KPIs Show Us What We Can’t See

by Stacey Barr |

One objection to measuring performance with KPIs is that we don’t need them; we can already see what’s going on by walking around, by our past experience, by our wise intuition, by what people complain about. But our human limitations make these observations inherently biased.

“We each have a learning horizon, a breadth of vision in time and space within which we assess our effectiveness. When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.” — Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

What Peter Senge explains here about learning is the same dynamic that plays out when it comes to observing performance. We have an ‘observing horizon’.

When we try to observe performance by walking around, our horizon is defined by how far our eye can see, the snapshot of time we are there, what our eye happens to notice, what our ear happens to listen to, by what is in plain sight. We miss what is happening somewhere else, what we don’t happen to notice, what people are not saying, what isn’t in plain sight.

When we try to observe performance, our past experience and our intuition are not illuminating lights. They are filters. We all have a congitive bias to see what we’ve already seen, hear what we’ve already heard, and squish anything else into the model of reality we already have.

This human bias is why we invented science. We wanted tools that could capture observations about the world around us, in ways that avoid subjectivity. Subjective decisions produce far more unpredictable results than do objective decisions. With objectivity, we have more influence over the results we want.

Sure, nothing is completely objective. Not even science. But subjectivity and objectivity are not two alternatives. They are the ends of a spectrum. And with science, we strive to move closer and closer to objectivity. With science, we strive to broaden our ‘observing horizon’.

This is what performance measurement does for us, in our complex organisations that are spread out far and wide in space, that produce results over large stretches of time, that are made up of many humans who all have their own filters and agendas.

Good performance measurement is like science: it broadens our ‘performance observing horizon’. It brings far more objectivity to our decision-making, and helps us have far more influence over the results we want.



Have you got any stories of the impact our ‘observing horizons’ have on how well we can improvement performance and get the results we want?

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