Last week’s ponderings on algorithms brought to mind two further illustrations of the limitations of metrics as a guide to action.
The first was exemplified by the title phrase, much in use when I was doing a lot of work on TQM, Total Quality Management, back in the ’80s. This was at the tail end of an inglorious British industrial era, when this country still made most things, mostly badly. TQM – or at least the version of it I was evangelising on behalf of PA Consulting Group – was heavy on SPC, or Statistical Process Control. Essentially, measuring variance, en route to its elimination. Improvement thru’ consistency. Which seemed fine as far as it went. But was there not a danger, I asked my client, that seeing it as the be all and end all risked distorting our take on what mattered? Fine as it was for helping build steam irons whose handles didn’t go wobbly, and reducing delivery delays, what about tasks where the things that mattered didn’t lend themselves to measurement? “How,” I asked, “do you go about measuring the incorruptibility of a policeman, the patience of a teacher, the compassion of a nurse?”
The second came in a quote from the ex military man speaking in the recent series on the Vietnam war about the invention of that conflict’s defining metric: the body count. In a traditional war, you keep count by tracking the front line: territory gained, territory lost. But in Vietnam there *was* no front line. Territory was all but irrelevant. So how do you know whether you’re winning or losing; whether things are getting better or worse? Well, you need to find something you can track – hence the body count. More enemy dead; you’re doing well. As the ex-officer put it: “If you can’t count what really matters, it’s a short step to deciding that what you can count is what matters.”
None of this, of course, calls measuring, tracking and improving into question. I suppose it merely cautions against allowing ourselves to be blindfolded by one way of looking at things, particularly if it’s a way we find congenial – perhaps, often, because it’s a way that plays to our strengths.