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What you measure wrong you manage wrong (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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“If you can’t measure you can’t manage.”

Hear this much? Probably. What’s even more amazing, it’s a true statement. More people misinterpret it, though, than you can shake a stick at, assuming you’re in the habit of shaking sticks at people who misinterpret management theory.

That’s because while most people assume the inverse – “If you can measure you can control.” – they’ve never heard Lewis’s Corollary (not surprising since I just made it up): “What you measure wrong, you manage wrong.”

Fact is, establishing the wrong measures will lead to far worse results than establishing no measures at all.

When I was in graduate school studying the behavior of electric fish (I’m not making this up!) I read a book by the respected behavioral scientist, Donald Griffin. In it he described the four stages of scientific inquiry:

  1. List every variable that can affect a system.
  2. Study every variable that’s easy to measure.
  3. Declare these to be the only important variables affecting the system.
  4. Proclaim the other variables don’t really exist.

In establishing quality and performance measures, many managers follow a similar sequence. They end up measuring what’s convenient, not what’s important.

Here’s a simple example, and you’ve been on the receiving end. Often. I guarantee it.

Lots of your suppliers have customer-service call centers. These call centers have a gadget called an “Automated Call Distributor” (ACD) running the telephones. Since the call center manager can’t manage without measuring, and productivity is a Good Thing (to use the technical term), he or she merrily starts measuring productivity.

Now productivity can be a slippery thing to define – we’ll get into the Productivity Paradox in a future column. Unaware of the conceptual banana peels littering the floor of productivity-definition, our hero starts graphing productivity. The convenient definition: calls per hour. ACDs spit out this statistic sliced and diced in hundreds of different dimensions, so the cost of data collection and reporting is zilch.

So’s the value.

This brings us to the First Law of Performance Measurement: Employees will improve whatever measure you establish.

Perceptive readers will recognize this as a special case of the more general dictum, “Be careful what you ask for … you may get it.”

How might you, a high-performing customer-service representative, improve your productivity? Why, you’ll be as abrupt as you can, getting rid of callers just as fast as possible. Never mind if you did anything useful for them. You’re Maximizing Productivity!

Our call center manager now does what any self-respecting manager would do. He or she starts holding staff meetings, chewing everyone out for being so rude and unhelpful. The productivity graphs, though, stay up on the wall.

Our mythical, but all-too-real manager would have avoided this mess by following the Second Law of Performance Measurement: Measure What’s Important. The right place to begin, then, in establishing performance measures is to figure out what you care about – what you’re trying to achieve.

For a customer service center, what’s important? Solving customer problems. What’s a good performance measure? Problems Solved per Hour.

ACDs don’t report the number of problems solved per hour, and for that I’m really and truly sorry. On the other hand, a good problem management system ought to be able to handle this one. All it needs is a field identifying repeat calls.

Well, that’s not all it needs. I lied. If we start graphing this statistic, customer service reps will do their best to pass on the hard problems to Someone Else, because they don’t want to ruin their statistics. Even worse, they may “accidentally” forget to log the hard ones for the same reason.

You need to gauge the relative difficulty of different kinds of problems, and use a weighted average. Now, when a customer service rep helps a caller use italics in MS Word, that counts for one problem solved. When someone else helps a caller fix his SYSTEM.INI file, she gets 10,000 points and a trip to Bermuda.

Now there’s a measure worth putting on the wall.