Why Measure? by Kevin McManus
My perception of measurement changed drastically after learning that the Sanskrit roots of the terms “measure” and “illusion” were the same. As an engineer, I had been taught that measures were absolutes, always required, and usually believed. As I progressed in my career, I discovered that we tend to measure things that we are uncertain about - if we think we know how something works or is performing, we see no need to measure it.
We also tend to measure for the wrong reasons. We measure to trap people, to hold them accountable, or to prove a point. Rarely do we measure to understand systems, which is really the primary reason for measuring. We cannot know everything about what makes a system work, but we can use measurement to help us understand systems better.
There are really only three types of measures, with all of them being some form of ratio. Time ratios and cost ratios are used the most often. Ratios that show how one variable performs against another (i.e. miles per gallon) are perhaps more powerful, but we tend to use this type of ratio less - because we are not pursuing systems understanding as our measurement goal.
Operational definitions and measurement procedures are also key, and often lacking. Without these definitions, people can measure what they want and make it look like they are giving you what you want. Even without the intent to deceive (protect oneself), a lack of operational definitions leads to confusion about what should be counted, what should be ignored, and how the data should be ‘crunched.’
Measures mean little when they are not part of a trend line - they are only snapshots. One key to systems understanding is to look at a system’s performance (behavior) over time and build theories based on what the picture shows us. The graph, or picture, is the starting point of systems improvement, not the end result that is desired. Similarly, analyzing trends means little if you do not do so with a diverse group of stakeholders and an open mind towards learning.
Measuring correctly also teaches us about what our systems are capable of. In other words, great trend analysis shows us what type of results we can expect from our systems - if we want a level of performance that is outside the current capability of the system, fundamental systems changes must be made to reach that higher level of performance.
When we set performance goals that are outside of our current system performance range, we should also know what system changes are expected to help us get there. Simply ‘asking’ , or even paying, for higher levels of performance might work for a short amount of time, but these strategies will not work over the long term.
How Many Measures?
Can you believe it? I have actually been accused of measuring too many things during the course of my career! From my perspective however, there is a method to my measurement madness. First of all, I felt that I needed to trend performance in all key performance areas, such as safety, quality, people, and cost. Secondly, I have learned over time that the best teams improve by measuring enough different things to truly understand each of their key processes.
Through my Baldrige experience, along with personal successes, I have learned that the best organizations and teams measure two to three key metrics in each of the four or five key performance areas on a monthly basis. Additional in-process throughput and waste measures are tracked and trended on a daily basis for each key process. The best companies I have worked with and visited normally review performance trends for 25-30 key measures on at least a monthly basis.
While this number of numbers may seem intimidating, it really is not IF (1) each process leader assumes the responsibility for tracking 3-5 measures and (2) spreadsheets are used to capture key information each day. This is where the key to sustained improvement lies - getting EACH person in the organization, or at a minimum, each process leader, to routinely capture (EVERY DAY) those key performance drivers and measures that tell the story about how their key processes are performing.
Certain types of information can be captured in a sampling manner, but other types need to be caught and trended daily, if not more frequently. In doing so, each process owner gains a much better understanding of the processes they are responsible for (and paid to improve), and they also acquire valuable information to help them identify and quickly justify future improvements.
Please Put the Lid Down?
Think about it -- the majority of the significant changes that we would like to see involve (1) most of our people and (2) lasting behavior change on their part. This is especially true in organizations that provide a service, as machines cannot be used as frequently to control, or at least pace or guide, human behavior.
We want people to change their behavior and we want them to keep it that way. How do we get people to change?
One answer lies in the world of technology. We are using entry screens more and more to place orders, track transactions, and build databases. Word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software are used as common tools. To some degree, these tools affect the performance of the person who uses them.
If a field on the entry screen contains incorrect data, the transaction cannot proceed. If the conveyor belt is sped up slightly, people will have to work faster. If the employee’s ID has been scanned into the handheld scanner, we know who delivered that box when it is scanned. These are all examples of fundamental system changes that are shifting performance in organizations.
They are also examples of changes that could damage the more unmeasurable and important morale metric if they are used ineffectively. Mechanical system changes often give us the measurable results we were looking for, but the behavioral impact of an ‘improvement’ is often discounted or ignored.
Look for more examples of systems changes in the near future -- they may be affecting you already!
Would You Like Some Help?
Over the past 17 or so years, I have helped design measurement systems in four different companies - both small and large - in the manufacturing and service arenas. This experience has helped me discover value added, simple ways to set up systems for measuring process effectiveness, creating balanced scorecards that link process performance and really tell a company's improvement story, and helping each process owner better understand what makes their systems tick. Using measures as a hammer is the primary power restrictor for this power system - these tools help you both eliminate that barrier and move forward more rapidly towards higher levels of performance.
If you are interested in the measurement systems and tools that I have to offer, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better yet, give some thought to working further with me to help you improve your measurement system through my interactive measurement system development workshop.
Keep improving! -- Kevin McManus, the Systems Guy
Would You Like to Learn More?
Click on one of the following links to learn even more about Great Systems! and the types of systems improvements I can help you make:
“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates