Making an Impact with Lean Data

Ona Staff
January 07, 2016

Lean data, or applying lean processes to data collection and use, is an important tool for creating impact in global development programs. It was created as a response costly traditional M&E (monitoring and evaluation) practices that aren’t about the end consumer or user and only applicable to large-scale programs. The core tenet of lean data is focusing on a bite-sized goal and using customer impact data to drive your decision-making towards that goal.

The promise is you’ll be able to gain clear insights that will improve performance at a much lower cost than traditional methods.

Taking a lean data approach to programs is perfect in many cases. But, there are three issues we’ve seen happen to lean data-slinging program managers:

  • First, lean data is easier said than done. The reality is most programs involve shifting priorities and conflicting agendas, making singular goals and planning very difficult.
  • Second, the lean data philosophy argues that traditional monitoring and evaluation reporting doesn’t add enough value for the effort. This overly simplistic perspective disregards the needs of donors and organizations that exist for good reason.
  • Third, many programs are required to do traditional data measurements by donors or partners, regardless of a program manager’s preference, so implementing lean data methods would require additional work.

We’ve built features into Ona that can help you run a lean data project at the same time as fulfilling traditional reporting needs for all program stakeholders. The following features will help you concurrently collect real-time, focused insights for lean data while running a traditional, larger data study.

Lean data analysis

  • Filtered datasets. Filtered datasets let you share focused, real-time data relevant to specific decision makers — even if a wider set of data is collected. This is especially useful in hard-to-access areas where a wide range of data is collected at the same time. It also saves you from doing a separate lean data survey when you are already doing a larger data collection effort. Your field staff, beneficiaries, project team, and donors can see only data meaningful to them, all from the same dataset. Sensitive data can also be hidden. How do filtered datasets work? on the help page can get you started.
  • XLS Reports. These always-current Excel reports take your real-time Ona data and automatically generate calculations and analysis customized by you. This can include coverage, use, gap, and growth analysis as well as highlighting trends, spikes, patterns and anomalies. Since lean data relies heavily on fast, ongoing metrics, XLS Reports can help by giving you the immediate access to information beyond raw data, giving you insights to make your programs more meaningful to customers. To learn more, go to Ona Services or email

Lean data collection

  • Flexible forms. Lean data requires speedy, flexible tools that support rapid iteration. Form authoring in Excel means you can quickly collaborate on a form, create and distribute multiple versions of a form, or reuse a form for different projects, enabling you to set up a data collection effort in minutes. Also, a form can be updated anytime, so new data can be collected immediately on the same dataset. It takes about 30 minutes to learn the basics of XLS Form authoring — the best way to start is our XLSForm help guide and looking at the source xls files of forms in the Ona Form Library. Update: A form builder will be out in the next few months.
  • Data collection via offline capable web forms, Android app or SMS. If you are collecting data in person or by phone, Ona web forms help you digitize the data easily so it can be analyzed quickly. Alternatively, the Android app is useful for surveys in the field. SMS is also often used in lean data for its ease, ubiquity and speed — look out for a new Ona integration with RapidPro coming out soon.

We’ve been described as a quick and dirty tool and we take it as a huge compliment. Though it’s not the only thing our system can do, we are proud our tools enable quick, useful data collection and analysis for program managers strapped for time and cash.