“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is a quote dubiously attributed to one of the wise men of management science, Dr W Edwards Deming. Putting the attribution to one side for the moment, the quote makes a good point because what gets measured tends to get done.
But there is a problem with this in that we often go for easy metrics rather than the most effective metrics.
Take hospital bugs as an example. We know the number of poorly people succumbing to C. difficile and we also know that it is spread by hand to mouth faecal contamination; in other words it’s caused by poor hygiene. There’s no nice way of putting this – you have to ingest poo to catch it and one of the most common ways that this happens is by people not washing their hands after using the toilet. Clearly, collecting personal hygiene information could inform a campaign focused on reducing the cause of C. Difficile. But these measures would not be easy to obtain.
Before I start sounding too much like Howard Hughes, let’s get back to Deming. What he actually said was that the most important things cannot be measured Well, there could be a good deal of debate around that. He also said that the most important things are unknown or unknowable. By this he was referring to Taleb’s black swans – large-impact, hard-to-predict, rare events beyond the realm of normal expectations. A year ago, for example, few people predicted the credit crunch and even fewer anticipated its impact. 911 is another black swan example.
It’s true that we cannot anticipate and measure everything; it’s also true that we shy away from some of the more challenging measures which can have a profound long-term impact on our organisations.
I was with a prospective client last week who described the excellent work being done on leadership development and culture change. When I enquired about measures for culture change, there were none. Culture certainly falls in the area of hard to measure but as I explained, there are now highly effective tools for doing this.
And what gets measured tends to get done.