Most people working in the Quality/Performance arena are familiar with Dr. Deming and his famous question “how do you know?” This question is designed to illustrate or even prompt people to identify a measure.
In the title I say that measurement is over-rated but how do I know? More importantly, to what degree is it over rated. Would I be safe saying "measurement is vastly over rated" or would it be more accurate to say "measurement is minimally over rated". On a scale of 1 to 10, would it be a 5 an 8 or just a 3. Just how do you measure measurement anyway?
Before going on let me make it clear that I simply don’t know for sure, but that’s not going to stop me from giving an opinion. I know measurement is over-rated because of the people I have talked to and the amount of truly actionable measurement results that I've seen. Other indicators include the blank stares on the faces of people being force fed measurement in large doses either by books or consultants as well as the comments heard from those who have repeatedly measured something only to see those results go into a report which serves exclusively as an executive dust magnet. An instruction given to the group of internal consultants that I was once part of made reference to consultants “selling” measurement. The concept of measurement should not need to be sold. A well rounded leader wants to measure in order to maintain or even improve the desired level of performance.
Returning to the original question, by how much is measurement over rated? To this I have to step back and admit "not as much as I may think". Measurement clearly has a purpose and should simultaneously hold a level of importance in many different areas within every organization. While there are really only a couple of truly valid reasons to measure something, I must acknowledge that a lot of what currently is being measured at organizations legitimately falls under one of those headings.
There are really only two reasons to measure anything; first to indicate progress toward a goal, and second to make a decision. “Mandates” has been suggested as a possible third reason for measuring especially within a military culture, “we are measuring that only because command says so”, but at some higher level, whatever is being measured must fit into one of the two legitimate reasons or else time is being wasted. Accountability was once stated as another reason to measure and indeed accountability is very important and often overlooked, however it's also not something that should stand on its own. Someone should not be accountable just so they can be congratulated or punished (although that happens, often) but accountability really needs to be tied to something, usually progress or performance (either overall or project specific) with the connection being very clearly pointed out. If either progress or performance is not related to a certain goal, is there really any point?
I once mentioned to an organization, which regularly published a wonderfully usable progress report, these two valid reasons for measuring. I followed up my comments by suggesting that if the organization had a measure that did not fit one of the two valid purposes that the leaders may want to consider getting rid of it and using the time savings elsewhere. Shortly after my vist, some changes were made, measurement activity reduced, and a signifficant amount of time was freed up for operations while the organization still had the information needed to publish their wonderfully usable progress report.
Perhaps some readers may be familiar with the following concept. During a measurement class, the story was told of an organization that was spending a considerable amount of time preparing numerous lengthy reports. Consultants were called in to help this particular organization use their time more effectively. The consultants suggested that a heading be placed on top of every report form stating "the purpose of this report is ________". The organization did this and discovered that as they filled out the section, that the purpose of certain reports was either stupid or duplicated and the report could just be eliminated.
What if this same technique were used with measures? What if, prior to considering a new measure, the purpose question was asked? If the answer does not fit in to one of the legitimate reasons to measure, perhaps it's not the best place to spend time and effort.
Everyone should understand reason for measuring #1, “measuring progress toward a goal”. This is what it's all about, to do the work that goes into achieving a goal, of any type. Our goals should support those of the unit or division, and those goals should support those of the organization. Even an organizations goals need to support something higher, perhaps a those of a board of directors, stake/stock holders, maybe even a vision that involves serving customers.
A good story to describe reason for measuring #2, “to make a decision” came from my experience as an internal consultant for a military organization. This example involved airplanes. For each mission airmen were asked to measure, record and report the amount of cargo carried in their aircraft. Some did not do so but at the same time complained that their aircraft was too small and they were often pushed beyond capacity. What they did not understand is that headquarters was using the measurement information to make decisions about aircraft replacement. Those locations that reported a cargo measurement indicating that they were frequently overloaded were put on a list to get a bigger and better aircraft.
To put a cap on understanding this whole measurement thing, a big “ah-ha” came for me while attending a conference called "Quest for Excellence". One of the speakers equated measurement to communication in a way that struck a chord. I've always been a huge proponent of the theory that all problems can be attributed to communication. There are times when it's more appropriate to think of “interaction” as opposed to “communication”. Even problems that come up in the area of mechanics are due to action-reaction or influence-response, this relates to communication closely enough for me to be able to attribute all problems to communication.
Back to business, how does the boss or the staff communicate operating status, either internally or externally, unless there is a measurement? How can the boss or staff, communicate, either internally or externally, if or how an organization is progressing? The communication of measurement can be between the system and you (yes a system can communicate with you once indicators are identified) or between you and others.
Consider the charts and graphs in an executive summery. Some of that measurement is telling the leader what he or she needs to know, does it all? Measurement is about communication and only about communication, it is not only the “How” to the “How do I know” but to the “How do I let you know”.
Measurement is over-rated