If You Can’t Measure It…

by clairedening

One of Drucker’s famous quotes is that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. We’ve taken this as gospel for so long. Should we still?

Smiling man indicating small with hand gesture. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/fizkes

Two quotes have become what is probably the most-used measurement cliché of all time:

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. — Peter Drucker

And similarly:

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. — Lord Kelvin

The truth in these clichés is that without evidence, we cannot claim that something is better or not. For many things in business, we’re trying to get more of the good things (like employee engagement and loyal customers), and less of the bad things (like injuries or lost customers).

Someone’s opinion about whether there are more or less injuries is never going to lead to the best decisions to reduce injuries. A handful of case studies of workplace injuries is not going to tell us whether it’s getting better or worse, on the whole. Evidence is vital to better decisions.

But the falsehood of these clichés is that the evidence must be in the form of measurement – or quantification. It doesn’t always have to be. There are robust qualitative research methods that can provide reliable and sufficient non-quantitative evidence of improvement. Just as the Most Significant Change technique evaluates change based on personal accounts and stories.

This is no doubt why someone as masterful in the arena of management and improvement as Deming, the Father of Quality, refuted such clichés:

It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – [it is] a costly myth. — W. Edwards Deming

The fuller truth might be more like this:

If we want to change the degree to which a specific and directly observable performance result is
occurring over time, we’ll be able to improve it faster and with less effort if we measure it based on quantitative and objective evidence.

If we can’t measure it, we can still manage it with other forms of evidence. Maybe just not as quickly or easily.
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