Are Your Measurement Systems Producing Meaningful Measures?

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

The Power of Using Meaningful Measurement Systems

How great are your measurement systems? My perception of what ‘good’ measurement is 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.

DISCOVER MORE: The History of Measurements (External link provided by Ms. Martin’s class – thanks!)

What Do Your Measurement Systems Measure?

There are really only three types of great 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 don’t tend to use this type of ratio often. Could this be 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. Not using operational definitions can also lead to key data being ignored or ‘crunched’ incorrectly.

Measures mean little when they are not part of a trend line. Measures without trends 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.

If 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. These strategies however will not work over the long term. Measuring correctly should also teach 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.

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Measurement Power Systems


Top Weaknesses in Measurement Systems



If you are interested in the measurement systems and tools that I have to offer, send me an e-mail at


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 feel it is important to trend performance in all key performance areas, such as safety, quality, people, and cost. Secondly, I have learned through experience 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. The key is to get EACH person in the organization, or at a minimum, each process leader, to routinely capture (EVERY DAY) their key performance drivers and measures. Without such data, they can’t know how well their key processes are performing.

Certain types of information can be captured in a sampling manner. Most measures, however, 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). They also acquire valuable information to help them identify, and quickly justify, future improvements.

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Example Balanced Scorecard Matrix


What are Your Vital Signs?

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. Machines cannot be used as easily to control, or at least pace or guide, human behavior.

We want people to change their behavior and we want them to keep acting 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!

READ MORE: The Challenge of Changing People


Beware of Performance Tradeoffs


How to Improve Measurement Systems

Would You Like Some Measurement System Improvement Help?

Over the past 30 plus years, I have helped design and install measurement systems in many 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. My measurement 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 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, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

Great Books on Measurement Systems


How to Design Great Measurement Systems