Drowning In Activity Measures?

June 17, 2007 by Stacey Barr

If you were to ask me the most common example of poor KPIs or performance measures, I’d probably have to say it’s activity measures, used as the easy alternative to outcome measures.


Examples of what I mean by activity measures include these:

  • Completion of system audit
  • Implement policy review by June 2025
  • Number of training programs conducted
  • Health inspections at aquatic facilities

It’s when people count up whether or not, or how many times, they’ve done a particular type of task. Sometimes tracking activity measures can be useful, when we want them to establish the right habits. So, why do I think activity measures are a performance measurement mistake? Here are five reasons.

REASON #1: Activity measures often aren’t really measures

Why aren’t “completion of system audit” and “implement policy review by June 2025” really measures? Because they’re events. They’re milestones to reach, usually within a project or implementation plan of some kind. They are activities. KPIs are evidence of the degree to which something is occurring, through time. KPIs are supposed to be regular and ongoing feedback that we can use to adjust our course so we continue heading where we need to go. Milestones are not measures.

If you want people to improve their ability to meet deadlines, like the milestones described above, then you don’t measure a single deadline as “met” or “not met”. You get tonnes better information if you track the proportion of deadlines met as time goes by, months and years. And thus, activity measures like these milestones are really just the pieces of data that would comprise a measure that has everything to do with someone’s on-time performance and nothing to do with the nature of the activity itself. That leads us to reason #2.

REASON #2: Activity measures don’t measure performance

Many times I’ve seen activity measures being used as evidence of the achievement of strategic results. For example, one organisation (through the use of this measure in their strategic plan) seems to believe that the number of people trained is evidence of how committed their staff are. Activity measures are evidence of nothing more than the activity having occurred. The result of the activities is another matter entirely.

Evidence. Feedback. These are important words when it comes to measurement. Good evidence is convincing, and will convince the right people that a particular result is really happening. Good feedback is regular, and when it is regular enough (not annual) it helps people change their activities to stay on track to influencing their desired results to happen. Of course, there’s the presupposition that people have results that they want to happen.

REASON #3: Activity measures drive the wrong behaviour

A measure that monitors the amount of activity being done sends the message to do more of that activity. These measures don’t send the message to do the right activity, and they don’t send the message to do the activity well.

That said, you can still devise some good activity measures that encourage the kind of behaviour you want. For example, one of my own personal performance measures is the number of articles and books I read each week. Because I hate wasting time reading things that don’t add to or challenge my knowledge, I know that this measure is going to drive me to read lots of valuable literature. So if you carefully think through the behaviours you want and the unintended consequences that might surround those behaviours, you can still use activity measures to improve performance.

REASON #4: Activity measures waste data collection resources

Generally it’s really easy and quick to measure activities. We have easy access to the data, it’s not too hard to collect, and most organisations have systems for capturing a good deal of it. And it’s data that can rarely inform any important decision. The more activity measures we have, the less meaningful data about results we seem to have.

Letting go of our plethora of activity measures has the potential to free up time, energy and mental focus to start collecting and using data that gives us measures of results. Letting go is hard, but trying to improve organisational performance using activity measures is much harder.

REASON #5: Activity measures breed learned helplessness

If there is one thing in our lives that we can control most, it’s what we do. Our direct activities are more within our control than the results of those activities, for example. Using activity measures to assess our own performance is usually associated with a desire to measure only what is in our circle of control.

What a waste! What if we all turn up to work and just accept responsibility for our circle of control, and don’t accept any responsibility for our relationships with other people, for our impact on the activities and work of other people, for the impact of our activities on the world around us? We all have a circle of influence, and we only really perform when we start measuring and improving what lies in our circle of influence.

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