Any leader or skilled improvement professional knows that metrics are necessary to define what success looks like, measure progress toward a defined target, and assess performance against defined standards. Metrics also serve as a powerful way to demonstrate improvement success to people who might otherwise roll their eyes.
Used properly, relevant metrics provide the much-needed fuel for better decisions, better problem solving, and better improvement. Unfortunately, all too often, organizations operate with an “empty tank” with few, if any, metrics that matter. Data is one thing; meaningful information is quite another.
But as powerful as metrics can be, there are many noble improvement goals for which measuring success is difficult or impossible. Some of the greatest minds recognized this reality.
Consider the saying that’s been attributed to both Albert Einstein and William Bruce Cameron: “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that’s counted counts.” (“Matters” is sometimes used in lieu of “counts” and “measured” is sometimes used in lieu of “counted.”)
“One can not be successful on visible figures alone. Now, of course, visible figures are important. There is payroll to meet, vendors to pay, taxes to pay; amortization, pension funds, and contingency funds to meet. But he that would run his company on visible figures alone will in time have neither company nor figures. Actually, the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.” (p. 121; he credits the last statement to statistician Lloyd S. Nelson)
In The Outstanding Organization, I defined four behaviours that I have found provide the necessary foundation (and are often lacking) for achieving outstanding business performance: clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement.
Without those behaviours firmly in place, organizations produce varying degrees of self-inflicted chaos. The most common and destructive type of chaos is more commonly referred to as “fire fighting.” In many organizations, fire fighting has become such a normal behaviour that, like a fish in water, they don’t even realize that they’ve habituated chaos into their daily operations.
In the most extreme cases, organizations encourage fire fighting because they habitually reward the heroine or hero who saves the day and they do not reward the people working to prevent chaos. After all, chaos is exciting! It gets our juices flowing! But it’s all too easy to become an adrenaline junkie. Like any addiction, being hooked on adrenaline will bring you down.
How does this relate to measurement? Improvement is defined as reducing (or closing) the gap between a defined current state and a target condition you’re aiming to achieve. If your organization is hooked on fire fighting, your target condition is to reduce (ideally,
eliminate) the need for fire fighting. After you identify the root causes for fire-fighting (there will be several) and test, adjust, and implement the countermeasures that will address the “vital few” root causes that are causing the bulk of the pain, it’s time to measure your success. How do you know if you’ve successfully reduced or closed a nebulous gap?
One way to quantify a reduction in chaos is to conduct brief employee surveys. Another is to simply get anecdotal feedback to the question: “Does it feel better?”
Yes. “Does it feel better?” is a legitimate question.
While I’ve often admonished improvement teams, “It can’t just feel better. It needs to be measurably better,” it’s also true that there are some wildly important improvements that may be tougher to measure, but are simply the right thing to do. You may not be able to draw a direct cause-and-effect correlation between chaos reduction and an increase in profit, market share, or employee engagement, but reducing the need for heroics remains a noble goal.
Work shouldn’t require heroics to get it done and get it done well. Outstanding organizations continuously strive to create work environments where successful performance isn’t dependent on heroics. Where people can be proud of the deliverables they create versus rushing through everything and delivering suboptimal output. Where leaders sleep at night versus wondering if deadlines will be met. Where customers don’t have to regularly call the customer service center because… well, there’s no need to. Where stress levels are in check and employee joy is palpable. Being proud reduced stress, sleeping, joy… they may not be easy to measure, but….
Don’t you want to be one of those organizations?
Controllable vs. Uncontrollable ...
Senior Leaders are focused on cash flow, EBITA and profit as a percentage but how does that translate to our front-line employees as a controllable metric?
Make the metrics fun, controllable and achievable. For instance, if your employees are taking an hour to unload a truck at receiving challenge them to unload a truck in 45 minutes. Leave them to their devices and they will rise to meet the challenge since every human being likes a target with a challenge and will work hard to meet the challenge and enjoy the glow of meeting the accomplishment. Initially, it may be difficult to meet the target but once met subsequent accomplishments become easier to accomplish.
Reducing the unloading time by 15 minutes requires a 25% improvement. This is a major accomplishment on paper when viewed through your Profit & Loss statement but at the front lines, it is a tangible target that can be easily seen, measured and hopefully accomplished.
This is also a metric where our employees can quickly identify the specific “Disturbances to Flow” that will impede the team to reach the goal. We can then offer support and coaching to assist the team to meet the goal.
Yes ... Employees come to work in order to get paid so they can pay their bills and accomplish a lifestyle they would like ... and in the absence of tangible goals, they will create their own. Left to their own our employees may create goals that resemble the following; not getting scolded by a supervisor or not getting hurt while on the job ... But do these goals really support the organization's Vision and Mission goals?
Take time to convert your corporate goals to tangible goals understood by all levels of the organization and the lower you go within your organization the more granular they need to be in order to be accomplished and to resonate with your employees.
Have fun creating and converting your targets even if it means converting your profit targets into cases of beer ... Go for it !!!!