales, John's Sales)
Placing all categories in one column (e.g. Salesperson),
and all values in another (e.g. Sales)
only applies to the latter option, as if you've stored all categories
in multiple columns, there is nothing to filter. Each column is not
treated as a single metric but rather several smaller metrics.
Therefore, I'd always recommend storing category data in one column if
you can, as it gives your category data more context.
have more categories (e.g. "salespeople" and "region"), you can also
filter a category chart by any category that isn't the one displayed in
the chart. For example, you can create a pie chart showing the turnover
of all of your salespeople, and then filter that by the region they
filtering data lets you see how each individual category is performing
over time, pivoting your categorical data lets you display time-based
data for each category side by side. Using software, pivoting is
usually very simple to do. You can do it in Excel, or in management dashboard software (such as Target
Dashboard) in just a few clicks.
Essentially, what happens is
that you select a category to pivot your data by, and the software you
use displays each category as it's own individual column. This is
identical to how your data would look if you chose to put each
category in individual columns. Now, you can not only see individual
category performance, but chart each category alongside each other.
Key Point: If
you can, always store categories in a single column. This lets you see
how your performance is doing as whole, and you can then filter your chart to see
individual performance too. Pivoting then lets you chart your
categories alongside each other.
Don't Forget The Data
It's easy to become focused on graphical visualisations for all of
your numbers, but sometimes it's worth also showing the numerical
Consider you Audience
I personally love charts and anything
visual, however I know lots of people who prefer to see numerical data.
Every person finds certain kinds of information easier to digest and
understand, so it's important
that any management reporting information that we put in place bears
the user in mind.
Throughout most of this article, we have looked specifically at visualisations of
however in this chapter we care going to look at presentation of
numbers when reporting via dashboards. It's important to note that this is often to complement our
visualisation and not necessarily a replacement for them.
Displaying raw data
Within a dashboard or paper-based
management report you may want to display the raw data as a table
summary. It's very easy
for this to become overwhelmingly large and therefore hard to
so I would recommend that you limit it to perhaps the latest values or
perhaps just the last few months. This is so that your table has only
6-7 rows, and acts as a numerical complement to an existing chart,
rather than the focus of the dashboard.
you have a table summary which contains target and actual values, you
can create a heat map that lets you instantly see how your actuals are
performing against their targets. Do this by assigning colors to your
actual values according to whether they've met, failed or exceeded
This makes your table easier to interpret quickly, while still keeping
your data numerical.
There seem to be loads of definitions of what a scorecard actually is.
Personally I believe the definition is totally irrelevant. In my view a
Scorecard is a graphical and numerical presentation of data that you
can use on a periodic basis to evaluate your KPIs. Exactly how that is
presented depends on the metric you are measuring, the message you want to indicate and what
works best for your organisation.
Above is a simple example used by a company and this works very
well to convey a lot of information in a small space. We can see
trends, KPI targets, traffic style colour indicators as well year to date
(YTD) information. Percentage changed or percentage over or above
target can be useful as well as very motivational.
Scorecards can be a
consistent and powerful way to report your metrics, but adjust the design and
layout of your scorecard to suit your information.
Presenting Data Tips
- Consider showing more numerical information in paper
based KPI reports.
- Don't show too much numerical information in electronic
dashboards as it's more difficult to read.
- Develop your own scorecards as a consistent method of
Paper and Electronic Reports
In this electronic world, it's often tempting to push all
our information online; after all this means we don't need to worry
about distribution, geography or what type of computer, tablet or phone
our reader has. However, no matter how good an online dashboard is, you
can't write notes on it before your management meeting and you can't
wave it around in your hand!
In my view, online dashboards are the future, but I don't feel they are
ever going to replace the humble paper based report.
A paper based report is NOT a printout of your
Electronic dashboards offer a world of new possibilities for KPI
reporting, with interactive drilldowns and automatic alerting but
they are very different to a paper equivalent. Both fulfil different goals for data management.
- Electronic reports can be resized to suit a screen size,
paper reports are fixed.
- Data is hard to follow and read on a screen, but easy on
- You can't easily annotate or make notes on electronic
- A screen resolution is 72dpi, but a printer is normally
300dpi. As a result, printing charts directly from a screen results is
hard to read, poor quality chart text especially on axis labels and
Point: Dashboards and paper based reports may share the
same sources of data but they should be designed separately.
A Typical Example
To illustrate the approach of both paper based report and online
dashboard reports complementing each other, here are some KPI dashboard reporting examples.
One page of eight from the paper based reports to
complement our dashboard
This particular example is an overview, containing data from support, finance and sales management dashboards. Each of the charts is interactive and
designed to communicate our chosen message. You can drill into charts
and also see values by hovering over points. This business kpi dashboard makes the
most of its online platform.
However we also produce a paper based (PDF) version of this
dashboard. Each dashboard item (chart, pie chart etc) has its own page
in the report and not only includes the charts or visual indicator but
also a scorecard for each dashboard item plus a data summary.
Notes and Explanations
Sometimes our reports can easily unintentionally mislead, so it
may be worth providing some form of reference notes. For example, say
our departmental costs are extraordinary high this month because we
sent everyone in the department on a training course. The hope is that
this will boost productivity in future months. Adding notes or
annotations to your reports will help outline planned or extraordinary
events that otherwise would cause the reader to be misled by what they
Forget Paper! Format your reports for electronic and paper presentation
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About the Author
Johnathan Briggs started his first business
was just 21 years old. A
decade later Johnathan had grown the business to a multi-million pound
operation with blue chip clients across the world and a reputation for
Key to the growth of the company was Johnathan's focus
on management reporting, measuring performance metrics and constant improvement.
Following the acquisition of his first business by a UK-based PLC,
Johnathan became a sought-after and accomplished business mentor
helping companies not only in Scotland but across the globe.
His business experience and passion for improvement,
innovation and excellence have ensured that he is always in demand.
Johnathan is now a consultant at the leading online Management
Dashboard company "Target Dashboard". He
states, "Managing business, people and processes has always been a big
challenge, and is often the difference between success and
failure. Target Dashboard is a
concept I just love,
an online KPI dashboard app that is so simple that managers can use it and
be up and running in minutes".
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