How To Measure What Really Matters For Understanding


Tuesday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A bad system will beat a good person every time. – W. Edwards Deming

I am not a fan of measuring and tracking things.

I might be at first – it’s interesting building a new system to log data, for example, but eventually the work gets tiresome and it’s easy to stop.

The thing is that is seems like an essential part of success.

The psychiatrist Raj Persaud in his book Motivation says you need three things in order to be successful – goals, resources and monitoring.

I don’t think he explains these in great detail – as to what exactly is meant by these terms.

Goals, for example, are problematic.

Are goals aspirational – things you hope to attain one day – like peace of mind?

Or are they specific and time-bound – like saving enough money for a house deposit in 9 months?

And what’s the difference between a goal and a target?

Let’s assume that you have a goal – however defined – what do you need in order to achieve it?

If you want to make lots of money but have no capital then is that a problem?

If you haven’t got the skills or experience to develop an app is your goal to be the next Microsoft realistic?

And then what exactly are you measuring?

If you’re counting money are you focusing on output rather than activity?

Revenue or profits are not going to go up just because you want them to.

Now the reason this issue is problematic is because you’ll find yourself in this situation again and again.

Every time you do a project you’ll need to figure out what your goal is, what you need to achieve it and how you are going to report on progress.

It’s very easy to do this the wrong way.

The wrong way starts by setting an arbitrary goal.

For example you decide that you’re going to blog daily and set a goal to write 1,000 words per day.

Is setting that goal enough – is the universe now going to move heaven and earth to make that happen?

Or are you going to have to allocate resources – allocate time for writing.

As Mary Heaton Vorse said “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

If you’re also very dedicated then at the end of each writing day log how many words you’ve written and see if you’re on target and, if not, work harder.

That sounds entirely reasonable, doesn’t it?

But that approach which seems on the surface normal and sensible hides many problems.

The first thing is that you can set goals for yourself – that might be ok.

But if you’ve picked a goal that is not based on data – what happens when you keep failing to meet your goal?

Do you give up, work harder or change the goal?

If it’s not a goal you’ve picked – if it’s been assigned to you and, worse, if your income depends on meeting that goal what are you going to do?

This happens quite a lot with salespeople.

They are set an unachievable target which they sign up to because any salary is better than no salary.

Then, they either manage their numbers so they can hit their targets or work their time planning to fail and then leave to do the same thing in another role.

If you don’t find yourself agreeing with any of this you’re not alone – we are conditioned as a society to believe that goals are good and setting aspirational goals – stretch goals – is the way to motivate and improve.

It’s just that all too often the opposite happens.

So, what should you do if you really want to improve?

That starts with understanding what’s going on – by understanding the voice of the process.

Let’s go back to that blog example.

A few years ago I decided to write every day – when I could anyway.

That, I suppose, was a goal or a target.

I tried setting myself wordcount goals – a few hundred words, maybe 500.

But I quickly got bored and stopped counting.

The way I write and publish, however, means that isn’t a problem.

As the sources are all in text files we can use simple UNIX tools to analyse them.

It didn’t take much time at all to count the words in each post and chart them as shown in the picture above.

I’ve been lazy and drawn averages and upper and lower control lines rather than working them out – because you can see what’s going on pretty clearly.

For the first 300 or so posts the average word count was around 500 – with a peak of little over 1,000.

In the next 200 or so days the average is closer to 600, with the exception of an excitable period where the posts seem a little longer – I can’t remember why.

The point is that this data is the voice of my writing process.

It’s not being collected actively but it can easily be created from the process itself.

There’s no logging required.

This shows that I can write between 600 and 800 words in a sitting most of the time.

As measurements go that’s quite useful for understanding how my process works.

The same approach – getting measurements out of activity without manual logging is what makes devices like the Fitbit and Apple Watch a good idea.

And wouldn’t it be nice if you could do your day to day work and all the metrics could fall out of activity without you doing anything – so that you could understand what normal looks like?

Because the point is this – once you know what normal looks like you can work on your system and try to improve it.

And the improvements will show up in your measurements, not because you’re trying to achieve a target but because you’re working on the system.

Your improvements are coming from learning more about the system you’re a part of.

And, to end with another Deming quote: “Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.”


Karthik Suresh

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