Home » Metrics » Why We Need To Measure And Understand First And Then Decide What To Do

Why We Need To Measure And Understand First And Then Decide What To DoA vigorous debate has erupted over just how much inflation — if any — is desirable or tolerable in our economy. But that discussion is separate from the important step we are recommending: Let’s make sure the measure we use is accurate.  A Bipartisan Deficit Fix, Bloomberg Businessweek, April 30 2012.

A VP of development, reporting on her team’s progress, saw my numbers on the performance of her team.  She had never tried to measure her team’s performance in this way, never even thought about it as an idea.  Her reaction to my numbers?  She asked the Quality Director to take at look at them, “kick the tires” to see if they had merit.  While this sounds reasonable, in fact it was her way of trying to remove the notion of measuring her team’s performance.  This was the same VP who went ballistic when I reported  that it took us one minute on average to review each product defect.  She simply did not like working with hard facts on how things happened.  She was much more comfortable with squishy and vague.  She wanted things that “sounded right” and was less interested in numbers that were contrary to her feeling or that she could spin to her advantage in a meeting.

For more see Honesty Is Just More Efficient

I finally got through to a CEO of a Fortune 500 company that his team regularly planned to deliver products late.  That was simply because they would not admit to our actual capability and hence always planned based upon what they wanted to achieve, not based upon what they’ve been able to achieve in the recent past.  Because of this his teams were always, always, late and never on time when delivering new products.  I thought I had gotten through to the CEO because he had agreed that we were delivering consistently late.  He had a solution however.  No, it was not to base commitments on known performance and then try to improve performance, but instead to simply assert that we would deliver our products 20% faster in the coming year.

In both these instances we have the same characteristic of not wanting to first understand the performance before making a commitment.  In both cases, these very successful and dynamic leaders first wanted to present a position and then produce numbers that supported that position.  They were not grounded in how their organization performed.  They were essentially in denial and had various “tricks” they used to deflect the reality when it confronted them.  Instead of doing something hard they were more content asserting the reality they felt was true and that sounded good, rather than confronting the reality and finding a solution.

I’ve told the story before of all the programmers that would come to me and suggest they it was better to rewrite the code then it was to figure out what was wrong with the code and then fix it.  In every case but one, once the programmer fixed the original problem, they no longer had any interest in rewriting the code.  Once they understood the problem, the larger and more complex solution was no longer interesting.

Understanding what is really going on in an organization or even in a chunk of code, makes a huge difference in deciding what needs to be done.  I’ve seen organizations that went for years performing at low levels “suddenly” rocket up to higher levels of performance by simply making a few key changes.  These key changes were based upon understanding how the teams were performing and what was holding them back.

Understanding The Problem Is Over Half The Solution

I would argue, from my experience, that understanding the problem was about 90% of the solution.  Once we understood the problems, it was almost always immediately obvious what needed to be done (which does not mean it would be easy or cheap).   Having a culture of understanding the problem also meant that decisions were made quickly.  Sometimes there were solution tradeoffs that had to be decided first, but that was now only a small fraction of the issues.

I will comment that when we got to a routine of fully understanding the problem and acting on it, a lot of people were not as happy with how we did things.  They didn’t like to be beholden to facts and measurements.  They were in their element when arguing what to do when things were fuzzy and uncertain as to the root causes.  To other people, using the facts to drive us, seemed at odds with having a full discussion by everyone and deciding based upon consensus.  A hard facts driven process had a tendency not to need as much discussion by as many people  — and this was taken as heresy, as cutting people out of the decision process.   So moving to a measurement based understanding of the root cause of a problem, can impact the culture of the organization especially if the previous culture had attracted and promoted folks who liked to lead when understanding of problems was only rudimentary.

See for example Business Rules Rather Than Meetings

Like any technique for improving an organization, being measurement and hard facts based can have its drawbacks.  I think back to the example from the book Freakonomics, where a national police force, which cared mightily for how well it performed in solving murders, would reclassify a probable murder as a “discarded body” if they didn’t think they could solve it as a murder.  Here, the attaining of certain numbers became more important than the original mission of the team and hence defeated the entire purpose.  We need to always keep foremost the reason we are doing our job (hopefully, it is not just about the money for example) and then apply these kind of techniques that will help us to continually improve and get better at what we do.

See also Have a Higher Purpose

Do you have hard measures for the success of your projects and are they an honest and accurate measure that helps you to continually improve?

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