Just Because You Call it a Measure Doesn’t Mean it is One

by Stacey Barr |

You might have a KPIs, performance measures, metrics or indicators of success column in your strategic plan, but that doesn’t necessarily mean what’s in that column is doing any measuring.

Photo of a carton of milk stating how they measure

Gail is a VP in a multinational financial institution, and she recently sent me this message, with the above photo:

“I thought you’d get a kick out of this panel from a quart of milk we bought in Moab. These co-op farmers are measuring themselves on how much their cows love them. We had fun trying to think of the ways they could measure that. Number of hugs they receive at milking time… Number of valentines received year over year…”

Gail’s point is that what the co-op have listed as measures are not really measures at all. It makes no sense to say that a measure of success is ‘cows loving their farmers’. Sure, ‘cows loving their farmers’ is a beautiful performance result, but to measure it requires evidence.

It’s important to test an assumption that is often untested when it comes to measures. And the assumption is that we all share the same understanding of what a measure truly is. It’s a bad assumption, when you see the inappropriate things people claim as ‘measures’:

  • Events, like winning an award.
  • Milestones, like completing a project.
  • Vague measures, with ambiguous quantification methods.
  • Data sources, like a customer survey or database.
  • Results, or qualitatively written goals, not measures.

I stumbled upon one of Mokokoma Mokhonoana’s aphorisms, which sums it up perfectly:

“Reading, seeing, and hearing happen way more often than understanding.”

Too many people, in too many organisations and business, still don’t understand what real measures are, even though they claim to have and use them. So-called measures, like those listed above, are not real measures because they’re not quantitative. And they’re most certainly not performance measures, because they’re not quantifying a result over time (to see improvement).

Quantitative and tracked over time are two of four discerning features of what performance measures are. That’s because we measure performance essentially to know how much something is changing, relative to how much we want it to change.

You might have KPIs, performance measures, metrics or indicators of success in your strategic plan, but are they really measuring anything?
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Evaluate what’s in the ‘measures’ column in your strategic plan, using this checklist, to find out what is and isn’t a real measure. Then create some real measures!


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  1. Stephen James says:

    Your posting is spot on. This past year I was assigned a project to create a reference for “best practices” across our global production facilities. My team collated operating practices into a corporate reference manual.

    Like any project, we created a plan with milestones to guide our efforts. When we were almost done the senior VP who sponsored the project told me that he could not present an update to the CEO because 6% of the milestones were completed late. He agreed that the new manual was accepted and being used by each of the operations. However our “KPI” wasn’t met because of late milestones.

    The true KPI is the OEE for each location that adopted best practices compared before and after the project. This KPI has no end point and is difficult to assign to a single cause. I suppose that people think it is easier to focus on something with an end.

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