Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Death of a Metric

When a new metric is born everyone is hopeful it will have a long and useful life. They want it to get lots of attention and be responsible for improvements in how the organisation operates. Everyone hopes that this metric will be popular and profitable, and be discussed in board meetings and within project teams.

Some metrics do grow up to be shining examples of how performance measurement can transform organisations. They are responsible for positive changes in the way things get done. But not all.

Some metrics die young and never reach their potential. Here are 4 good and bad reasons why are metrics killed off:
  1. The metric encouraged the wrong behaviour. Despite everyone’s best intentions the metric encourages wheel spinning instead of real results. A poorly conceived metric can encourage short term profit at the expense of customer satisfaction, quality or the long term health of the organisation. Too much focus on financial metrics can has this effect. These metrics deserve to die.
  2. The metric gets forgotten. This is frighteningly common. Every new initiative starts out bright eyed and bushy tailed, but then reality sets in. The data takes time to find, or inconsistencies are found. First one month is missed, then another. No one asks about the new metric. Soon everyone has forgotten about it. More good metrics get forgotten and die through lack of attention than people realise, losing enormous potential to improve. These are metrics in search of a champion.
  3. The metric shows poor performance. This is the worst reason to kill off a metric, but one of the most common. Instead of treating the metric as a learning and improvement opportunity, it is treated as a PR disaster and quietly buried. Even though the metric was actually doing exactly what it was supposed to – alert management to an area that needed attention. If you have a metric in this state, consider whether it is a lead or lag indicator, and perhaps supplement it with some lead indicators.
  4. The metric has improved performance and is no longer needed. Successful metrics can outgrow their usefulness. Once the new behaviours have become part of the culture, the metric is no longer serving any good purpose and needs to be replaced with something that will stretch people more. Metrics love to be killed off for this reason – they can die happy.

Metrics, like people, are complex little beasties who need care and attention to flourish. They need champions who are determined to get metrics working well, even if it means a little adjustment as they are growing up, just like people!

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