The Unintended Benefits of Measuring Performance

Just putting measurement tools in place can improve existing processes — not months or years down the road, but right away.
by | June 1, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

As Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality was rolling out performance measures in the past few months as a part of its outcome-based management effort, simply installing one of the measures had an immediate benefit.

Traditionally, pollution complaints had been handled by whoever happened to receive them in a DEQ office somewhere in Oregon. To establish a measure to gauge agency responsiveness to complaints required creation of a new, common complaint-intake process. "Implementing a formal intake process has had a profound impact," says Nina DeConcini, DEQ's regional administrator for northwest Oregon. "The intake process alone was invaluable in determining where the most complaints were coming from, both geographically as well as the type of pollution sources."

In addition to the benefits of measuring performance — improving service-delivery outcomes and efficiency over the long term — the mere act of creating measures can bring quick, direct improvement in processes. Some examples:

Revealing worthless data: While many organizations gather data that ends up in some report under a pile of papers on someone's desk, when leadership decides to put the data to use measuring process effectiveness, it's not unusual to discover that the data has long been worthless.

The story goes something like this: "When we started looking at the data from our various offices, we found that performance was all over the map. Then as we dug in to understand why, we realized that no two offices were actually measuring the same thing the same way." Installing measures fixes that.

Communicating standards for performance: Measures have a funny way of creating standards because of the attention they draw to performance. The targets usually associated with measures often bring to light the importance of a desired level of performance that had not previously been communicated.

Discovering a best practice: I can remember several instances when installing a measure led to the discovery that one team was significantly outperforming all other teams. Of course, the benefit of finding a best practice is that once it is understood, it's often easy to leverage it across the other teams.

Uncovering an unknown problem: "Oh, wow, we had no idea it was that bad." Rolling out measures will usually reveal something no one had seen, an area where performance is worse than thought. It's the one unintended benefit that all managers hate but that the best of them know is invaluable.

Bringing about an immediate improvement: That old management adage, "What gets measured gets done," points to another benefit of installing measures. By creating a measure that clearly displays how a team is doing with regard to on-time completion of work, the measurement alone often achieves focus that then leads to immediate improvement.

Measuring performance is one of the best ways to create the connection for employees between their work and their organization's key goals. But sometimes the best part of getting serious about measurement is the surprise that comes from the unintended consequences that emerge from simply putting the process in place.