Thursday 28 January 2010

Why performance measurement is worth the bother

Have you ever set out to do something badly? Ever carefully planned to fail? At one time or another, most of us have monumentally screwed up. By accident, though, not design.

We normally try to make a success of our work, projects, and relationships. Most of our planning efforts go into things we want to succeed at; most of our thought goes into what we want, rather than what we don’t want.

Yet when things go wrong, it’s normally because we haven’t paid enough attention. We didn’t bother to think through what we were aiming for, or to put plans in place to meet our objectives. Stuff goes wrong because we couldn’t be bothered to give it the time and trouble it deserved – whether it is a work project, a committee, a personal relationship or a personal goal. How many New Year resolutions were made and then forgotten just as quickly?

Of course not everything is worth the bother of doing well. Sometimes we try to do too much and have to let things go. But projects or relationships that are important to us need time and attention, and are worth the bother - which is where performance measurement comes in.

Measuring and tracking performance, and learning when things go off course, is time consuming. But it means that those projects go well. Those projects get the attention they need. Performance measurement and improvement isn’t a freebie – it takes a little time and a little effort but is well worth the bother. At least it is for those things that we want, or need to get right.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

How focused are you?

Stop a moment to consider what you are working on. Look at your work and take a few minutes to consider:
  1. Is what you are working on brining you closer to your goals?
  2. Is it in your plan?
  3. Are you confident that what you are doing is the right thing to be doing right now?
  4. Are you able to measure how well you are doing with the task?
If the answer to any of those questions was “no” then there is a good chance you were not fully focused on whatever you were doing. If you answered “yes” to those questions, you would know, without any doubt, that what you are working on is important, urgent, and exciting.

Being super-motivated to achieve a goal requires a good plan, broken down into do-able tasks that move you closer and closer to what you want. Your plan enables you to figure out, in advance, what needs to be done and by when so you can always be ahead of your deadlines. By making your work measurable and quantifiable, you can monitor your progress and know whether you are on track.

Being super-focused on an activity is a wonderful thing, and when a whole team is focused to achieve something important work can be truly fulfilling. Metrics and data help you keep focused on what is important, and ensure you stay on track with your most important objectives.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Want to improve? Identify the process!

Contrary to what self-help gurus would have you believe, making improvements is not all about positive thinking and the laws of attraction. Improvement is actually a little more mundane. Yes, you have to be motivated to improve, and yes you have to be determined to see your project through, but there are some pretty simple steps to making improvements – either in business or elsewhere.

Firstly the activity must be enumerated, so that the process is spelt out in black and white. Only then will anyone have half a chance to improve it. If you don’t or won’t figure out the process, then it will be different every time and any performance improvement will be temporary or coincidental.

Atul Gawande was highlighted in The Times yesterday for his work in getting surgeons to adopt a checklist (The doctor taking safety to new heights – January 25 2010, The Times). Checklists reduce mistakes and stress, and provide a foundation for improvement. Whilst the idea can hardly be classed as revolutionary, it is telling how much resistance he is facing. With many intellectual activities, there is reluctance to “reduce” work to a number of steps or a checklist. The emotional reaction is that it somehow lessons the importance of the person or their experience, which, of course, is very far from the truth. In fact, it provides the basis for excellent work to be done, and "silly" mistakes to be avoided.

There is always scope for improvement, even with the simplest of jobs. There is often even more scope for improvement with complex activities. But the first step is always to figure out what the process is, so that the team can think about whether that really is the best way of doing things.

Atul Gawande has written a whole book about checklists, which is in itself eye-opening. It’s published on Thursday and is called The Checklist Manifesto.

If you have enjoyed this article, please recommend it to your followers on Twitter or Stumble or Digg It. It only takes a moment and brings such a smile to the author’s face when you do.

Monday 25 January 2010

What do high performance organisations do differently?

A white paper recently highlighted the importance of metrics in high performance organisations.

Research suggests that high performance organisations excel in managing their people, and are expert in using metrics to gauge the success of their initiatives. Three key differentiators were highlighted:
  1. Metrics are used to assess the success of people-management initiatives
  2. Metrics have a clear owner
  3. Metrics are reported on frequently
In other words, high performance organisations have a data-centric approach to the success of their people. Before they even start out on a project they figure out how to measure success, and carefully determine which metrics will work best.

