The last thing your business needs is more metrics

The problem with metrics is that smart people try to game them, and dumb people try to achieve them.

You know the sort of person I mean…the one who dogmatically insists on continuing to do something they get measured on, all the while turning a deaf ear to the legions of customer complaints, wielding their weapon of choice… “company policy”… as the excuse for disappointing paying customers..

Difficult though this dynamic is for any business, the problem is more acute the more metrics, targets and KPIs your business has. I once ran the division of a multinational business where we had 42 different metrics to track and report on every month.

Each of these numbers had some degree of relevance…they were interesting, up to a point…but with 42 metrics to keep on track, that gave me about an hour a week on each of these apparently equally-important metrics.

Not that I actually had an hour a week to spend on any of those things. My experience is that businesses with lots of metrics also tend to have lots of meetings where the metrics they’re tracking are discussed, analysed, picked over and post-mortem’d.

Every metric had a manager somewhere who was responsible for that particular measure across all the divisions of the business, who in turn reported in to someone pretty important in the Head Office management structure.

Because each metric’s manager reported to a senior person at head office, each of them insisted on their own battery of meetings and reports…separate from, and in addition to, the corporate set of meetings and reports through the existing reporting structure…so each metric’s manager knew what was going on well enough to pass on their own reports through to their own bosses..

If you think that sounds like chaos, you’d be right. Very little ever got done to move the business forward. All our time was spent reporting on history or having meetings about it.

Here’s a new initiative – let’s make sure we’ve got some metrics in place

Part of the problem in that business was every time a new idea was sanctioned by the CEO or the Board, a raft of new metrics was brought in to make sure this new idea could be measured and tracked in minute detail across all the operating divisions of the business.

Thankfully, as you might have realised by now, it wasn’t very often that a new idea was actually implemented. That would have required us to stop talking about things that had happened in the past for long enough to have an idea or two about what we might like to do in the future.

As a Finance Director and CFO, this approach used to drive me crazy, (although I wasn’t the FD or CFO in this particular business, so just had to go along with it).

The amount of unproductive time spent in senior managers meeting with one another was beyond astounding. I reckoned the costs of measurement and reporting was possibly the single biggest cost the business had, even though resources were being starved from the front line at the time on the grounds of “cost pressures in the business”.

For every new XYZ Initiative Manager appointed, we could probably have put four people on the front-line where they were desperately needed. But the Chair, Board and Chief Executive of this business could never see things that way.

I’ve no doubt they were well-meaning. But they’d all taken on board the sort of thing people are taught at business school somewhat too literally, which made the whole thing unmanageable.

As a principle “what gets measured, gets managed” has something going for it, but carried to the extreme, all it does is seize up the inner workings of a business.

Of course businesses should have some basis for deciding whether the initiatives they’re implementing have some positive benefit to the business and its customers. But there are often simpler ways of achieving that objective.

After all, when you break it down, all any business is trying to do is bring in enough income from customers to cover their costs and leave a profit.

Since profit is calculated as a balancing figure, you’re only really managing two dimensions here – income and cost. Profit is what’s left over after deducting one from the other.

In most businesses, costs are either fixed (that is they don’t wary much from month to month, like salaries or rent) or variable on some predetermined formula (X per hour, Y per item produced, Z% share of income generated) or a mix of both, again on some predetermined basis (eg some permanent staff paid on a salary and some temporary staff paid on an hourly rate)..

Off-hand, it seems to me that the optimal number of metrics and KPIs to measure those mathematical relationships is some number a long way short of 42.

You might say…”that’s all well and good, but what about non-financial measures that matter to stakeholders?”

Fair point – how many of those do we need?

Treat people fairly, without bias, based on gender, ethnic background or belief systems? I’m all for that…

Ensure your people are safe from harm at work? Seems reasonable…

Buy your products fairly, without supporting exploitative labour practices in third world countries? Yup…

Reduce our impact on the planet? Another tick…

Operate according to the principles of good corporate governance? Yes to that one too.

