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Author's profile photo Bob McGlynn

4 1/2 Ways to Stop Meaningless Measures

There is an oft-used business quotation, “What gets measured is what gets done”. How accurate is that statement? Because measuring everything doesn’t mean that everything gets done, or done well. Where should you be focusing your attention to really make a difference? Since there are always constraints on resources and limits on time, it is very important to eliminate the kind of measures that only create busy work rather than results.

Here are 4 1/2 ways to stop meaningless measures

1) Improve, not just prove – Your most useful metrics show a result (improvement), not just an activity (prove). Even if you can only influence a result, it is still more desirable than just measuring activity. Measures that are only important in and of themselves become a static artifact. Having results-orientated measures provides information that helps guide better decisions as well as giving a better snapshot of performance.

2) Discipline yourself to limit measures to a critical few – When talking performance, there just isn’t enough time or resources to excel in every area or successfully complete every initiative. What are the 2 to 5 areas or projects that would have the largest impact if you accomplished those? By dropping busy work, limiting projects and less important measurements, you have the time and can invest the resources to get best results. One caution, don’t merely combine a number of measures into one and think you have a critical few.

3) Know what it means – Objectives as well as measures suffer greatly from the use of vague or ambiguous meanings. You need to understand what you are trying to accomplish or measure to make sure it’s not just more busy work. Define your objectives and measures in language that people actually use as well as spell out how a measure is to be calculated. It is then much easier to understand how meaningful, or meaningless, these measures actually are. Then, what is measured is what matters!

3 1/2) Whose yardstick, barometer, or index are you using? – If there are 12 different ways of measuring the same KPI, there has to be consensus on a how it is measured, so it means the same to everyone. Don’t complicate it or obscure it, it only blinds everyone to the true signals the measures should show. Different yardsticks are also used for proving rather than improving. 

4) Manage by Objectives, not KPIs – In Jonathan Becher’s blog about Bad KPI’s, Bad Behavior he states, “We should be managing by objectives, not managing by KPIs. Objectives tell us the strategy; KPIs only tell us the score.”

A great story from The Price of Government illustrates how the true test of a meaningful measures starts with the objectives.

The state of Minnesota wanted to re-engineer their collection of sales tax. Six different divisions shared the responsibility for administering the tax system, though each division had specialized areas of focus. These divisions did not coordinate their efforts and their measures only showed division efforts, none showed how the entire tax system was performing. Initially, different measures were considered for each area, which improved individual division’s performance, not overall performance.

The solution was to better define the objective, which was helping businesses comply with the tax system. That exposed that no one “owned” the problem of performance for the entire system. Core processes were identified that addressed the objective – helping businesses comply. Functional silos were replaced with integrated process teams that followed the process from beginning to end.

Looking at the larger objectives stopped meaningless measures and brought attention to getting everyone to work toward a better outcome – the true institutional goals.

Start with your goals, look to improve, not just prove, stick with a critical few and know what those measurements mean.

Measurements are just that, and thus much more fluid than your strategic objectives and priorities. Don’t lock measures in and don’t be afraid to stop meaningless measurement. Then, what you measure is what matters and that is what is worth getting done.

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      Author's profile photo Bob McGlynn
      Bob McGlynn
      Blog Post Author

      Always kind of fun to stumble across something you wrote a long time ago and see that it still is important and timely. Plus, all the links still work!

      We continue to examine and analyze data. We talk about being more data-driven. The importance on objectives and results remains: improve, rather than prove.