It’s hardly rocket science, but sometimes challenging to do well, and consistently. It’s also a short, sharp and on-the-money checklist for people and project management.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Winning metrics for problems

Monty Python’s sketch about a casualty department is a joy to behold. Of course, being Monty Python the casualties are the doctors, nurses and staff. Shutters repeatedly crush fingers, wheelchairs collapse and doors smash against faces. Good old comic slapstick with a laugh out loud twist.

I won’t pretend that this sketch was responsible for me thinking about problems, but it does underline the importance of addressing them. Toyota has gone on record as saying they prefer to see problems surfaced, rather than hidden. Which makes a great deal of sense: a problem is still a problem whether you acknowledge its existence or not. The only difference is that once it is out in the open you can start to think about it, talk to people about it, review it, and solve it. You can also measure how many problems you have, and how long it takes to solve them: big advantages.

Yet there is something in human nature that doesn’t like to admit problems. I will wait until my check-up with the dentist before acknowledging an odd sensation in one of my teeth, even though my teeth would be better for an earlier appointment. I am also guilty of lying awake at night thinking about work problems, instead of writing them down and addressing them properly.

Some of my innovation friends recommend writing down good ideas in a notebook so as not to lose them – a more than sensible idea that I believe counts Richard Branson amongst its supporters. I recommend writing down problems to help tackle them more effectively. This works well for individuals, teams, or divisions and the resulting metrics are well worth the effort. It certainly worked for Toyota. And might help some of those Monty Python patients too!

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Finding flow for high performance

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is
stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I was deeply impressed by Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about flow when I first came across them. Flow is completely focused motivation and we all know it when it’s there. You might experience flow mode when trying to beat an opponent at tennis, or preparing a big presentation.

For me, flow mode, and doing the best I possibly can, always needs a deadline, a clear target and some way of knowing what progress I am making.

Csikszentmihalyi identified a number of factors that were important to flow mode:
  1. A challenging activity that requires skill
  2. The merging of action and awareness
  3. Clear goals and feedback
  4. Concentration on the task in hand
  5. The paradox of control (not being overly worried about failing)
  6. The loss of self-consciousness
  7. The transformation of time (losing sense of time)
Computer games immediately come to mind as an activity where you can easily lose yourself in concentration for hours on end, but writing, studying for an exam or playing a competitive sport are equally likely to be absorbing.

Performance management, and measurement, is all about finding the right environment for people to do their best work. Csikszentmihalyi’s point about clear goals and feedback is most obviously pertinent to how we work – good leaders work hard at making goals and feedback clear and unambiguous. Yet providing an environment that encourages concentration, rewards good work and learns from mistakes would also inspire better performance. So it seems that in a work situation it takes at least two to flow and achieve greatness:

  1. Ensure tasks are stretching but achievable
  2. Make goals crystal clear
  3. Make feedback immediate, visual and for improving rather than controlling
  4. Create a culture where it is OK to push, even if it sometimes means failing
  1. Be willing to fully concentrate on the task
  2. Desire excellence, don’t settle for “good enough”
  3. Give a task body and soul attention to get it done on time
Paradoxically, research shows that tasks where all of these things come together are some of the most satisfying. So creating an environment for high performance is well worth the effort – for both the organisation and individuals.

Monday 18 January 2010


If you are a small business owner looking for inspiration then Emma Wimhurst’s new book “BOOM!” could be just what you are looking for. It is like no other business book I have seen before.

Beautifully presented in more than full colour (you will see what I mean when you open it) Emma writes with authority about the principles that built her own successful business in four very short years. In addition to running her own business, she also worked for Revlon for 12 years, so has corporate credentials.

Like a business version of Mary Poppins, she won’t stand for any nonsense – business requires discipline, and woe betides anyone who thinks they can just wing it. A clear strategy, a written business plan, exceptional marketing and keeping control of costs are all required to build an excellent business. And so they are, but in BOOM! they are presented in a clear and practical way with lots of real-life examples. Emma gives a fascinating insight into how she managed her business, from the spreadsheets she used to how she recruited.

BOOM! makes compelling reading – from the details to the bigger picture. It didn’t take me long to read, but much of the advice takes time to assimilate, and because it’s so beautifully presented, it is a pleasure to dip into as and when needed. My copy arrived on Friday and I devoured it over the weekend. Part case study, part business mentor, BOOM! is both fun and useful. Recommended.

BOOM! by Emma Wimhurst, published by DIVA Publishing.

Friday 15 January 2010

Happy Birthday Getting to Excellent

Getting to Excellent is celebrating its first birthday today. Blogs are a little different to people, celebrations tend to be low key, without cakes or candles, with much more emphasis on statistics, particularly if you are a blog who loves metrics.

