Thursday, 8 January 2009

Measuring real performance

I’ve never been to a nudist beach, but I reckon that it’d be about as embarrassing as your mum holding up a pair of trousers in the coolest shop in town and saying “yep, plenty of room to grow in these” – Mum, I’m 35! I also reckon that if you could get past the embarrassment then the experience could be pretty liberating.

Now that I’m thinking about work and management in this new, happier way, I think I’m starting to see how my ideas, rules and policies could have looked to other people. Like nudism, it’s embarrassing but liberating. Here’s the latest example.

A few weeks before Christmas, we began the long and painful task of trying to establish targets for Gabby. The problem was that my managers and I weren’t really affected by the work that Gabby did. Only Dom and Frank saw the results, and they aren’t in my teams. How could I measure performance? I decided to work out what an average performance was, and then set targets from there. Yep, one thing you can say about us machines, if we’re wrong, we’re consistently wrong.

So there I was, setting targets I plucked out of the air and slapped down like an addicted gambler putting it all on black. Was it easy? Heck no, I had to completely disregard the reality of the roles and concentrate only on the numbers rolling through the systems we used. Were the numbers accurate? No, of course not, I had to plan to improve accuracy of the numbers and then measure them going forward before I could even attempt at a target. Still, the process helped them understand their job better though, right? No chance, we spent loads of time on software and process just so we could get the statistics.

Are you getting the point? All this work, measuring, checking and counting was for what? You know how sometimes you get upstairs and then forget why you went upstairs in the first place. We were getting so tied up in measurements that we forgot why we were doing it.

If the job Gabby was doing was important to the company, then someone in the company would be able to tell if it was getting done well or not. It would already have a measurable effect somewhere. If it had no effect then why were we even doing the work? What’s more, we didn’t employ a robot that needed programming, we employed a human being, skilled in the job, perfectly able to know how to do their job and work out how to do it better.

So, no more artificial targets plucked out of the air. We’ll get Dom, Frank and Gabby in a room to discuss what effect the work has and how the effect is measured. No discussion on how the work is done, that’s up to Gabby. We also know that things change over time, so this relationship will be kept fresh and they’ll react and respond to changes together.

Of course there are limitations. Businesses are made up of lots of complicated interactions. But hey, that’s how complex life is. Trying to define that complexity in a tiny series of statistics isn’t going to help. Our best hope is to put clever, motivated people together and trust them to do what we hired them to do. They won’t let us down.