Measure everything or measure what matters?

Bookcase plansIt is a beautiful Saturday, with Chamber of Commerce weather. There is a light breeze, scattered high clouds and the kind of sun that warms you slowly. On this day I have accumulated all of the materials and plans for a book case. I have nails, screws, sawhorses, hammer, screwdriver, wood glue and plans showing the steps to a completed bookcase. This bookcase is much needed because I also enjoy books. The end of this day holds promise – I will be able to do away with the “college expediency” book case of stacked cinder blocks and particle board.

I enjoy woodworking. It relaxes me. It is a pleasant way to get the kind of instant feedback not found in other endeavors. In woodworking you know very quickly whether or not your efforts have paid off.

I have a “helper” too. It comes in the form of a 10 year old who is a whiz at math and hyperkinetic to boot. As long as I keep him occupied I make real progress. I want to give him something meaningful to do so I break out my extra tape measure – the Craftsman kind that has a “switchblade” button that will retract all 24 feet of tape in a couple of milliseconds. It is a stroke of genius!

Metrics that Matter

He is immediately busy. He measures everything. By the time the day is half over, I know the precise size of everything.

I know that my carport is 22′8″ long by 11′2″ wide.

I know the size of the thorns on the pyracantha bushes beside the carport.

The neighbor’s cat has a tail that is 9 inches long. This was a difficult measurement because it requires that the cat’s tail be stretched out. “Tail stretching” is something cats don’t seem to like and always resist.

The oil spot on the carport floor is 18″ wide at the widest point.

The shelves in my bookcase measure 36″ long. It will stand 74″ tall – when it is properly braced. It needs bracing because I have been distracted by my helper’s frenetic activity. The one thing I have not given him is the plan for the bookcase that will guide him in what he should measure.

He is all activity – but precious little accomplishment.

Metrics that make no sense

I’m reminiscing about my bookcase building adventure is because of a recent client consultation. They want help making “sense” of what they have been measuring. With over 100 metrics – which they developed themselves – they still don’t know what, if anything, they are accomplishing.

They know how long it takes to walk from the parking lot to the front door, where the receptionist will direct them to wherever they need to be.

They know how many computers they own.

They can tell you with precision the cost per cup of the coffee in the kitchen and they argue for an ROI because people still drink it.

Lots of activity, little accomplishment. All action, no momentum. Despite persistence in effort there is no actual progress. This is possible because they don’t know where they’re supposed to be going. There is no plan. A strategy does not exist that will make what they are measuring meaningful.


I related the bookcase story as a way of connecting with them without criticizing. Suggesting that they determine “…what is supposed to be accomplished at the end of the day” was the light bulb moment. You could almost see the light bulb going on over their head. When I suggested the concept of starting with a mission, they were relieved. Some of the things that were hardest to measure didn’t need to be measured at all. Like my “helper”, they were relieved they wouldn’t have to measure the cat’s tail again. That’s the kind of good news you get when metrics development begins with understanding the strategy.


Metrics that matter flow from strategy

A professor of mine from seminary was fond of telling us that “A text without a context is a pretext”. What is true in the world of hermeneutics is also true in the world of metrics. The numbers are just that – numbers. They are a great pretext if they don’t have a context. The context they need is your strategy. Without it, they can mean whatever you want them to mean.


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