Since 15th January 2009 Getting to Excellent has had:

• 3,540 visits
• 6,207 page views
• 163 blog posts (almost one every other day)

The most popular post was the first post - “All Things Measurable” which I guess is where people go to find out what the blog is all about. The second most popular post was “4 Immediate Benefits of Giving Up Caffeine” which would be a little disappointing, if the data mining post hadn’t come very close behind it.

In truth, I’ve often been surprised what people have been interested in. Nuclear fusion was a popular theme, as was tips for meeting deadlines. I suppose, like me, people are concerned with the big things in life (like how our children are going to heat their homes in winter) and the little things like how to get this report out by the end of the day - and whether drinking coffee makes as much of a difference as they say.

I don’t have a statistic for the number of comments on the blog, but there have been plenty. Debates about how to measure the performance of local government councillors, how much emphasis should be given to quantifiable measurement as well as general “like it” or “not sure” comments. Comments and debate bring a blog alive and I hope many more people will add their views and experiences to Getting to Excellent in 2010.

So, Getting to Excellent isn’t a baby any more. It is starting to become a little blog in its own right with its own personality and opinions. As it finds its feet in 2010 it is going to be interesting to see how it grows up.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Kicking the caffeine habit

Much of what we do every day is a habit: the time we get up, checking email, even what we eat and drink. But habits get formed for all sorts of reasons: because they are someone else’s habit and you just fit in, because it’s easier/quicker to do it that way, or because you have never taken the time to think about it. Yet something that you do automatically, without thinking, is a great source of leverage in your day. Unthinking habits leave space for the big decisions, the big thinking and the bigger picture. Imagine how inefficient you would be if everything was thought through from first principles every day.

However, changing a negative habit – perhaps an outdated or unhealthy habit – into a more positive habit isn’t easy, as I have been discovering. I am now at 100 days without caffeinated beverages – tea and coffee to you – and getting to this stage wasn’t a given. I’m not a person who does things by halves, so for me one mug of green tea easily turns into 5 or 6, particularly if I’m pushing hard with work. Before I know it, I’ve OD’ed and have a racing heartbeat and trouble sleeping. So whilst I know many people wonder what all the fuss is about, for me going without caffeine is a better choice. But, it has taken every single day of that 100 days to wean me off the stuff.

So my conclusions from this little challenge are as follows:

  1. Give it enough time. Recent research that suggests it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit seems correct – and for some habits is likely to be on the low side. The power of round numbers does it for me and I would reckon on difficult habits taking 100 days to form.
  2. Know why. You have to have a good reason for changing your behaviour – doing something on a whim isn’t good enough.
  3. Set a target. Setting a goal and monitoring progress is important. And making the goal public helps enormously. Most of my friends and family know about the caffeine challenge.
  4. Don’t give up. I failed twice, horribly publicly, but got back to it. I could have decided not to bother after the first or second failure but (2) and (5) were big drivers in making me continue.
  5. Do your homework. It is quite likely that others will have studied and written about what you are trying to achieve. Standing on the shoulders of giants helps enormously in strengthening resolve and getting ideas about how to succeed. In my case it was “Caffeine Blues” by Stephen Cherniske, a well researched and informative book that eloquently argued the case for living a caffeine free life.
  6. Figure out alternatives. For me this was Roibush tea, which is close in taste to the real thing and to my utter joy also come in a green variety. This has made the transition much easier.
So, after 100 days I can honestly say that any yearnings for a cuppa of caffeinated tea have long gone. I gave up coffee over 15 years ago so that wasn’t a problem. But the bit question has to be – was it worth it? Has my new habit realised the benefits I’d hoped for? Well the answer is yes and no.

Yes, to better sleep, reduced anxiety and no caffeine-induced racing heartbeat. But no to fewer headaches. I seem to be prone to headaches for a variety of reasons, and whilst I think that cutting out caffeine has reduced the headaches, it certainly hasn’t stopped them.

Having spent the best part of six months forming the caffeine-free habit, I’ve decided to stick with it: for me the benefits massively outweigh the disadvantages.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Florence Nightingale and evidence-based nursing

The lady and lamp is known for her deep compassion for the sick, and her revolutionary approach to hygiene. What is not so well known is that she was also a passionate statistician. Her work was informed by research, government statistics and the clear presentation of data. She worked with experts to ensure her own research was appropriate.

