August 3, 2006

Minimize data handling to reduce errors

  • Using standard operating procedures for information management leads to better data quality and higher efficiency.
    Aspect Consulting

    Standard operating procedure, or SOP, is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “established or prescribed methods to be followed routinely for the performance of designated operations.”

    Information management and standard operating procedures are two terms that can easily put you to sleep, or scare you silly. But don’t drop off into a nap, or run away. When applied appropriately, information management SOPs will reward you with time and cost savings for your project. And, because they are standards, your project will reap the benefits of established information management SOPs without you having to spend time inventing and enforcing them.

    Important questions to ask your consultant
    • Do you have an arrangement with the lab to receive analytical data electronically?

    • What quality control procedures do you apply to ensure that data are accurate and complete?

    • What level of data validation is required for this project?

    • How can I be certain that you understand how I am going to use the information today, tomorrow and next year?

    • What procedures do you use to minimize handling the data?

    • How do you review regulatory guidelines and make sure your analysts have the most current revisions?

    Do you think that information management is an expensive elective task? Maybe you think a project is too small or that you don’t have enough money for an information/data management system or that you don’t need a data base.

    I want to challenge your thinking on two points. First, SOPs need not be complicated to develop and implement. Second, there are far more opportunities for SOP development than one might realize.

    Imagine if you were to just toss your clean clothes back into the laundry hamper when the wash is done. Every day you must sort through the pile in the hamper to find a matched pair of clean socks. Information management, like folding the laundry, should be performed routinely.

    Project owner’s perspective

    Insight and value are derived from the interpretation of the data, not repeated handling of information. Your consultant manages information, be it survey data, regulatory cleanup limits, chemical analyses, water level measurements or drilling logs. When you select a consultant to manage your environmental project, you are opting for a temporary relationship to use their expertise. You reasonably expect your consultant to use effective internal information management SOPs just as you expect them to provide expert business and scientific analysis. It pays to find out how many times one must handle the data.

    The next time you hire a consultant, ask them how they plan to manage data collection and get you the results quickly.

    Time-saving checklist

    Developing, adopting and implementing SOPs is not complex, but it does require determination. In my experience, the variations from one project to the next are not quite as unique as the project managers envision. Yet these variations erode value as each data set is treated like an only child. I have found the following steps highly productive in rolling out effective — and widely accepted — SOPs as value-generating tools:

    • Consider all projects equal. All projects warrant standard information management. Whether the project involves a small, one-time site investigation or a long-term monitoring program, managing information with routine procedures frees up time for the technical staff to address the unique issues of each project.

    • Identify standard formats for well/boring logs and data tables. Given the vagaries of the human mind and our ready access to software, each one of us could spend hours formatting data logs and tables that look “just so.” Establish several standard formats. When the project manager wants a log or a table for a report, they specify one of the standard formats. Communication between the technician and the project manager is simplified, revisions are reduced, and the output is consistent.

    • Automate repetitive tasks. Once the standard data tables are identified, routines can be programmed to transfer the data from the standard database to the standard table. Headings, footnotes, bolding and highlighting can all be done automatically so when the project manager says, “I need the same table with just these analytes and these locations,” the table can be output with the push of a button. The data is not re-keyed, there is minimal handling of the data for formatting and errors are reduced.

    • Review regulations routinely. Assign someone to routinely review regulations and circulate a summary of changes and updates. Keeping everyone up-to-date on a routine schedule eliminates redundant research and fosters timely discussion of regulatory changes.

    • Negotiate standards with labs. Establish an electronic format for delivery of laboratory data. Set up electronic verification of laboratory data to quickly establish that all samples and requested analyses are included in the lab delivery.

    • Support field crews with data collection tools. Establish routine tasks for field event preparation that, for example, produce pre-printed sample labels and chain of custody forms for large jobs. This planning routine gets the team on the same page ready to handle the project information as it is collected.

    • Automate data presentation using GIS and CAD. Establish electronic links between the data (database, Excel) and graphical tools such as GIS and CAD. Electronic links minimize re-keying and reformatting the data and get clear data presentations into the project manager’s hands quickly.

    Gayle Thompson is associate information services manager with Aspect Consulting.

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