Speed Limits

Response time is the easiest but not necessarily the best measure of performance.
November 2006
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

We rarely try to draw lessons from the private sector about how the public sector should manage itself--that would be like asking a basketball to teach a football how to bounce. But, when we ran across an article about Dell Computer's corporate woes, the relevance to states and localities came through loud and clear.

One of Dell's biggest problems lately has been the deterioration of its once-vaunted customer service operations. The company was making sure that its customer reps handled as many cases as was humanly possible. And at first blush, that sounds like a pretty good thing. But here's what company founder Michael Dell told Fortune magazine: "The problem is that if you handle the call faster, you solve 90 percent of the problem instead of 100 percent. So the guy calls back ... and you haven't accomplished a damn thing."

The solution? Dell decided that his company would no longer focus on how long the reps were on the phone. It was going to measure how well they did solving the problem. "What happened in the second quarter was we had 2 million fewer phone calls than we had planned," Dell said, "and the satisfaction rate went up quite dramatically--like seven or eight points--in just a couple of weeks."

Speed and quality aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. But it's clear that since speed is easier to measure, it often gets the most attention.

For fire departments, for example, response times are one of the most commonly used measures of service quality. No doubt, arriving at a fire quickly matters a lot. But "the requirement for low response times incentivizes firefighters to drive fast," says Amy Donahue, associate professor at the University of Connecticut. "And it has been shown that while speeding saves very little in terms of total driving time, it is much more dangerous, both to those in the emergency vehicle and other innocents who might get in their way. The potential for accidents is very high--and when they happen, the consequences can be very tragic."

We asked Shelley Metzenbaum, a leading authority on performance measurement and currently a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, if she had any concerns about the tension between speed and quality, and her response was immediate: "Speed measures are very useful and often a practical starting point when an organization begins to learn how to use data. But it's important not to get caught up solely looking at response timeliness as your target."

Metzenbaum was particularly concerned about environmental agencies, which often focus on response time. "In an environmental agency, it's easy to turn around a permit real fast," she says. "But have you protected the water? Or the air? Or reduced the risk of handling toxic chemicals?"

Why would any agency take the trade-off here? A speedy permitting process is certainly good for economic development, but clean air and water seem like somewhat more important goals. "There's constant demand to keep the response time down, because you have a highly organized constituency who want quick permitting," she told us. "The constituency for a careful permit is not organized. It's diffuse."

Ohio is working on balancing the two goals. "It's a work in progress," says Al Franks, chief of strategic management at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. "We're trying to do better at measuring not just what we do but how that improves the environment."

There are plenty of other examples: Some entities, for instance, are holding agencies accountable for filling open positions in two or three months. Anyone who has ever shared a workload with an unfilled position can vouch for the advantages in quick hiring. But what happens when it's a relatively technical job that requires a particularly thoughtful selection process? The practical benefits of filling a job are far outweighed by the inevitable problems of filling that job with someone who is unqualified.

Everybody remembers the famous words of Union Admiral David Farragut in the Civil War's Battle of Mobile Bay: "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead." Farragut was hailed as a hero. But nobody much recalls that, at the end of the day, Mobile remained in Confederate hands.