When it came to presenting the results of her work she was ahead of her time in the use of tables, pie charts and bar charts. She used colour to make her points clearly. She wanted to be sure that it was clear and understandable to those who had the power to change and administer the law. In our PowerPoint computerised world this doesn’t seem unusual, but in the days when cleanliness in hospitals was viewed as an unnecessary luxury, it was remarkable.

As much as Nightingale was a nurse, she went far beyond her work in caring for the sick. She was a champion of the importance of having a statistical department to track mortality and disease. During the Crimean war 7 times as many soldiers died from disease as died from their wounds on the battlefield. Nightingale understood the importance of understanding such statistics, so the necessary changes could be made.

She was vocal on the questions asked in the 1861 census, as she understood that health was influenced by the type of housing people lived in. She was also a key influencer in changing nursing into a well-trained profession, again using data.

Despite our romantic view of a full-skirted lady caring for the sick, she was a level-headed, evidence-based thinker who fully understood the power of statistics to save not just one life, but very, very many.

The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale by Wilfred Laurier University Press describes her enormous contribution to nursing as a profession and the establishment of a public healthcare system.

Monday 11 January 2010

Focus: an Asperger’s Syndrome Lesson

I enjoyed catching up with friends and family over the Christmas and New Year break. One particularly enjoyable lunch was with a young man who has Asperger’s syndrome – he brought his parents and we enjoyed what turned out to be the last of the season’s festive lunches. Because we were not a large party, we were able to give a little more time and space to talking about his interests and passions: it was instructive.

Although people with Asperger’s struggle with social skills, they are often highly focused and interested in how things work; Einstein, Mozart and Marie Curie apparently had Asperger’s. Engineering of different kinds can be a good career choice. In this case, programming turned out to be a particular favourite, and a shared interest in eating vegetarian (although he was totally unimpressed by my consumption of fish), all of which provided plenty of opportunity for conversation.

He is particularly fond of computer games, which was discovered when the only computer game in the house was found. However, unlike many boys his age who favour a trial and error approach to finding out how things work, he took time to study the controls and rules before starting out. It didn’t take long, and he was much more proficient for it. I think to him it was obvious, but to me it was impressive. Despite having at one time earned my living by writing technical documentation, reading the manual is still a last resort as far as I am concerned.

This focus and determination to do something well was highlighted in Super Hero blog of Emma Wimhurst – mother of William who has just made it to the county cricket team. Young William sounds like a well-rounded youngster who just happens to be very focused and determined to achieve his goals, and Emma is inspiring in how she writes with pride and some admiration about his cricket achievements. She neatly sums up William’s approach with four pointers:
  • Define your objective
  • Focus on your goal
  • Avoid distractions
  • Refuse to fail
In reading a little about Asperger’s I see that those with the syndrome are able to focus perhaps more solidly even though they have many other challenges. For those of us who weren’t dealt any obvious difficult cards, it is chastening to think how often we waste our abilities through lack of focus. It seems it takes a lesson in focus from two youngsters to make us appreciate what can be achieved when we focus.

Thursday 7 January 2010

The Squash League

During my younger and fitter days I played squash. My club had a squash league which most of the players joined – whether they were county standard or huff-and-puff standard like me. The fact that most people participated, and enjoyed the leagues, was a testament to how important measurement was to us all. We WANTED to know how good or bad we were. We NEEDED the motivation of playing better players and winning games against our peers. We CRAVED the practice that would make us better.

Such enthusiasm is in marked contrast to how most of us perceive measurement and keeping score in a work situation. So what’s the difference?

Firstly, the squash leagues were designed to measure like with like. If you got put in a league that was too difficult you lost games and slid down the leagues until you found your level. Equally good players rose through the leagues until they found worthy opponents. I never had to be humiliated by playing county players and they never had to waste their time while I repeatedly ran to the corners to fetch the ball. We compared ourselves against similar standards. This is important. If we want measurement to be effective at work we have to be careful how we compare measures. A salesperson working in a complex and difficult market would be best compared to others in a similar situation, whether internal or external to the organisation. Comparing her to someone working in a boom market isn’t going to produce good results; more likely cause resentment and be de-motivating. Whereas comparing people in the same division, or selling the same product, or if the section is large organising results by “leagues” can create positive competition. I’ve seen this work well and badly in large organisations.

