One of the most frequently visited posts on this blog is “WhatGets Measured Gets Done…or Not.” I suspect that the post is interesting to
readers because of the popular axiom, not because of the content of the post. In
that post I argue that measurement is not enough. An organization has to do
something with those metrics in order to “get done” what needs to get done, i.e., organizational learning, performance improvement, and change. The act of measuring things like sales, customer service, product quality, teamwork, employee engagement, or learning, does not necessarily mean that anything will be done differently.
A better way to talk about measurement in organizations is the way Terry Starbucker writes about it in his blog post titled, The Truth About “If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It”, a variation of the first axiom. He writes:
The thing is, I am a proud member of the “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it“ school of business.
It’s not one of those total absolutes, but I’ll say this – it’s pretty darned close.
So when I would hear “proof” that was anecdotal, or based on “feel”, or hearsay, or seven degrees of separation indirectness, I usually don’t buy it.
Terry goes on to describe performance improvement and cost savings he achieved in a former company because he had measures of employee behavior and customer satisfaction and he and others used those numbers to develop solutions for improving performance. He not only had the data but he did something with it.
Of course, many activities are managed without being measured. Many managers organize work, provide direction, and supervise people without measuring anything important. Are they managed well? That’s a different question.
And that leads us to another variation of the first axiom: “You can’t improve what you can’t measure.” I like this wording because it ties measurement to action. I have done many program and organizational evaluation studies for managers who asked me to measure processes, outcomes, and impact… but didn’t want to use the data to change. I suspect the explanation for their behavior is threefold: 1) they were hoping for a glowing report that would make them look good to their bosses and funders; 2) if they didn’t get a glowing report and findings implied the need for significant change in programs and staff, they could always find something about the measurement method that would discredit the findings; and 3) they could be accountable for measuring something without having to be accountable for improving performance.
The organizations that embrace performance improvement are those that make a concerted effort to understand what the metrics mean to their organizations and how they can use the findings to make decisions about what should be sustained and what should be modified. By all means, measure everything that is important to the success of your organization. But only do this if you are going to use the data to guide decisions about improvement.