Today is my wedding anniversary. We will have been married for nine years. Last night as we spoke about it I thought, that number nine really doesn’t tell the full story. It doesn’t even reflect the length of our relationship – we have lived together for nearly fourteen years. It says nothing about the quality of those years nor the quality of the relationship. It says nothing about the challenges overcome, the learning and the growth.
Then my mind jumped to how often numbers are quoted in reports or interviews without any context– “the top 10 ….” “the 56th …” “it cost R420 000”. If it previously cost R400 000 then R420 000 may still be a good price. If it usually
costs R300 000 then what’s going on?
In business numbers are used all the time. There are the quantitative ones like widgets manufactured, customers served, turnover achieved. And there are the rating ones that attempt to be qualitative – Jake performed at a level of 8 (out of 10). They have little meaning without context. Do they indicate improvement or regression? Were conditions highly conducive or were they achieved despite huge difficulties?
Whichever type of numbers they are they all come about because of the endeavour of the human beings working in that business. Many of these numbers are used to manage those same people, to attempt to make them “work better”. Boards rate the CEO on the profit numbers. Staff are rated on their Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). Does this work? Does it bring about optimum results?
If I return to the example of something costing R420 000. If it normally costs R600 000 then coming in R180 000 less could be a great achievement brought about through innovation and efficiencies, or it could mean lots of cut corners that will have big implications later.
If I measure someone on the number of customers they serve I maybe encouraging them to rush through each transaction so as to achieve higher volumes. An executive measured on short term profit may skimp on maintenance.
Even something as positive sounding as measuring someone based on positive compliments can have undesired consequences. There are times when the right thing is to explain to a client why something shouldn’t or can’t be done. Think legal, accounting, IT, medical. The staff member may avoid doing this in favour of keeping the client happy.
And then there is the attempt to rate qualities such as “listens to ensure understanding” and “empowers others”. Finding a number to express a quality says so little about it.
If an employee does a great job and the numbers that are being watched correctly do reflect this, will they feel really appreciated and will they have a great sense of achievement? Will they be given the opportunity to tell the inspiring stories of how they achieved those numbers?
I am not sure that numbers are the best way to manage people. They have a place but I think we need to find better ways. Ways that engage people at work so that they bring the best of themselves to their job each day. In the meantime think carefully before you set a measure, give all numbers context and ask questions to find the stories behind the numbers.