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The most common KPI struggles and how to overcome them

Impact measurement and evaluation 01st September 2020
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Almost every organisation – of all shapes and sizes and sectors around the world – struggles with performance measurement in very similar ways. If we can understand these common KPI struggles we can find ways to fix them, and this is what this article seeks to do.

Research by Stacey Barr (a performance measurement expert) and her direct experience with clients over the last two decades, shows that just about every organisation has the same struggles with measuring performance. These are the most common struggles that her work has identified:

  • We feel threatened by measures. Problems are swept under the rug, data is manipulated, only effort is measured, not results. People don’t enjoy it when measures shed a negative light on them.
  • We have seemingly immeasurable goals. They are too intangible, too broad, too high-level, too visionary, and so they’re too hard to anchor down with measures.
  • We have lame measures that aren’t useful. They count trivial things, or they’re simply milestones of completing a task, or they’re too vague to quantify.
  • People won’t buy-in and own the measures. The planning team devises the measures and then asks people to sign off on them. Then those same people don’t want to implement or use them. They argue about data quality and measure validity – rather than using measures to improve performance.
  • Implementing measures costs too much time and effort. The effort of collecting data, and getting too much, not enough, or in the wrong format. The effort of reporting measures, with no time for detailed analysis. And important measures end up being inconsistently or incorrectly calculated, or not implemented at all.
  • Our reports lack actionable insight. They’re bulky and ad-hoc in layout. They’re hard to navigate and digest. They don’t answer important questions. They’re not used.
  • We’re stuck on the monthly variation-explanation. Every month there are variations in our measures compared to last month, to the same month last year, to target. Frustratingly, every variation needs to be explained, and often we can’t really find an explanation, and we feel like we’re chasing our tails.
  • Our performance improvement efforts fizzle or fail. People say they can’t improve their results or hit their targets without more money or resources. Underperformance isn’t their fault – it’s their customers’ unrealistic demands. Improvement efforts we do take responsibility for don’t seem to elevate performance high enough or permanently.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that, if we share a set of common struggles with measuring performance, it’s likely there is an underlying set of common causes? As it turns out, yes there is. For any organisation that has one or more of the struggles listed above, we find one or more of the following habits in how they approach performance measurement…

8 bad KPI habits that are causing our KPI struggles

Bad Habit 1: Judging people with measures

The struggle of people feeling threatened by measures is caused by the bad habit of using measures to judge people’s performance. When people feel that the measures are about them, they will understandably get defensive.

  • They use factors outside their control as excuses
  • They argue against the choice of measures
  • They only want to measure their effort, not results
  • They manipulate the measure to look good

All these behaviours sabotage performance, they never help it improve.

Fix: A performance measure is a tool in the hand, not a rod for the back.

What we need to do is reframe performance measures as tools to help people improve their processes. We want measures to be a tool in their hands, to proactively improve performance of the processes they work in. It will fail if measurement is used as a rod for their backs, to make them feel judged and falling short.

So the first step in a good performance measurement approach needs to make sure people understand the real purpose of performance measurement – which is to help them improve the organisation’s processes, not judge their personal performance.

Bad Habit 2: Writing goals with weasel words.

The struggle of goals seeming impossible to measure almost always comes back to the words that were chosen to write those goals. The worst words we can use are weasel words: accessibility, benefits, capacity, dynamic, efficient, fit-for-purpose, holistic, innovative, key, leveraged, outcomes, productivity, quality, reliability, sustainable, transparent, unique, wellbeing.

The problem with weasel words is they have different meanings to different people, in different contexts. They aren’t specific and observable, so they can’t be measured.

Fix: Write goals that a 5th-grader can understand.

We’re not dumbing-down our strategy by writing it in plain language; language a 5th grader could understand. In fact, it takes much practice to write what we mean in the simplest words we can muster, without trivializing our goals.

If our goals can’t paint a unified picture of our intended future in the minds of all the people who should buy in to it, then those goals won’t be achieved, and won’t be measured meaningfully.

So the second step in a good performance measurement approach needs to make sure that we start with clear, specific and measurable goals before we go searching for performance measures.

Bad Habit 3: Brainstorming measures.

One of the biggest causes of performance measures that are useless and irrelevant is the way we go about choosing them. The worst culprit is brainstorming. It’s a creativity tool, designed to open up space to consider many and varied ideas. But choosing performance measures isn’t a creative opening-up process. It’s a deliberate narrowing-down process. When we brainstorm measures we end up with:

• Too many measures that are too hard to shortlist
• Measures that don’t align strongly to our goals
• Non-measures: activities, data sources, milestones
• Nothing more powerful than what we already have

Fix: Evidence before measures: what you see, hear, feel, observe.

The key to good measures is not considering a wide variety of them, like brainstorming has us do. It’s designing them based on the best evidence that would convince us the goal we’re trying to measure is actually being achieved.

Real evidence has to be observable. So before we choose measures, we have to describe the evidence we’d see, or hear, or touch, or observe or detect. When we know the evidence, we can then quantify it. The most relevant and feasible quantifications of the evidence of our goals then become our measures.

And that’s exactly what the third step in a good performance measurement approach will have us do: deliberately build our measures from the evidence that convinces us our goals are achieved.

These are the first 3 of the 8 KPI Bad habits that are the common cause of KPI struggles. If you’d like to get more tips on overcoming common KPI struggles. Download our whitepaper below: ‘Measure What Matters’

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Measure What Matters Whitepaper