Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Exploratory data analysis

Most of you (well, I presume most of you; perhaps someday I should do a poll) are busy enough with management and business activities so that you don't have time to become a statistician (or system dynamicist or soft systems expert or facilitator or ...). You rely on others, whether internal or external to your organization, to do the technical work in such areas.

Nonetheless, you see data all the time, and you may have need of simple tools to help make sense of what you're seeing, either before you can get to your statistician or to double-check what you're hearing from a statistician to see if it makes sense.

In the 1970s, statistician John Tukey assembled a body of techniques into a methodology he called "exploratory data analysis" (EDA), and some of its tools may be of use to any of us. While there is software available to perform these techniques, many of them can be done with paper and pencil, on the spot. That's when it likely becomes most useful for those of you managing operations or organizations.

Even that may be too much for the time some of you have. You may need something you can do without even paper and pencil, something you can do to evaluate the results you're hearing or reading.

For example, let's say you're presented the results of doing things two different ways, and the speaker or writer claims that one approach is obviously better than the other (or asks us which is the better approach). Tukey developed a so-called pocket test that you can likely do in your head. It's so easy to describe that the abstract gives almost the entire process.

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