Blog Post 12-14-11

Measuring What Matters

“If you don’t know what to measure, measure anyway and you’ll learn what to measure.”
--David Moore, statistician

Leadership requires a tolerance for experimentation, for trial and error; and that’s required by organizations seeking to define truly useful measures for their organization. What’s a truly useful measure? One that helps you make a better decision. To find those measures, we must be willing to try some things and see what works best.

But how do we know where to start with the experiment? Once again, it’s a question of leadership. Leaders understand that we must measure what’s important, and that means outcomes. New, inexperienced leaders often confuse activity with results. That’s why we see new supervisors focusing on measuring operational factors such as number of calls made, brochures produced, meetings held, etc. We might need to measure those things, but only as a means to an end. The end is-- what did we accomplish? And how do we measure that?

The language of measurement is different across the organization, and effective leaders learn to speak the right language when it comes to reporting measures. The language of organizational leadership is the language of what’s important, and is usually expressed through the resources of people, time and money. To get there, we might need to look to our front line supervisors for the language of operations, but ultimately we’ve got to operationalize that language.

If we held fifteen meetings last week, did that improve our customer satisfaction? It is the customer satisfaction measure that truly matters in the end. If we invested money in new computers in order to increase staff efficiency, did that actually allow us to reduce costs? A measure of time alone will not tell us that; we must translate the operational measure to a leadership measure. How much money did we actually save?

In many organizations, especially government agencies, external pressures force leadership to justify expenditures and it’s tempting to simply report measures in the language of operations in order to meet the demands of those external pressures. But we must resist that temptation and take the time to translate operational figures into reflections of our investments in people, time and money. If you don’t know how you’re doing with measurement, ask yourself these questions:

• Do we have metrics that tell us what we’re accomplishing?
• Can we link them to our mission statement?
• Do they tell us where to focus in order to improve?
• Does everyone have access to those measures?
• Can we get feedback about our measurement efforts?
• Do our measures aid and support us in our decision-making at all levels?

Be willing to engage in the experiment and learn what to measure, and you’ll build a solid foundation for assessing performance in your organization.