Measuring your performance

April 24, 2009
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From the beginning of time, engineering and the hard sciences have been held to account by laws of nature because results of faulty reasoning are obvious. Heavy airplanes won’t leave the ground, patients given the wrong drug die.

In recent decades the computer has spread accountability to so many fields and occupations beyond those historically constrained by nature that one expert suspects virtually nothing will escape the power of measurement.

John Sullivan, an aeronautical engineer who directs the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Purdue University, has watched organizations dramatically improve consistency through ISO standards and ultimately force improvements from the people operating factories and other enterprises. Even some law firms become certified.

The forward march of accountability is engulfing education as the public increasingly demands better performance from schools. Sullivan suspects testing and its associated paperwork may be pulling teachers too far from the classroom; nevertheless, even the new U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan, is calling for measurements of everything from student achievement to the quality of teachers.

“It seems to me the number of jobs without some pretty hard metrics about them will be pretty small,” Sullivan says.

How many unmeasured occupations come to your mind? Artists? Psychologists?

And how do you feel about this mega trend? Are any occupations harmed by hard numbers, and should any be completely off limits?

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  • From my personal experience in the sales industry, metrics are good in some ways, but too much focus can turn detrimental. Although it is important to keep track of meetings, calls, etc., a company should not look only at making as many calls and meeting as many people as possible. I can call 300 people if my hand was forced, but I will have less time to follow up and build a relationship with anyone. My return may be doing business with 1 or 2 clients in the end. Making 50 quality calls and having a few quality meetings may result in doing business with 5-10 clients. Numbers are important, but no one should let them get in the way of quality.
  • Where do we spend our time each day? If we want to stop taking work home every night and still compete we need to become extremely efficient in the office. How do we do that without measuring everything?
  • I manage technology projects for a living, and metrics are essential to understanding real vs. perceived progress.

    However, too much manage by numbers creates a purely operational mindset. While no doubt operations and execution are HUGELY important to success, this doesn't capture innovation or strategic processes that look not at today, but tomorrow. I don't know that we'll ever get scientific enough to truly manage these by the numbers. There is probably no more analyzed and measured industry than financial services, and look what happened there.

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