Why “World Class” Performance Isn’t Measurable

Why “World Class” Performance Isn’t Measurable

Let’s say our organization needs to buy a fleet of vehicles and we have two procurement teams. We tell team 1 that we want quiet, blue, four-door, fuel-efficient cars. We tell team 2 that we want world-class, high-quality, great-value, high-performing cars. Then we give both teams a few weeks to find their vehicles. Guess which team will be able to produce measurable results? Team 1 will have the easier time, as it is clearer what is meant by the criteria provided. Team 2 will struggle because their criteria are too ambiguous. Without further clarifications, “world-class” could be interpreted to mean a hot rod sports car, a luxury sedan, or even a nice SUV. And if the team cannot agree on the specifically desired result, how can it measure success? This example demonstrates an important principle of good measure design. Before you can design a measure, you first must agree on what result you are trying to achieve. And not all results are created equal. Results written in abstract language are less measurable and harder to implement than those written in concrete language. Abstract language refers to concepts or vague ideals. Examples of abstract words or phrases include sustainable, innovative, reliable, leadership, quality, effective, leverage, efficient, resilient, optimized, or responsive. Strategic plans are often littered with this type of language, as we aim to deliver best practices, thought leadership or world-class performance. These “weasel words”, as they are often called, are notoriously hard to measure without first translating into concrete terms. Concrete language is sensory-specific, meaning it describes things you can see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. Because they are observable, concrete results are measurable. Team 1 will have no problem determining the percentage of cars procured that meet their specifications. Concrete results are also more memorable and easier to implement. So if you are struggling to design measures for your organization, your first step should be to clarify what result you are trying to achieve, in concrete terms. To learn more about developing concrete results or related measures, please look into one of our KPI training or certification programs or visit kpi.org.
What I Learned About KPIs from My Six-Year-Old

What I Learned About KPIs from My Six-Year-Old

I arrived to pick up my daughter on the last day of art camp just in time for program evaluations. Since we at the Balanced Scorecard Institute (BSI) use evaluation data for course improvement, I was intrigued to watch a room full of six- to nine-year-olds randomly fill in bubbles and then quickly improve their scores when the teacher noted that if any of the scores were less than three they’d have to write an explanation.  In the car on the way home, I asked my daughter why she rated the beautiful facilities only a 3 out of 5. She said, “well, it didn’t look like a porta-potty. And it didn’t look like a palace.” She also said she scored the snack low because she didn’t like the fish crackers and wished they’d had more pretzels. As I giggled at the thought of some poor City program planner or instructional designer trying to make course redesign decisions based on the data, I reflected on the basic principles that we try to follow that would have helped the city avoid some of the mistakes they had made. The first is to know your customer. Obviously, giving small children a subjective course evaluation standardized for adults was ill advised. Better would have been to ask the students about their experience using their language: did they have fun? Which activities were their favorite? Which did they not like as much? Further, the children aren’t really the customer in this scenario. Since it is the parents that are selecting (and paying for) the after-school education for their children, their perspective should have been the focus of the survey. Were they satisfied with the course curriculum? The price? The scheduling? Would they recommend the course to others? Another important principle is to make sure that your measures provide objective evidence of improvement of a desired performance result. My daughter’s teacher used descriptive scenarios (porta-potty versus palace) to help the young children understand the scoring scale, but those descriptions heavily influenced the results. Plus a child’s focus on pretzels versus crackers misses the mark in terms of the likely desired performance result. Similarly, it is important not to get fooled by false precision. Between some participants superficially filling in bubbles and others changing their answers because they don’t want to do any extra work, the city is simply not collecting data that is verifiable enough to be meaningful. These might seem like a silly mistakes, but they are common problems. We have had education clients that wanted to measure the satisfaction of a key stakeholders (politicians and unions) while ignoring their actual customers (parents and students). We see training departments that measure whether their participants enjoyed the class, but never ask if their companies are seeing any application of the learning. And we see companies making important decisions based on trends they are only imagining due to overly precise metrics and poor analysis practices. Even the evaluations for BSI certification programs require an explanation for an answer of 3 or less. I wonder how many of our students ever gave us a 4 because they didn’t want to write an answer. I have also seen evaluations go south simply because of someone’s individual food tastes. At least I can take solace in the fact that no one ever compared our facilities to a porta-potty.
The Ultimate KPI Cheat Sheet

The Ultimate KPI Cheat Sheet

We’ve received a lot of interest in our new KPI Certification Program. In fact, one woman said she couldn’t wait until the first scheduled program offering. She also wanted to know if we had a handy list of the most important principles – she wanted a cheat sheet! So in the interest in tiding her (and others) over, below I have compiled a few of the most important KPI tips and tricks. There are many more of course, so if you think I’ve missed anything, please add them in the comments section below.

Strategy comes first!
A training student told me his organization is struggling to implement measures for brand equity, customer engagement, and a few others because they believed the measures didn’t really apply to their company. I asked him why they were implementing those measures if they didn’t seem to apply, and he said they had found them in a book. They had no strategy or goals of any sort, and yet somehow thought they had a measurement problem.

KPIs found in a book of measures don’t necessarily mean anything in relation to your strategy.  If you don’t have a strategy and/or can’t articulate what you are trying to accomplish, it is too early for KPIs.

KPI Development is a Process
I am embarrassed to admit that the first time I facilitated the development of performance measures with a client, I stood in front of a blank flip chart and asked them to brainstorm potential measures. It was my first consulting engagement as a junior associate and the project lead had stepped out to take an emergency phone call. Even though I had a basic understanding of what good KPIs looked like, I couldn’t help the client come up with anything other than project milestones (“complete the web redesign by August”), improvement initiatives (“we need to redesign the CRM Process”), or vague ideals (“customer loyalty”). What I didn’t understand at the time is that you need to use a deliberate process for developing KPIs, based on the intended results within your strategy. And like any other process, KPI development requires continuous improvement discipline and focus to get better.

Articulate Intended Results Using Concrete, Sensory-Specific Language
Strategy teams have a habit of writing strategy in vague, abstract ideals. As you pivot from strategy to measurement, it is critical that you articulate what this strategy actually looks like using concrete language that you could see, hear, taste, touch or smell. A vaguely written strategic objective like Improve the Customer Experience might get translated into checkout is fast, or facilities are safe and clean. Improve Association Member Engagement might get translated into a result of members volunteer for extracurricular activities. I’ve seen strategy teams shift from 100% agreement on vague ideals to diametric opposition on potential intended results, indicating that their consensus around strategy was actually an illusion.  Use simple language a fifth-grader could understand to describe the result you are seeking. If you spend your time honing this intended result, the most useful performance measures almost jumps out at you.

It’s not about the Dashboard!
Dashboard software is great when it is used to support a well-designed strategic management system. Unfortunately, many people are more interested in buying a flashy new tool than they are in understanding how they are performing (a topic I’ve talked about before). KPIs are not about a dashboard. KPIs are about articulating what you are trying to accomplish and then monitoring your progress towards those goals. A dashboard is the supporting tool and too much emphasis on technology misses and often distracts us from the point.

It’s not about the KPIs!
Speaking of people missing the point, we have many clients who think this process begins and ends with the KPIs themselves. Unfortunately, some of these folks are simply trying to meet a reporting requirement or prepare for a single important meeting. This type of approach completely misses the power of KPI development, which is that KPIs provide evidence to inform strategic decisions and enable continuous improvement.

For more about how to improve KPI development in your organization, see our KPI Professional Certification Program or The Institute Way: Simplify Strategic Planning and Management with the Balanced Scorecard.

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