Are we measuring the wrong thing?

PerformanceNumbers may be one of our most effective and efficient vehicles for communicating information.  It’s natural for people to trust numbers over words, as they represent less ‘emotive’ and more ‘fact-based’ data.  What’s more, statistics present numbers in an attractive format that everyone can follow and can represent a wide variety of information – most commonly customer feedback, key performance indicators, service level agreements …or, of course, profit.

We rely on data from the ‘real world’ as a reliable indicator of performance.  From our childrens’ school grades, to the cost of the Olympics, to the percentage of trains that run on time.  What that data doesn’t tell us is how much our children are learning, what we are getting for our Olympics money, or what ‘on time’ actually means!

Even data reported in the facilities management world isn’t necessarily a true indicator of performance.  Just because we have below-industry-standard space utilisation, it doesn’t mean our workers are productive.  Just because our closure rates for reactive jobs are within the agreed threshold, it doesn’t mean that the jobs are being completed to satisfaction.  And just because our calls are being answered within three rings, it doesn’t mean that the response is a friendly one.

There is nothing wrong with data. However problems arise when the data that is used to represent the outcome, becomes the outcome.  The numbers are not the means to the end.  Happy customers, productive workers, safe buildings and well-nourished employees are the intention – the customer feedback scores are not the destination, but merely representation of that journey.

An example is that of our old favourites – traffic wardens.  For many years now, local press around the UK has been reporting that traffic wardens have been giving out tickets because they have to fulfil a certain quota of tickets per hour.  Anything from buses, police cars and even tow trucks have been ticketed – but I don’t believe that it’s the traffic warden’s fault…  If you were working in a culture that actually defined your success in your job by the amount of tickets you gave (and docked your wages if you didn’t meet that target), what would you do?

The trouble with focusing on the numbers is not the numbers.  It’s the focus.  In the gym you can focus on the number of calories you burn, or you can focus on your quality of health.  On Twitter, you can focus on the number of followers you have, or on the quality of those relationships.  At work, you can focus on your call abandon rate, meeting room utilisation, profitability or KPI adherence.

Or you can focus on the core intention of creating an exceptional and memorable experience for each and every person – and let the numbers merely guide our way.  Indeed, our customers and colleagues will be happier when our only focus is not on how well we do, but what causes the happiness in the first place.

You may argue that it’s not that simple — but psychologists and economists might disagree.  Human beings adjust behaviour based on the metrics they’re held against.  Anything you measure will impel a person to optimise their score on that metric.  What you measure is what you’ll get.

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This opinion piece originally appeared online in This Week in FM

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