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John Pope

John Pope Associates

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Does management by metrics work?

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On the frame of my kitchen door are marks of the heights of my children, and now grandchildren, with names and dates written down over the course of years.

They were all proud to stand there from time-to-time in order to check how much they had grown. We did not, of course, manage their height, and we did not, after the first few months, record their weight either. Measuring did not make them grow.
 
The act of measuring simply introduced some pretty ineffectual competition and did little practical good, although it always generated some fun, which was positive. Occasionally, there were arguments over fairness and one child once remarked that “he had shoes on – cheat”.
 
By the same token, the phrase ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ is a good and useful one, much used by managers. It has its origins in ‘Management by Objectives’, which stemmed from the work of Peter Drucker and almost became a religion after being pushed heavily in the UK by John Humble.
 
Bought into by many, swallowed hook, line and sinker by some, the approach was eventually adopted by the last government, which went overboard on the idea of targets and measures for anything and everything.
 
Over-emphasis on targets
 
But the key question is whether all of this actually did or does any good? In my opinion, it is important to have measures for key things, but metrics can be taken too far. I have long had doubts about the value of having such a wide range of performance measures and targets for management purposes.
 
Key results areas and targets used with discretion can do some good. But the competitive spirit, the league tables, and worse, promotion prospects and rewards for achieving targets, can all too easily get in the way of effective management.
 
It is pretty clear that over-emphasising some targets can lead to attention being diverted from other areas that are just as important. In some cases, targets can even lead to measurements becoming distorted as well as arguments over definitions and whether cheating has taken place or not. 
 
In some police forces, for example, crimes have been wrongly classified in order to hit targets for reducing particular types of offending. In some organisations, an over-emphasis on one target for a while and then a shift of emphasis to another leads to a ‘flavour of the month’ approach – a situation often derided by those trying to cope with the situation.
 
As a result, I believe that having too many targets hampers managers. We employ them to use their discretion as to where they should direct their efforts in order to achieve a balance between the different aims and objectives they are set. An over-concentration on one area leads to imbalances and often to unexpected and unwelcome surprises. 
 
Management by walking around
 
So are all metrics necessary? In managing people, we want them to be ‘engaged’, that is to identify with the aims of the organisation and their team, be committed to achieving the results required, be prepared to work flexibly at the behest of management and not to quibble about demarcation and so on. 
 
But do we really need an engagement survey to tell us whether people are engaged? Any HR director or line manager worth their salt can identify that. Simply by walking around, they can judge the atmosphere and attitude of the workforce. Yet the degree of engagement experienced is now often used as an important metric.
 
And while ‘management by walking around’ is powerful, it is not enough. Key figures are essential and help managers choose appropriate topics to discuss.
 
A visit by HR directors or other senior managers to the workplace enables them to observe problems, talk with staff at all levels, assess their mood, clarify the priorities of local managers, see the pace of work and review issues such as resourcing.
 
More importantly, it also allows them to assess the wisdom of some of the decisions made at a higher level and relate such insights to key operational figures and their impact on the organisation’s financial results.
 

John Pope is founder of management consultancy, John Pope Associates.

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John Pope

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