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Volume 7, Issue 21;   May 23, 2007: Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part III

Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part III

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The phrase "You get what you measure," has acquired the status of "truism." Yet many measurement-based initiatives have produced disappointing results. Here's Part III of an examination of the idea — a look at management's role in these surprises.

Even when measurement precedes desired results, we sometimes wonder whether the measuring caused the outcome. We've already looked at our assumptions regarding measurement itself, and at the effects of employee behavior. But management actions also raise questions about measurement-based management. Here are four examples. See Part I, and Part II for more.

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

One of the many problems contributing to cost overruns in the highway project known as Boston's "Big Dig" was a sequence of delays in determining the design of the Charles River Crossing. Once this decision-making overran its schedule, very serious problems developed later in the project, in both management and engineering and construction. As in the private sector, the early focus of scrutiny has been on the engineering and construction rather than on management, in part because we measure them more carefully. Pictured is the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in a later construction phase, as it emerges from the Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. Tunnel to cross the Charles River. This particular crossing is very near the one referred to as "two if by sea," in the poem, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," by Longfellow (1860). Photo courtesy Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

We tend to measure "them" rather than "us"
Measurements are relatively less likely to probe attributes of management processes than they are to probe attributes of other processes. For instance, the starting point for time-to-market measurements usually comes after the "fuzzy front end" — the part that includes concept formulation, final approval, and resource allocation — all management processes.
If we believe in the efficacy of measurement, we ought to apply it to management processes, too.
We tend not to measure the effectiveness of metrics-based management
The effectiveness of measurement depends on processes for selecting and designing metrics, collecting metrics data, analyzing it, and using the results to adjust processes. These activities are rarely measured themselves.
If metrics-based management works, it should work for the metrics approach itself. The rarity of attempts to measure the effectiveness of metrics-based management raises questions both about our commitment to the approach, and its validity.
Measurement fatigue
When people adapt to measurement, they find ways to limit the controlling effects of the measurement. The organization then returns to Square Two, which is just like Square One, except for the added burden of reporting (and evading the effects of) the metric. Typically, organizations respond by introducing another metric to "control" the evasion problem.
In this way, an organization acquires a steadily increasing burden of (mostly) ineffective metrology, which eases only with a reorg, or the arrival of a new high-level manager, or an acquisition, or clean-sheet re-engineering, or major downsizing or bankruptcy.
You can't always get what you want
Measurement doesn't help
much if employees are
unable to produce
the desired results
due to forces outside
their control
Even when we measure what we want to get, we might not be providing the resources needed to achieve it. Employees might simply be unable to produce the desired results, because of forces outside their control, physical laws, government laws and regulations, inadequate resources, deficits in skills or knowledge, toxic culture, wrong knowledge, ineffective management, or other factors.
For instance, producing tight-tolerance parts with worn-out, outdated equipment is unlikely to work, no matter what you measure. Altered employee behavior just isn't the answer, and no amount of measuring the output will "encourage" them to do well enough.

And so it appears that there are ample reasons to explain the disappointing results of measurement-based management. Perhaps more puzzling is why the practice persists, and why it's so widely used. Other intriguing questions: When is measurement useful? When does measurement have the effect we hope for? I'll leave these questions for another time. Go to top Top  Next issue: Snares at Work  Next Issue

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