GUNDERMAN; MUTZ: We’re now worshipping numbers

June 21, 2014

viewpoint-062314“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

It is difficult to think of an adage more universally endorsed in business, government, not-for-profits and throughout our culture. Every enterprise wants to demonstrate its success through measurable outcomes—whether reduced wait times in the Veterans Administration health system, increased student test scores in the Atlanta public school system, or profits in a business.

Our culture seems convinced that progress toward excellence is not possible unless it can be measured. But this worship of numbers and measurement carries real dangers.

The VA and Atlanta school controversies suggest the most obvious danger. The VA falsified wait times and the school falsified student test scores. In both cases, leaders thought that by requiring subordinates to measure their performance they would produce better results. But in both cases, we learned that requiring subordinates to report improved performance can merely lead to the reporting of better results.

It would be tempting to write off such outcomes as the work of a few misguided or corrupt individuals. But in fact, such stories point to fundamental pitfalls in equating good management with extensive measurement.

Simply put, when employees are punished or rewarded according to whether they make their numbers, their attention is prone to shift from the quality of the work to the numbers used to assess it.

Even without intending to do so, many people end up gaming the system. In the short term, ensuring that people meet quantitative targets might seem to benefit the business, but over the long haul, work quality and employee morale often suffer.

The more insidious danger of our worship of numbers is our tendency to forget that measurements are but a crude proxy for something much more difficult to define and potentially impossible to quantify. Reducing wait times is not the purpose of the VA health system, nor is improving standardized test scores the purpose of Atlanta schools. The real goal—excellent health care and education—is much more complex.

Neither goal is easily defined, let alone measurable. Wait times tell us nothing about care or comfort provided by VA physicians, and test scores are at best a rudimentary measure of a teacher’s ability to educate and inspire. Yet in our zeal to quantify, we tend to equate the simple, measurable factor with the more complex goal.

We are drowning in rankings and lists—even concerning matters inherently resistant to quantification. Critics tell us the top 100 novels of all time. Publications rank the top composers of all time. Historians purport to rank U.S. presidents. There is even a list of the 25 most evil people in history.

Number worship fuels the enthusiasm of social scientists for measuring all kinds of attributes once recognized as unmeasurable: altruism, political tolerance, generosity, virtue, depression. We might be unsure who possesses these qualities—or even what they really are—but this does not stop platoons of pollsters.

Rankings, numbers and other measurements have their purpose. But we must not forget that the world is full of the intractable, the unpredictable and the mysterious.

Most of the time, the things that really matter—excellence, beauty, happiness and goodness—are among the least susceptible to quantification. Far from being unmanageable, the immeasurable goals are often the ones most worth striving for.•

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Gunderman is vice chairman of radiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Mutz is a lawyer, consultant and business owner. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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