Pain, no gain

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I suffer from cluster headaches. Every year and a half or so I live through a month or two of daily episodes of excruciating pain that calls for gobs of Excedrin, quite a lot of Sumatriptan, gratitude for the existence of automatic ice makers, and the inescapable sensation that I’m taking dumb pills.

No, I’m not looking for remedies, empathy, or sympathy. Let’s skip directly to pity.

Or skip it altogether. Now that I have your attention, let’s move on to pain’s relevance to your day-to-day working life.

Pain evolved to get our attention when something is wrong that needs fixing. Which is why migraines, cluster headaches and their kindred maladies are so annoying: The only thing that’s wrong is the headache itself.

Still don’t see the relevance?

Biologically speaking, pain is an indicator. It’s like a blinking light on a control panel that tells the brain something isn’t working the way it’s supposed to work. The brain needs this mechanism because the body is way too complicated for the brain to directly monitor all of its components.

So instead animal physiology includes receptors scattered throughout a critter’s anatomy. The brain doesn’t have to monitor. What requires attention calls for attention.

Only it’s easy to ignore a blinking light. Pain is designed to be hard to ignore. Pain says something isn’t working the way it’s supposed to work, so please do something about it RIGHT NOW!

KPIs (key performance indicators) and their metrics-based brethren are, for managers, what pain is for the brain. They’re a way for managers to know something needs attention without their having to directly monitor everything in their organization.

But (here’s the big tie-in! Drum roll please) … KPIs share both the blinking light’s and migraine’s limitations.

They’re blinking lights in the sense that when a KPI is out of bounds, it’s just a number on a report, easy to ignore in the press of making sure work gets out the door when it’s supposed to.

There’s nothing attention-getting about a KPI. It’s just a blinking light. Unless, that is, a manager’s boss decides to inflict some pain … perhaps “discomfort” would be in better taste … when a KPI is out of bounds.

KPIs can also be migraines, though, in the sense that it isn’t uncommon for a KPI to be out of spec without anything at all being actually wrong.

Migraine KPIs can happen for any number of reasons. Among the most important is the reason the first, and arguably best quality improvement methodology was called “statistical process control.”

Many KPIs are, that is, subject to stochastic variability, stochastic being a word every process manager should be able to use correctly in a sentence without first having to look it up on Wikipedia.

Sometimes a KPI is out of range because the effect it’s supposed to measure is the consequence of one or more causal factors that vary more or less randomly. Usually their variance is within a close enough range that the KPI is reasonably reliable.

But, stochasticism being what it is, not always. If the KPI looks bad because of simple random variation, the worst thing a process manager can do is try to fix the underlying problem.

The fixes can and often do push the KPI in question, or a different, causally connected KPI, out of range when process inputs return to normal.

As long as we’re on the subject of pain, you don’t have to have any for something to be wrong with you, which is why most of us have a medical check-up every so often, even when we feel just fine.

KPIs can be like this too. The IT trade is replete with managers who meet every service level they’ve agreed to and as a result think everything is fine when in fact it’s falling apart. Help desks are particularly prone to this phenomenon, because of a phenomenon the users to contact an offending Help Desk know about but the help desk manager doesn’t: Because they’re usually measured on ticket closures, help desk staff close tickets whether or not they’ve actually solved a user’s problem.

It’s the first rule of metrics: You get what you measure. That’s the risk you take.

Comments (8)

  • My comment is a question: Assuming the recommendations you give managers is reflected in your usually well considered articles; and that the little I know about the KPI, the KPI seems reasonable and constructive tool, I am lead, by this article to ask, what complaints have you received about the KPI?

    • Don’t misunderstand. Definition of Key Performance Indicators is an important management responsibility. I’m not against them.

      My concern here is with potential misinterpretation, leading to action that isn’t merely ineffective, it’s counterproductive.

      As for complaints about KPIs (an interesting metric: Complaints per KPI), none in general. But the help desk example I used is quite real and I’ve received various versions of it from readers over and over again.

      • Having worked in a call center in a past life, I have a simple, clear, real-world example of KPIs that are easy to measure, easy to meet, and extremely destructive (and why I think all post purchase customer contact should be attached to Marketing).

        Some metrics were implemented for quality control purposes. Including:
        -Use the caller’s name at least twice.
        -Average call time of under 2 minutes 30 seconds.
        -Average hold time of less than 10 seconds per call.

        What was missing was:
        -Giving correct information (I asked about this at the meeting, was told to shut up).
        -Resolve issue during the call. If not, resolve and contact before caller has to call back (first call resolution).

        So this is what happened. Any difficult calls picked up by the slimeballs who worked the metrics mysteriously got drooped. Because their numbers looked so good, they were promoted to Lead and Manager positions.

        The contentious workers, who were willing to take the two hour calls and do what needed to be done go no raises, no performance bonuses, no promotions. And were eased out (if they did no quit) because nobody wanted someone on their team that messed up the KPIs.

        Think about where that left the callers.

  • Very sorry to hear about your cluster headache challenges. And interesting analogy for the workplace. Blinking lights is certainly appropriate. I tried to think of an analogy for the placebo effect…

  • “You get what you measure”
    I like that. And of course it’s true, if you just think about it.

    I’m in the habit of saying, “You get what you settle for”, but that’s an individual imperative rather than a management one.

  • This article provides a great analogy for KPI (and great ones are hard to find).

    Please cite the XKCD cartoon so I can save it to my desktop along with what soda does to your body and some others.

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