Friday 1 May 2009

If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it

Lord Kelvin is best known for his work in thermodynamics, the temperature scale named after him, and providing brilliant quotations for the Getting to Excellent blog. His studies of heat determined that there is an absolute minimum temperature: zero on the Kelvin scale, equivalent to –273oC.

Although he might have preferred to have been remembered as a physicist rather than a performance management expert, his observation that "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it" is worthy of any manager wanting to improve performance – however performance might be defined.

In 1867, together with Peter Tait, he wrote the first ever textbook on Physics – Treatise on Natural Philosophy. To the delight of school boys everywhere, it is still in print today.

Amongst my favourite Lord Kelvin quotes are:

“Large increases in cost with questionable increases in performance can be tolerated only in race horses and women.”

“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.”

And my personal favourite:

"Radio has no future."

Hey – anyone that invents thermodynamics can be forgiven the occasional slip.

By all accounts he was a man of enormous energy, giant intellect, and a tremendous capacity to apply scientific knowledge to practical problems such as laying a telegraph cable across the ocean bed. He was one of the pioneers of electric light and lived in the first house in the world to be completely lit by electricity. He earned himself considerable wealth through his ability to solve practical problems for companies.

He is buried in Westminster Abbey next to Isaac Newton and acknowledged to be the greatest physicist of the 19th Century.


  1. I agree to a certain extent. But how do you measure the effect of talking to someone and openly praising them for good work in front of their colleagues, for example? You could write it down in a log but that would mean it is insincere.

    Getting great performance also needs leadership and sincerity which measurement can often find difficult to guage.

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