There may be some industry-specific concerns over and above those. If you’re disposing of radioactive waste from a nuclear power station, I’d expect a few additional metrics around how you might do that without destroying half of the nearest town, for example.

But those should be pretty rare. There can’t be many businesses which need to track more than six or seven key metrics in detail. And even if you could, that doesn’t mean you should…especially when you consider the cost of collecting all the data you need for a never-ending round of review meetings about the latest metrics or KPIs.

The cost of measurement

You’d probably come to the same conclusion if you did what very few businesses bother to figure out – the cost of measuring and reporting on each initiative you think is important.

In the business I described earlier, pretty much every measure had its own manager to track each metric, so there was probably a 60-80 grand salary just in that.

But it gets worse…

Some of these people had their own departments to help them with their analysis and reporting. One, I recall, had a department of six, in addition to the manager, all on 40-50 grand salaries.

Measuring this particular feature of the business probably cost the thick end of £400,000 just in salary costs…maybe as much as half-a-million when you add in IT costs, facilities, travel and the costs of the conferences these people always seemed to be going to.

And that’s just the more obvious measurement and management costs.

On top of that there was my time, time spent by the other divisional heads, time spent by our respective teams collating the information in the first place…which, in some cases, required an investment in bits of kit or software where human beings just couldn’t collect the data quickly enough or accurately enough..

I couldn’t give a definitive picture of what that cost might add up to, but I guesstimated it at about half again of the costs incurred running the official “measuring departments”. And I’m probably being kind at that.

Although the 6-person measuring department was the worst example, multiply that guesstimated cost by 42…one for each metric which was “vital” to the business…and add on half again for our “in-house” costs at divisional level. You’ll quickly see why the cost of measurement was easily one of the biggest costs in this business, even though nobody ever thought of it like that..

It’s been a while since I worked at this business. They may have changed since…although I wouldn’t bet on it. Some behaviours become too deeply ingrained to be changed under anything other than the most severe existential threats.

Don’t measure it, do it!

That business was the first thing going through my mind at the weekend as I read a succession of articles about changes people felt should be made to the business world.

These were changes for the good, let me add.

The articles suggested encouraging more women and minorities into senior roles, emitting less carbon from company vehicles, providing opportunities for young people trying to get onto the job ladder and so on.

I wouldn’t argue against any of those things.

However every article demanded additional metrics, tracking, targets and KPIs against each of those inherently worthy objectives.

But, thinking back to the place I used to work, I imagined the impact on that business if they picked up any one of those and started to carve out a six-person department to track progress and report to head office about it.

What would you rather have – £500,000 spent on measuring the recruitment of women and ethnic minority candidates into senor level posts or £500,000 spent giving women and ethnic minorities within the business the training, support or coaching they might need to be a credible candidate for the next senior role?

Which one is more likely to create the positive result you’re looking for…measuring it or doing it?

To quote one of the world’s foremost quality and efficiency experts…

…measurement of productivity does not improve productivity.

W Edwards Deming, “Out of the Crisis”, p15

I’d rather spend the money actually doing things that lead directly and tangibly to the outcome being sought, instead of spending the same sum measuring whether we’ve done it or not.

In fairness, I don’t think this is a position most people would argue with. The problem is that very few businesses know the true cost of their back office activities…including things like measuring and reporting on information, and the costs of managing those who do.

And, admittedly, while it’s not impossible to work out, it is tricky…and sometimes fairly approximate unless you have everyone in the business fill in time sheets all the time (which would, of course, require a Time Sheet Manager and a raft of people to collate, do the data entry and report on whatever the time sheet data told them…rather defeating the point!).

There are times when the cost of getting more accurate measurements just isn’t worth the cost involved. Intelligent approximations, consistently applied, will often get you close enough for most decision-making purposes.

When is the cost of measurement too high?