The second difference is the way the scores are used. In my squash club I was accepted as a member by good, bad and indifferent players alike. There was healthy competition and encouragement to improve through coaching and “club nights.” Club nights put players of all abilities together so better players could help weaker players. It was done in a spirit of fun, learning and mutual cooperation. Beginners, older players and plain lousy players were accepted just as much as the stars.

Thirdly, there was no blame culture. No one got reprimanded for losing a game. No one got taken aside because they had lost 6 games in succession. No one was ever asked to leave the club because their volleying was too poor. As a result we all participated enthusiastically and eagerly awaited the results of each league reshuffle.

So how can this be replicated at work?

Working hard to engender a no-blame culture is important. If measurement is used as a rod to beat people with, there should be no surprises when it isn’t embraced enthusiastically. Creating a learning environment is also important. If we wanted to climb the leagues, we invested in coaching and hours of practice.

Measurement pointed out the difference between our aspirations and actuality – and work is no different. Improvement comes through taking appropriate actions, such as training, coaching, or doing more of something.

I hate to think where I might be in the squash leagues now – even if I could find my old racquet. But the lesson in improvement and measurement is useful, and doesn’t require nearly so much huff and puff!

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Starting out with performance measures

If you don’t have a culture of performance measurement and improvement in your business then starting out can be a little daunting. There are so many things you could and perhaps should measure that it can take a long time to figure it all out. Added to which performance measures need to be closely linked to your strategy, which might be in a state of transition.

There are two places you could start – either with the area of your organisation which is in most need of improvement, or with some of your existing measures.

You will get fast results by starting with the area that most needs to be improved - an important factor with any new initiative. Because it is a priority you are likely to think more carefully and get buy-in from others. Focus on the results you want to achieve, rather than the data that is available. Too often we measure what is easy, rather than what really matters. Measures can have positive or negative effects, depending on how they are used and the culture of your organisation. Think of the possible loop-holes or ways of “cheating the system” that might be encouraged by your measures. If measures are used as a way of learning how to improve performance, they will be more successful than if they are used as a means of control.

The other place you could start is with existing measures. Even if you or your organisation is relatively immature with performance measures you will certainly be measuring a number of different things – perhaps more than you realise. Make a list of everything you currently measure. Think about who uses the measure, how often, and what value it adds. What would happen if you didn’t have the measure? Would performance increase, decrease, or not be affected? Does it drive behaviours that bring you closer to your objectives? These answers will give you some insight into how effective these measures are. Then consider which measures to keep, which to ditch, and which need to be replaced with something more meaningful.

Performance measurement, like the underlying performance it seeks to improve, is a process of continuous improvement and refinement. You have to start somewhere if you want to improve performance, so make a choice and find a measure that will bring you closer to an important objective.

Monday 4 January 2010

Lead and Lag Indicators

A new year and a new decade herald a new start. New starts of any kind provide an impetus for resolutions to do better – better at work, better at balancing home and work, better at exercising, the list goes on. But resolution alone is not enough. Most new resolutions never get followed through to completion; most get forgotten after the initial euphoria of setting them has worn off. Unless, of course, you are measuring your progress:

Goal + Resolution + Measurement = Decent Chance of Success.

Even then, you are not home and dry. What you choose to measure will make a big difference to your likely success. Let’s take the simple but knotty problem of losing a few pounds after the Christmas holidays. A simple measurement would be to weigh yourself daily or weekly. It is appropriate to the goal, but in fact could have several outcomes. If you have made suitable changes to your diet and exercise programme you might be motivated as you see your weight gradually decrease. However, if you haven’t made appropriate changes to your lifestyle, you might be demotivated as your weight increases or refuses to budge.

And so it is in business. The team’s New Year push to increase sales may have similar positive or negative results.

The key to understanding whether your goal will be accomplished is to have a number of measures – some of which are lead measures, and some of which are lag measures.

My weight, for example, is a lag measure because it is a result of choices I make during the day. The lead measures are the number of calories I take in through eating and the number I burn through exercise. So in addition to tracking my weight I also track how many times I visit the gym in a week, and how many miles I run in a week and how many meals I start with a fresh salad. All these are lead indicators that promote the habits I need to reach my goal.

Sales volume is also a lag indicator because sales are a result of other activities. Whereas the number of promotions sent out, or appointments set are lead indicators which will lead to increased sales.

Lead indicators help us “back up” through the problem so that instead of becoming demotivated, we work through the issues until we find the appropriate behaviours that will help us achieve our goals.

Systems that help you focus on both lead and lag indicators are useful – you keep your eye on the main target as well as tracking the constituent parts that influence the target.