How to Move From Activity Measures to Outcome Measures

June 11, 2019 by Stacey Barr

Activity measures are easier to identify and implement, but they aren’t good proxies for outcome measures. Follow these 7 logical steps to move from activity to outcome measures.

Magnifying glass over the world quality surrounded by the world quantity. Credit: Olivier Le Moal

Activity measures basically count the amount of effort we spend, or outputs we produce. Like these:

  1. Number of employees trained
  2. Kilometres of railway track inspected
  3. Completion of inventory audit

What kinds of activity measures do you have, like those above? How useful are they, really? Activity measures are far less useful than outcome measures and very dangerous in the absence of outcome measures. Doing is not the same as achieving.

One of the reasons we default to activity measures is that our goals are written as actions rather than results. If that’s the case for you, just ditch your activity measures and start from scratch by making your goals results-oriented.

But another reason is that we don’t really have any clear goals to start with, and our plan is almost entirely about actions. In this case, the following seven steps will explain how we can move from activity measures to outcome measures, in a logical and practical way. And the process will be illustrated by using the examples listed above.

Why not set aside your concerns that your outcomes are too hard to measure, and follow along as an experiment?

STEP 1: Describe the activity.

Your activity measure is counting something about an activity. It might be a routine process, a program, a project, or initiative of some kind. It helps to describe what the activity is, so you can clearly see it as a set of tasks. Mostly this will be obvious, but when it’s not, it’s worth doing.

For example:

  1. Number of employees trained is a measure of the activity of delivering training programs
  2. Kilometres of railway track inspected is a measure of the activity of railway track maintenance
  3. Completion of inventory audit is a measure of the activity of auditing inventory

STEP 2: What thing is the activity changing?

You’re doing the activity for a reason, not just to do stuff. What is the thing that your activity is changing, or impacting, or making some difference to?

For example:

  1. The thing that the activity of delivering training programs is changing is employee skill
  2. The thing that the activity of railway track maintenance is changing is railway tracks
  3. The thing that the activity of auditing inventory is changing is the inventory records

STEP 3: What qualities about this thing will be made better by the activity?

The thing that your activity or action or program is changing will have specific qualities. There will be many different qualities for any single thing, and that’s why it’s important to be ruthless and focus on what is strategically important. We can’t make everything better all at once.

For example:

  1. The quality of employee skills we want to make better is their
    appropriateness to their role
  2. The quality of railway tracks we want to make better is their safe condition
  3. The quality of inventory records we want to make better is their accuracy

STEP 4. Write this impact as a result statement.

To make it easier to find a meaningful outcome measure, an important step is to articulate the specific quality that your activity is going to change. In PuMP, we call these ‘performance results’. There is a simple but powerful grammar for how to write performance results, and it’s basically a statement like “[subject] has/is [quality]”.

You’ll notice it’s like a statement of the ideal or perfect situation, which doesn’t imply we need perfect targets. It’s just helpful as a description of what we’re heading towards.

For example:

  1. Employee skills are appropriate to their roles
  2. Railway tracks are in safe condition
  3. Inventory records are accurate

STEP 5. Test for measurability.

It’s easy for weasel words to sneak into our performance results. And it’s easy for multiple performance results to be combined in a single statement. Both of these situations make it harder to find meaningful outcome measures. To make our performance results measurable, we need to be sure that our performance results are written clearly, and each performance result focuses on a single quality.

For example:

  1. Employee skills match the skills needed in their roles
  2. Railway tracks meet safety standards
  3. Inventory records have no errors or missing data

STEP 6. Check for strategic alignment.

Because we started off with activity measures in our plan, there’s a better than average chance that we weren’t clear enough in the beginning about what was strategically important. We may have selected qualities back in Step 3 which aren’t closely aligned with our strategy or priorities. If we have, it’s time to rethink both the performance results that matter most and even if the activity we described in Step 1 is the right activity.

For example:

  1. ‘Employee skills match the skills needed in their roles’ might align to a strategic goal for building a highly competent workforce
  2. ‘Railway tracks meet safety standards’ might align to a strategic goal for reducing railway related accidents
  3. ‘Inventory records have no errors or missing data’ might align to a strategic goal for fast despatch of customer orders

STEP 7. Design a measure based on evidence.

The power of a clear and specific performance result is that it is easily measurable. When a result is clear and specific, you can observe in the real world. That means you can define evidence that would convince you the result was happening. And that’s the technique for designing performance measures, especially outcome measures.

For example:

  1. Average over all employees of the percentage of skills required in their role descriptions that they have acquired
  2. Percentage of railway network that meets all regulatory safety standards for condition and geometry
  3. Percentage of inventory records that contain no errors or missing data

Don’t give up too soon on finding meaningful outcome measures.

If you use a method like brainstorming, or industry KPI lists, to choose what to measure, you will find it too hard to find meaningful outcome measures. Then you’ll default to activity measures. But I hope that working through the seven steps above gives you hope that you can logically arrive at meaningful outcome measures.

An even better way is to use PuMP at the same time you design your strategy and goals, to avoid activity measures from the start.

Activity measures are easier to identify and implement, but they aren’t good proxies for outcome measures.
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ACTION:

Review your KPIs or strategic indicators to see which are counting units of effort or output, versus quantifying the degree of a performance result or outcome. Then use these seven steps to convert any activity measures to more meaningful outcome measures.

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