“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.

“You have to draft a Mission Statement,” cried our consultant, passion in his voice. “According to a recent study, every successful organization has one!”

It seemed like a harmless enough way to keep all of us managers … uh, leaders … out of our employees’ hair, so I refrained from asking how many unsuccessful organizations also had Mission Statements. The whole management team toiled away and, after several drafts (43 as I recall) we came up with suitably dull phrasing that encompassed everything we did as a division, offended nobody, and pleased our consultant immensely.

An entirely worthless bit of prose, typical of the genre.

Why do some Mission Statements seem to create energy while the vast majority seem to generate ennui instead? What’s the difference between a Charter, Mission Statement, and Vision, and why all three? Aren’t they all really pointless exercises in wordsmithery, distractions from the real work of whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing?

These documents should create real value. Before looking at why so many go wrong, let’s look at the role each one plays.

As with a lot of internal organizational theory, the idea of creating these documents stems from their utility in helping whole businesses figure themselves out. For a business, its Charter defines the business it’s in, its Mission defines its market positioning, and its Vision explains its significance – how it will improve whatever marketspace it participates in.
Which leads to a useful question: do principles for managing a business scale down to divisions, departments and teams? The answer, in this case, is an unequivocal “probably”.

You certainly need to understand your Charter. It ensures you and your employer agree about why you exist. No problem there.

Why do you need a Mission Statement? Market positioning results from competitive forces, doesn’t it?

Yes it does. As it happens, you’re working in a highly competitive situation. Plenty of managers would love your job. Any number of technical services organizations would enjoy taking over what you do. And the company that employs you and spends money for your services wants an organization positioned in harmony with its goals and strategies.

Do you need a Vision – an explanation of how achieving your Mission will help transform your company and improve its standing in the market? Absolutely. Visions motivate. They help employees understand how they’ll make a difference. They also demonstrate your ability to lead, as opposed to just supervising work.. That will create confidence in you.

Why do so many Mission and Vision Statements fail? Three reasons.

First, for one reason or another, most end up being descriptive when they should be prescriptive. Your Mission and Vision shouldn’t legitimize everything you might ever want to do. They should inform everyone which, out of all activities you might undertake, you ought to actually engage in.

Second, most efforts focus on creating the documents. That’s just plain ridiculous. The ideas are what matter, not the phrasing. Employees may not agree with your approach, but they need to understand the direction you’ve chosen and agree to work within it.

Finally, far too many of us think of these efforts as projects, having a beginning (“Let’s write them.”), middle (“I think this word works better than that word.”) and end (“Here’s our Mission Statement. Carry it with you at all times. The team that wrote it did a fine job and I’m proud of them.”).

Don’t write a Mission Statement, print a bunch of posters, paste them around your organization, and breathe a sigh of relief (“Whew! I’m glad that’s finished.”) Don’t worry about the phrasing of the statement at all. Instead, hold discussions about your mission and vision frequently with the whole management team to make sure your direction still makes sense as circumstances change.

Encourage your managers and supervisors to use their understanding of your mission and vision to provide context in discussions with staff.

Understanding of your mission and vision has to become pervasive. With enough discussion the right words will come.