It’s hard to be dogmatic about this. If you’re servicing aircraft engines or conducting open heart surgery, you might think it was important to do a bit more tracking than you might for a business making black plastic refuse sacks.

But my personal “concern meter” goes off when the costs of administration are more than 5-10% of the project concerned.

On that basis, a budget of, say, £500,000 should have no more than £50,000 spent administering it and reporting on it. The rest should be spent doing whatever the objective might be.

In a large corporate environment, £50,000 doesn’t get you very far. It’s a small fraction of a C-Suite executive’s time. It might get you an Executive Assistant, or half a departmental manager…maybe most of a front-line manager.

When you approach measurement and metric setting from that perspective, it forces you to think about what you really need by way of metrics, KPIs, dashboards and whatever else you use in your business.

When you’ve only got a few grand to do your measuring with, you’re forced to concentrate only on the metrics that really matter…not every metric a full-time department of six might come up with between them after an all-day brainstorming session..

And in case you think this is impossible, I assure you it isn’t.

I once took a major organisation through an environmental certification process, which was important to them at that point in time for reasons I won’t go into here. I did it with a budget of zero and just little scraps of people’s time.

We invested every penny we could leverage out of existing budgets to support the process as best we were able and, in just a couple of years, went from being one of the sector’s poorer environmental performers to gaining a prestigious certification from an independent awarding body, which, in turn, helped boost our market positioning and ultimately our revenues.

We only had one metric – achieving, and subsequently sustaining, that accreditation.

I led meetings about once every two months, for a couple of hours each time, so we could catch up with the dozen or so people across the business who might be able to impact on this initiative.

At that meeting we identified what cash had been freed up from existing budgets and prioritised where we would spend it to make the fastest progress possible towards one or more of the certifying body’s assessment criteria.

In the three years or so I ran this initiative, I made one report to the Board, about 18 months in, to explain what we were doing and how we’d spent the money we’d found in pursuit of the objective to gain that certification. We did another session when we’d achieved the accreditation. That was it – maybe an hour in total over three years.

That apart, I refused to set up meeting cycles, reporting sessions, KPIs to track what people were getting up to or any of the usual stuff that people do in this situation.

There was no need for any of those things as I could manage it all through the bi-monthly meetings. So we spent little or nothing on administration, measurement and management. We spent everything we could achieving the objective.

Now I’ve got my good points, but there was nothing I did that nobody else couldn’t do with a bit of trust and some room for manoeuvre. There was no financial risk as everything we spent still had to be signed off through the normal approval processes.

My experience is that, given the will, and given an understanding of just how much management and monitoring costs the average business, there are very few projects which can’t be delivered the same way. You might surprised how quickly you can make progress, if anything.

But we can’t trust our people to operate like that…

When I tell this story to business leaders, I’m often told that they could never do things the same way because they can’t trust their people enough to operate without lots of reports and meetings.

I find this very sad…but this perspective raises an interesting question…

Who hired these people in the first place?

Well, it seems that was the same business leaders who claim they can’t trust the people they hired themselves!

Seems to me the solution to that problem is entirely in their own hands. Hiring people you can’t trust doesn’t sound like the smartest recruitment decision I ever heard.

“Oh, but the people we could trust are too expensive,” people sometimes respond, “so only have the budget for entry-level people.”

Again, the solution is in the hands of leaders. Running the business on cheap labour is often the most expensive way to run a business.

On the surface it looks cheap, but by the time you add in management, reporting, tracking and measurement systems sufficient to give at least a reasonable level of assurance that nothing is going badly wrong, this approach is often the most expensive option.

But this response is also an illustration of why the measurement, tracking, reporting process is fundamentally flawed.

Despite all the measurement, tracking and reporting they already have to regulate the behaviour of people they employ, those business leaders still don’t trust their staff.

More metrics isn’t the answer. They’ve got plenty of those already. But none of them do the job they really need doing.

