It is often said “what gets measured gets done.” I don’t quite believe that, but measurement has a clear impact on behaviors within an organization. Most of those behaviors are unfortunately negative. You can do more harm than good with measurements and incentives. They must be carefully crafted, and also coupled to a strong culture that overrides the measures. A strong culture can determine the right behaviors, and then the measurements are only an influence, not a primary driver.
I have a silly little story that demonstrates how measurement impacts behavior, even real time. I was a young material handling supervisor in a large and aging manufacturing complex. My direct boss at the time was a CPA. Nothing against CPAs, but he certainly wasn’t suited for a job managing logistics and material handling. This was a tightly packed plant with lots of material moving in and out. The result was a good deal of forklift traffic. My boss decided one day that the fork trucks were driving too fast. I’m not sure that was the case. My guess since all the employees hated this guy, that when he walked out of his office one day they gave him a little “drive by” scaring him a little, just to teach him a lesson. So he decided he needed to get people to slow down. He asked me, in a way making it clear this was expected, to set up what could only be described as a speed trap.I would put two marks on the mail aisle a certain distance apart and then time how long it would take someone to go line to line, giving me data to calculate actual speed. Everyone got a kick out of this, and had quite a bit of fun with me, especially since they knew who the idea came from. They would speed along right up to the line, and then slow down to an absolute crawl through the area, then speed up again. One person even put up a cardboard “Speed Trap Ahead” sign up. I’m sure if I really wanted speed data, I could have found another way. But knowing how pointless the exercise was, I choose the “limit my pain” path. The worst part about this is that people were speeding because they had to. There was no place to put material, the line wasn’t stable enough to consume it evening, materials were rushed in the door and straight to the line – there were essentially a host of systemic issues that meant the material handling staff had two choices: rush around and speed, or let the line go down.
Too often we try to measure the wrong thing. We specifically measure the “symptom” instead of the symptom. Forklift speed was only a symptom. It wasn’t the actual problem, just an indicator of the problem. Later on in my career, I was a manufacturing and process manager for part of a plant. We were measured on many things, but one indicator was the number of ideas submitted. My peer on the other side of the house had gotten a grade of ‘A’ in Manufacturing 101: How to Beat the System. The result was he put every little improvement down into the system, and then corrected it. If a bolt was loose, it was submitted as an idea, fixed and responded to. He was simultaneously the most prolific generator and respondant of ideas. The next month when the report came out, his group had generated 10x the number of ideas as my group. I got the report on my desk with a frowny face drawn next to my number (no kidding!). The lesson: game the number. The number of ideas was only an indicator of a healthy organization capable of finding and implementing opportunities to improve.
I believe we make three critical errors when developing measures for our organization. First, as I already mentioned, we measure the symptom instead of the system. Any symptom can be manipulated, but if done right, not the underlying system. Second, we focus our metrics too narrowly. If you measure the individual, you will get individual behavior at the expense of the group, for example. And lastly, we forget that measurement is only one tool for evaluation, not to be used as the only tool. There are many tools and methods to evaluate the current state, including things such as observation.
What measurement error is your organization committing?
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