The One Metric That Doesn’t Matter

The-One-Metric-That-Doesnt-Matter

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

—Peter Drucker

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

—W. Edwards Deming

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No single metric matters.

It’s not that metrics aren’t important, but no single metric can inform you about the current state of the business, let alone guide you to becoming a better business. There is no Reichheldian “ultimate question.”1

This search for an omnipotent metric is the byproduct of an unhealthy obsession with outcomes—the movement of a nonexistent needle—that ends up conflating measurement with progress.

Drucker and Deming weren’t wrong: the quotes in the headline are common misattributions. In fact, Deming wrote quite the opposite: “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—a costly myth.”2 Yet, business’s outcome obsession has led authors to falsely quote them over and over again and readers to nod their heads in agreement.

This outcome obsession has resulted in measuring the what and often ignoring the why and how. As Deming writes, “A numerical goal accomplishes nothing…What counts is the method—by what method?…If you can accomplish a goal without a method, then why were you not doing it last year?”3

Outcomes are byproducts of methods operating in complex systems. An improved outcome doesn’t necessarily indicate that the complex system is functioning. By just looking at an outcome, a broken system could appear to be functioning properly. The systems and methods that produce the outcomes are what really need to be evaluated quantitatively and qualitatively.

An evaluation must look at the whole picture rather than an arbitrary outcome—much less a single outcome.

Are you paying too much attention to the outcome and not the systems and methods?

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  1. Frederick Reichheld’s popular Net Promoter Score is largely an ineffective measure. See: “How Individual Customers Can Transform Your Business.”
  2. W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics for Industry, Government, and Education, 1993.
  3. Ibid.
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