Constant improvement is the aim of most businesses – whether it is sales, costs or customer satisfaction. In order to improve, we need measurement, context and comparison.For example, we may know that sales this month were $100,000, but in isolation that is a pretty meaningless figure. If, however, we know that sales last month were $110, 000, then we have information that we can act on.That, in a nutshell, is the value of a well-designed Dashboard – it not only gives us information about the present, but context and comparison with past figures, showing trends over time.

A good Dashboard will use the ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ principle and presents information in a simple to assimilate graphical format.

So what are the key elements to look for in a Dashboard that will make it a valuable tool for driving business improvement? Here are my tips on the essentials:

Data in context

A key element of a Dashboard is that it shows data in a historical context – as in the example above, you not only need to know the current figures, but to understand what preceded them. The Dashboard must clearly show the reporting periods (are you looking at weekly/monthly/quarterly data) so that you can make meaningful comparisons.

Snapshot

Dashboards are not the place for precision, but for a snapshot of trends. They are about reporting the dollars, not the cents – it is important to remember that a Dashboard is not a financial report, but an ‘executive summary’ of trends.

Actionable information

A well-designed Dashboard will show values that are easily and rapidly identifiable.

For example, a report showing Actual = $20k; Budget = $30k is more readily actionable than one showing Shortfall= $10k.

Percentages are crucial, especially where you have different product ranges, and the dollar values for one may represent a different story in another. Percentages provide a useful constant. Consider which tells you more; that sales are down $8k, or sales are down 10%.

Take a look at the two graphs below – both ostensibly showing the same information – but in different ways. The first graph shows sales to budget in actual dollar terms. At first glance, things seem to be tracking fairly well. The second graph shows variance from budget as a % – which provides a far deeper insight.

Visual impact of scale

A common issue with some Dashboards is that of scale – the same data looks very different on a graph with axes from 1 -100 than on one with a scale of 50-100. I have seen a revenue to cost bar graph with revenue of $800k and cost of $700k, but where immediate impression was the cost was half of revenue, because the axis did not start at zero. This kind of oversight can be very misleading.

Essentials only

Some Dashboard tools have very fancy graphs – these might look great, but my advice is always to keep them as simple as possible and don’t add elements unless they are relevant to the data. It’s all about choosing the best way of displaying each type of data.

Drill down

Drill down can be useful, but again, I would advise not to get too consumed with detail – Dashboards are designed for an overview, not detail. The more detail you include in your reports, the greater the processing overhead on your system. If you find an issue that needs to be examined in more detail, you can always use exception reports.

Tactical usage

Although Dashboards are generally seen as a tool for strategic decision making, don’t rule them out for tactical application. Realtime data can be displayed, allowing immediate action to improve the business.

For example, a report of the current day’s sales, comparing each staff member to the average, could be used to identify potential problems with the POS, with training or with pilfering.

A real-time report of the amount of cash in each drawer, with an alert at your trigger point can allow you to do a timely skim.

In a restaurant, you can capture real-time data on how many of your reservations have arrived, to determine how far into your busy period you are and whether you can start ending shifts.

Anywhere and Everywhere

Last but certainly not least, you don’t want to be tied to your office for reviewing your Dashboard, so it’s essential that reports are available on your mobile device.

In short, Dashboards are a useful tool to help you make better business decisions, but not all Dashboards are created equal, and it’s worth choosing a POS system that has invested in a well-thought out and appropriately designed Dashboard.