On the usefulness of measuring things

There’s something about management thinkers and measuring things. They just can’t get enough of it. They have a congenital need to count stuff. In fact, they just don’t seem to be able to get through the day without quantifying something. But there’s a reason for that. It’s because they’re right.

It all started, as far as I can tell, with that old favourite ‘what gets measured gets done’, which has been attributed to pretty much everyone from Tom Peters to the Dalai Lama*. The principle here is that it’s difficult to achieve something if you don’t have a way of monitoring whether what you’re doing is having the desired effect.

Furthermore, it’s much easier to convince someone to do something if they know that you will be monitoring whether they have done it.

For example, when I was quite a lot younger I had a summer job picking apples in an orchard. For each massive box of apples I managed to fill, I got paid the princely sum of £8. Generous, I know. But, boy, did it motivate me to pick apples. By arriving early, hoovering my lunch on the go and staying late, I was able to fill four boxes a day. Every day. For six weeks. This was, I later found out, somewhat of a local record.

I very much doubt that I’d have shown such diligence if I’d just been tipping my apples into a communal box shared with the other pickers. Measuring performance does indeed get things done.

‘International performance improvement guru’ H. James Harrington takes things one step further. “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement,” he says. “If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

Peter Drucker, who is easily my favourite management thinker, puts it a little more concisely: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

So if I want to improve the rate of apple picking on my fruit farm, I’m going to need to know, for example, how many apples each of my pickers are currently picking each day.

In fact, I might want to know more than that. Which pickers are the most productive? Do they pick more apples at certain times of day or on certain days of the week? Do pickers working on their own pick more than those working in pairs or groups? Is it quicker to pick certain types of apples? What other factors influence how many apples the pickers pick?

If we want to improve something, we need to understand it. And for that we need information. We need to measure things.

Critically, though, we need to measure the right things.

I read somewhere that Albert Einstein had a sign on his office wall that said ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’ And I’m certainly not going to argue with him.

We mustn’t just measure the things that are easy to measure, because they might not be the right things. And sometimes we might not be able to measure the things that we want to know. Or we might be able to do so only with some difficulty.

Perhaps that’s why management thinkers keep going on about measuring things. Because, while we pretty much all accept that measuring things is important, it can also be extremely difficult to do well.


* OK, I made up the Dalai Lama bit.

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