Metrics won’t give you trust. At best they protect your downside a little, but they’re not infallible – many a formerly market-leading business has gone into administration even though all their metrics and reports were pointing in the right direction up till the moment the bank pulled the plug (Patisserie Valerie, anyone?).

Trust is an emotional construct, not something governed by the laws of physics which you can measure mechanically and improve in a factory.

If trust is what you want to create, don’t imagine traditional reporting mechanisms will help. They won’t.

Instead, work on trust (pausing to reflect, at least briefly, on whether the problem might be with you, rather than with your people).

Get that in place, and redeploy most of the resources (keeping back a reasonable 5-10% so you can do the tracking that really needs doing) spent on managing, reporting and tracking things into making your overarching objective happen.

From the moment you do that, your business will march towards your objectives faster than you can imagine. You’ll get where you want to go faster, more profitably and with a lot less stress and strain on your life and your calendar.

And if you think this is just my own personal opinion, no less an authority than Dr W Edwards Deming, the father of modern quality control, had as part of his famous 14 Principles “Eliminate management by numbers and numerical goals, Substitute leadership.”

Go on. Give it a go. You might be surprised how good your business can be when you don’t measure things.

(Picture credit: Tyler Easton on Unsplash

Are you spending 50 quid to save a fiver?

When you’re a Finance Director or CFO people always expect you to “have a tight grip on costs”, “rigorously pursue cost-saving opportunities” and “implement tight procedures to ensure maximum efficiency”…or at least that’s how job advertisements for Finance Directors and CFOs usually describe the role.

Of course any good Finance Director or CFO will have a keen eye on the running costs of the business. The last thing they’ll want to do is make it harder than it needs to be to create the profit the business depends on to survive and thrive.

But sometimes the need to control what people are doing to make sure costs are properly managed can be carried too far. More often than you might think, the costs of control far outweigh any potential savings the control might bring you.

I call this “spending 50 quid to save a fiver”. That’s something no rational person would do, but it happens more often than you might think.

The best way I can illustrate this is by way of an example from somewhere I used to work (no, I’m not saying where…). Most people find it hard to believe this control process was ever allowed to see the light of day…but it did.

People I use this example with tend to chuckle and say something like “that would never happen in my business”. Which is true to a point…this is undoubtedly an extreme example…but versions of this, at a lower order of magnitude, can easily be found in just about every business I’ve ever worked in.

Here’s the logic which sets a business up for “spending 50 quid to save a fiver” – if a little bit of control is a good thing, surely more control has to be better…doesn’t it?

That’s not necessarily true. There is a diminishing return from every control system and there comes a point where dis-economies start to kick in – that is the business would run at a lower net cost if it took out the costs of the control process and just let people act in a sensible manner instead.

I’m not advocating anarchy…I’m a Finance Director and CFO, after all…

Simple procedures with a proportionate level of sign-off are essential in any organisation to create a sense of order and provide a sensible level of assurance about the business having an appropriate level of management control in place.

So here’s the example from my own career…just to be clear, I didn’t play a part in designing this system and spent most of my time in this business complaining about it, but the powers that be prioritised increasing control over reducing cost, for reasons I’ll leave to your own imagination.

In this business we had to send people overseas on a reasonably regular basis to work with partner organisations and customers spread around the world. Most people would never go overseas at all. A small number of people would go overseas three or four times a year.

To be allowed to travel overseas, a staff member had to complete seven different paper forms…yes, seven…yes, paper…

Each of those paper forms had 70 or 80% the same information on them as all the other paper forms, but each also had a small amount of information that wasn’t on any of the other forms.

The form that went to the Travel Office (yes, we had one of those) had the visa details on it, for example.

The form that went to the Finance Department had the costs on it, but not the visa information.

The form that went to the Head of International (yes, we had one of those too) had a risk assessment for whichever country the staff member was visiting, but didn’t have either the costing or visa information on it.

