Are You Indulging in Vanity Measures?

by Stacey Barr |

In NASCAR racing, you might be forgiven for thinking that a speedometer is a very important gauge for the driver. After all, racing is about speed, right? And speed should therefore be measured. But ironically, NASCAR drivers don’t use a speedometer at all.

The way that NASCAR drivers race is by using their tachometer and their visual judgement of what’s ahead to get their car as quickly as possible around the track.

The tachometer measures engine revolutions per minute, or ‘rpm’ as it’s commonly called. This measure is much more useful for them in deciding on how much throttle to use and which gear to choose. Speed is simply a vanity measure. It doesn’t help them make the practical decisions that will get their car as quickly as possible around the track. Just because there’s a gauge to measure it, doesn’t mean it should be measured.

A vanity measure is one that’s fun to talk about, and usually it’s one that can look quite impressive. It can boost egos, so it gets a lot of attention. But it doesn’t help performance to improve.

A few years ago I heard a businesswoman say that in measuring sales success, “revenue is vanity, profit is sanity”. And it’s true: revenue always looks bigger than profit, but you can run a business into the ground if you only ever focus on revenue.

Every measure worthy of measuring needs to be evidence of an important result. If, for any of your measures, you can’t describe the important result it is evidence of, then it could be a vanity measure.

But a word of advice: If you tell people who love it that it’s a vanity measure, it won’t go down well. Instead, start the conversation about which important result it is evidence of. Then talk about whether it truly is sufficient evidence of that result, and what other measure could be better evidence.


What measures are in your reports or dashboards, dominating discussions, but not actually helping improve performance? Start the conversation about which important result it is supposed to be evidence of, and what other measure might do a better job.

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  1. Bruce says:

    Excellent thought-provoking article. Far too often performance discussions detour towards, “wouldn’t it be nice to know…” without recognizing that although it might be nice, it may not maintain or improve performance. Thanks for sharing such a clear and easily understood analogy. I will be sharing this!

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Thanks Bruce – please, share it to your heart’s content.

      I often respond to my clients who say “but it would be interesting to know…” that they should be sure it’s “useful, not just interesting”.

  2. David Reynolds says:

    With regard to your final comment, a group long wedded to a particular measure could be amenable to adding a companion measure in combination with the accustomed one. In time, group members will see that the old measure was insufficiently, or even poorly, aligned with pertinent strategies and objectives and come to favor the new component, maybe even dropping the old one altogether. The organizational culture may tacitly encourage a bit of vanity. In such a culture, and if you have the flexibility, mixing in a companion measure might be useful, perhaps combining new and old in a computational way that furnishes better alignment while maintaining esprit de corps.
    Thanks for the insightful commentary. My Mini Cooper thanks you also.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      I love the Mini Coopers, David. I test drover a Cooper S some time ago and it’s zippiness surprised me.

      Companion measures are a great idea. It’s like when you enter into a culture and work with it to move to a new state, rather than butting up against a culture and expecting it to shift.

  3. Love it. Not the vanity measures. I love your term for them.

    I may be wrong, but it seems that a lot of vendors are pushing “metrics in a can” software. This software makes your measures “look smashing!” But, I find that most of the measures they offer are in a sense vanity measures. And we don’t even think twice about the need, only that it looks nice. Like the speedometer in a race car.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Those ‘measures in a can’ remind me of the fake health foods (like textured vegetable protein and roasted nuts) that ‘look smashing’ in their healthy-looking packaging, but give you no nutritional value at all.

  4. Grant Bennett says:

    Great example Stacey! As a motor racing nut and retired volunteer timing official, I can really relate to this one. It is a very interesting application of the principles Stacey talks about, if you will indulge me for a minute.
    The amount of data and measurement used by motor racing teams is truly phenomenal these days.
    I think it would be widely understood that the main objective for racing drivers and teams is “to be fast enough over the race distance to get to the chequered flag first”.
    So this statement of the problem/objective tells us that drivers and teams have three main things to monitor, and each of these are not just interesting, they provide crucial feedback that allows them to respond by changing something during the course of the race that will help to improve the final result.
    1. Fast Enough = lap times: lap time x number of laps in the race tells you if you will be in the hunt to finish first compared to competitors. Drivers these days have a lap time on their dash that they “drive to meet”.
    2. To get to the chequered flag = Fuel use/lap: if you use too much fuel by driving too hard or running the engine in full power mode vs a more conservative setting, you will not make it to the flag at all. “To finish first, first you have to finish.” Same here, they have a fuel number on the digital dash that they drive to meet.
    3. First = Track position relative to other cars. Knowing where your competitors are relative to your position helps you take corrective action and try to get to the front, or stay there!
    Listen to any race and these 3 things will be the main subjects of radio chatter between teams and drivers as the race progresses.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Nice extension of the metaphor, Grant.

      I wonder if we took a look at all the domains of human endeavour where outstanding performance and pioneering results were happening, if we would see that measurement was a central part of it? Motorsport, athletics, medicine, social media, …

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