Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 18;   May 2, 2007: Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part II

Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part II

by

Although many believe that "You get what you measure," metrics-based management systems sometimes produce disappointing results. In this Part II, we look at the effects of employee behavior.

Metrics-based management holds that "You get what you measure," but the assertion is actually even stronger. Many also believe that if you aren't measuring it, you won't get it. That's why it's reasonable to investigate possible causes of disappointing performance of metrics-based management. Here's part two of a collection of reasons why metrics-based management systems can disappoint. This part emphasizes employee behavior. See Part I and Part III, for more.

The Western Electric Plant at Hawthorne, Illinois

The Western Electric Plant at Hawthorne, Illinois. This plant was the site of a series of experiments that purportedly demonstrated observer effects, in which the act of observation affects the system being observed. The Hawthorne experiments remain controversial, but subsequent evidence of the importance of observer effects in general is more widely accepted. Photo courtesy The Eastland Memorial Society.

People aren't bolts of cloth
When we measure a length of cloth, the cloth hardly ever tries to influence the result. But employees, consciously or not, do try to make measurements "come out right." For instance, if employees fear the consequences of departing from management's expectations, they're more likely to provide data that's consistent with their estimate of management expectations.
But this effect can be even more confounding. Employees sometimes guess wrong about what management is measuring. Their biased reports then "spin" the data in a direction consistent with their interpretations of what management is measuring, rather than spinning it with respect to what management is actually measuring. Thus, even if we figure out how to correct for "spin," we might not be correcting for the right spin.
People and organizations adapt
Whether or not you believe that measurement works, it works best at first, because repeated measurements of the same attributes have decreasing impact. Soon, the measurement becomes routine, and employees adapt their actions and responses to enable a more comfortable, familiar stance.
For instance, When we measure
a length of cloth,
the cloth hardly ever
tries to influence the result
when we first start tracking "show-stopper defects," we find people working hard to fix them. But after a few cycles, people develop ways of reclassifying defects to appear less severe, or they create escape clauses, or the organization develops an "appeal procedure" for obtaining waivers. The effect of the metric soon diminishes, often after a surprisingly short useful life.
Measurements of different attributes can interact
When people notice that we're measuring two different attributes, they might try to make them both "come out right," and this sometimes leads them to contradictions. For instance, to achieve long-term goals, we might have to take actions that jeopardize short-term goals, or vice versa. Thus, the act of measuring one attribute can affect the measurement of another.
Moreover, it isn't necessary that we actually make two measurements. All that's required for contamination of the data is a belief among some employees that measurement of a second attribute might take place. Perhaps we measured it in the past, or perhaps other organizations measure it, or the "literature" suggests measuring it. Even if you announce that it won't be measured, there are those who will remain skeptical, and who assume that it will happen, "just to be safe."

Just as employees make choices that can reduce the effectiveness of measurements, so can management. We'll examine that issue in a future issue. Go to top Top  Next issue: Have a Program, Not Just an Agenda  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenTMeQSRMJDxVhWfOHner@ChaclERzEeGgvSxXZoVIoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Two weightlifters in suitsHeavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never
As a leader you carry a heavy burden. You're accountable for everything from employee development to meeting organizational objectives, and many of these responsibilities conflict. Life is tough enough, but most of us pile on a load of over-generalized rules of work life — a load too heavy for anyone to bear.
A cheeseburger with friesMy Boss Is Driving Me Nuts
When things go badly, many of us experience stress, and we might indulge various appetites in harmful ways. Some of us say things like "My boss is driving me nuts," or "She made me so angry." These explanations are rarely legitimate.
An appealing plate of pasta (not what I ate that evening)If Only I Had Known: Part II
Ever had one of those forehead-slapping moments when someone explained something, or you suddenly realized something? They usually involve some idea or insight that would have saved you much pain, trouble, and heartache, if only you had known.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf, illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 Aesop anthologyWhy Don't They Believe Me?
When we want people to believe us, and they don't, it just might be a result of our own actions or demeanor. How does this happen?
Navy vs. Marine Corps tug of war in Vera Cruz, Mexico ca. 1910-1915Holding Back: Part I
When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Frank MurphyComing August 3: The Passion-Professionalism Paradox
Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension. Available here and by RSS on August 3.
Time is moneyAnd on August 10: Costs of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: Part I
Your meetings start on time, but some people are habitually late. When they arrive, they ask, "What did I miss? Catch me up." This is an expensive way to do business. How expensive is it? Available here and by RSS on August 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenpyXzhEyUQcFWxXphner@ChacUVXCrdblkTRshKmioCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Sudoku Solutions, INK: A Simulation of a Project-Oriented Organization
In thCross-Functional Teams: How Organizations Actually Workis workshop, we simulate a company that solves Sudoku puzzles for its customers. Each puzzle is a project, solved by a project team led by a project manager. Team members hail from different parts of the organization, such as QA or the Department of Threes. Puzzles have different values, and the company must strive to meet revenue goals. The metaphor is uncanny. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.