The form that went to the Group Chief Executive…yes, they all did…had an essay on it explaining why this particular trip was necessary, even though all our client agreements specified a certain number of visits each year on a relatively fixed timescale to dovetail with our own business planning cycle back home, so none of the trips should have been a huge surprise to the Chief Executive or anyone else..

And so on, and so on…

The original idea was sensible enough. No organisation wants people incurring costs on unnecessary overseas trips willy-nilly. I don’t think any fair-minded person…including the people who had to handle multiple 7-form overseas trip requests each year…would object to that principle.

There were some sensible concepts in there too…even though the execution was flawed. For example, final approval for all business trips was given by the Chief Executive in practice, even though there was a limit in the process which said if the trip was less than £1,000 it could be signed off by the divisional head instead.

The trouble with that was most of our business was in the Far East and it took at least a week or 10 days to travel out there, do the work required with the client or partner and return home again.

Once upon a time it might have been possible to do that for less than £1,000 but those days were long gone. So, although there was, sensibly enough, a limit in place to avoid involving the Chief Executive unnecessarily, that limit was set far too low to be meaningful and in practice he got to sign off everything.

From perhaps even a relatively reasonable starting point…if I give the maximum amount of credit to those involved initially…over the years, the whole process just got out of hand.

There was a sensible solution, of course. One electronic submission which went everywhere with all the information entered only once…which, ironically, we did with other decisions in the business requiring multiple sign-offs, just not with travel requests…combined with a sensible view on what the costs of a 10-day trip to the Far East might reasonably cost would have been a good start.

However, that’s not the only downside of this process. There were some significant cost penalties from this “tight system of control” too.

For starters, in general, air travel is cheaper the earlier it’s booked. And the nature of this business was that most trips could be predicted a couple of months in advance.

But it took between two and four weeks to get the necessary “live” signatures on all seven travel forms before a booking could be made. So it wasn’t unusual for air fares to have increased in the time between the trip being requested and sign-off being received, necessitating another “go round” of the process to get a higher budget signed off.

So let’s think about this process…designed to “ensure tight cost control” and “ensure robust processes are implemented”…

We had a Travel Office to coordinate many, but not all, elements of this process. They didn’t do the travel bookings, for example…that was subcontracted to a travel agent…they just handled the paperwork.

Including salaries and on-costs, there was probably the thick end of £100,000 per year just in the costs of this department…even before a single flight or hotel was booked.

The dozen or so signatures required on the various bits of paper…some required more than one signature on them…meant that a whole range of pretty senior people were spending time scrutinising the travel arrangements for someone who, in practice, they didn’t know and had no way of fully appreciating (despite the essay-style forms in some cases) precisely why someone was wanting to arrange the trip they were being asked to sanction.

Because all travel requests ultimately went to the Chief Executive, you can bet your bottom dollar that everyone whose hands touched one of those seven forms made absolutely sure they knew as much as they could in case the Chief Exec asked a question about their particular part of the process.

In practice, there was a flurry of emails and phone calls from different senior managers to the person proposing to travel overseas just on the off-chance the Chief Executive asked that particular senior manager about the trip. He rarely did, in practice, but still…just in case…

So to “save money on travel” we had a system which required a department costing £100,000 to administer.

Taking account of all the preparation time for the seven paper forms and the multiple sign-offs by senior people, up to and including the Chief Executive, that must have cost at least another £100,000…with an opportunity cost probably a lot higher than that.

And because we tended to end up paying more for air travel than we needed to, due to the delays in making bookings which this convoluted system forced upon us, we probably dropped another £100,000 there.

This was in an organisation which, whilst by most business’s standards did “a lot of international travel” but spent less than £1 million each year on it.

When the “overhead” of running a supposedly robust process is one-third of the cost of doing the activity in the first place, that’s a sure sign the admin burden has got completely out of hand.

Metaphorically, that business spent 50 quid to try to save a fiver.

There’s always a better way than that. All it takes is an outbreak of common sense.

(Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash )