Ah, those performance metrics!

Generally speaking, performance metrics and KPI’s are a good thing. At least until Management gets ahold of them. Then, things tend to go horribly wrong, and the next thing you know, the organization has been twisted sideways into all kinds of knots of unintentional consequences that drive people screaming off the cliff. The following Dilbert sums it up well:


(courtesy Scott Adams, of course).

This particular strip came out in 1995. Almost 10 years ago! – Please though, feel free to comment if you think corporate America has truly learned and moved on to more enlightened methods of objective management.

In my experience, the quest to use objective metrics to evaluate individual or group performance fails for one simple reason: The lure of the siren call of the one true management dashboard that can be leveraged to make tactical and strategic decisions is rooted in the fundamental laziness endemic in human nature. It’s just too tempting to trust the numbers to tell the whole story.

No! You cry. A cop-out! The classic rebuttal of the under-performer desperate to hide in anonymity and avoid any personal accountability! That idea is heart of the decline of American productivity! Off with his head!

For the record, I firmly believe in metrics, SMART goals, KPI’s, SLA’s, and several other wonderful business acronyms. The rules of engagement must be clear, and a clear definition of success and expectations must be present if you want any chance of maintaining a motivated workforce.


Where I break with many organizations and their approach to management is the use of metrics and dashboards as a primary/single dimension to evaluate performance and efficiency. I have yet to see any metric that cannot be ‘gamed’. And frankly, I have seen more than my share of people doing completely stupid things just to meet the nirvana of the “green dashboard” – knowing full well that the actual business objective was going to suffer as a result.

I know I probably overly obsess over credibility as a general concept, but I truly believe that maintaining respect and credibility from your co-workers, management, and subordinates is a big piece of success – both personal and professional. And for the life of me, I cannot understand how managers can look themselves in the mirror and truly believe they have any credibility when the entire thematic of 1:1’s with their staff consists of reviews of their performance metrics against plan.

The objective metrics management chooses to measure will tell you with absolute certainty the individual’s ability to perform specific behaviours, and their ability to achieve goals in line with thresholds. All fine & good, but that has absolutely nothing to do with efficiency or overall performance/results.

“It’s the STORY, stupid!”

I mean that several ways, but let’s look at it literally. You don’t evaluate the quality of a story or writer by the number of words written, (unless you’re my son’s 10th grade English teacher.) Seems obvious that great written works are evaluated by some objective components (central idea, organization, grammar, spelling, etc.) taken in context with subjective criteria and the emotive framework and style the author can weave into the whole sum, as larger than the individual parts

…. And I believe this can be generalized to a more nuanced approach to performance management.

To really understand performance, objective metrics must be evaluated in context of other business measures AND individual feedback

What’s the STORY between the lines? Are the metrics the right ones? Do they truly support the overall business objectives, or they tangential (or worse, irrelevant!)

If the individual or group is failing to meet performance thresholds, WHY? Is the failure reflective of the individual to deliver results, or is there perhaps something deeper to examine? Personal situation, group dynamic, competing priorities, mis-alignment of teams – hell, it could be just about anything, but if you want your teams to truly be highly-performing, you can’t take the short cut of simply managing to the metrics.

That’s actually the minor risk. The major one is the situation where the team is meeting or exceeding goals. Wonderful, right?

Absolutely, positively, not.

How innovative do you think that team is? Do you really think you’ll get creative-breakthroughs and jaw-dropping paradigm shifts from teams that are rock star green bubbles on your management dashboard? Do you truly believe that those internal processes and performance metrics you worked out 2 years ago in your management offsite are in line with your customer needs today.

So first thing first. How well have you articulated your purpose/mission? (No, not the dusty framed thing on the wall from 1980 that no one even sees anymore…)

The RESULT you are there to achieve. It will be likely be different for your team, individual than it is for the corporation as a whole, but should obviously be in concert with that larger result. How well do your performance metrics support that? And what do you allow, or even encourage subverting them? And most importantly – how do you know?

Here’s a pretty obvious way to uncover some mis-alignment: Ask your team for a list of their David Letterman top 10 list of your company’s (team’s, department’s, etc) stupidity. I bet in there somewhere are little gems that sounds something like this:

“Why do we get graded on compliance with TPS forms sent to accounting? The accounting team hasn’t processed TPS orders in 2 years, since we outsourced that to the Elbonians!”

“Do you realize that you expect me to answer 120 calls per hour, yet our Yelp reviews for customer service have negative stars?”

“The new bonus system of paying for defects found & fixed is wonderfully motivating. That reminds me: did I request vacation next week? Flying the G5 to Saint Tropez with my wife, could use a ½ day in Monaco on the way back”

Anyway, you get it. That should be low-hanging fruit. From there, there’s a ton of work to do, which exceeds the scope of this post.

But the point is, if you actually take the time to look to the story between the metrics, take input from your team, LISTEN to the underlying theme in criticism (or love!) of performance metrics, KPI’s and the rest of the jolly bunch, you will start to move closer to proactive management.

Conversely, keep managing from a distance, those numbers don’t lie, and those lazy ingrates just need to get with the program.

Rock on, Pointy-Haired boss, rock on….

pointyhaired boss

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