When people say they have struggles with finding meaningful KPIs, I almost without exception find that their problem is not the futility of their search for meaningful measures, but rather the focus of what they want those measures for. That focus is usually their strategy – their Key Result Areas or Critical Success Factors or goals or objectives or whatever names they give to their statements about what the performance priorities are to focus on right now.
So more often than not, the best first question to ask when you’re on a quest for better performance metrics is not “So what are some good measures for us?”, it’s actually “How measurable is our strategy?”
Possibly the guiltiest of all the immeasurability problems with strategy is the excessive use of “weasely” language. Wikipedia explains what weasel words are:
The expression weasel word derives from the egg-eating habits of weasels… An egg that a weasel has sucked will look intact to the casual observer, while actually being empty. Thus, words or claims that turn out to be empty upon analysis are known as “weasel words”. The expression first appeared in Stewart Chaplin’s short story ‘Stained Glass Political Platform’ (published in 1900 in The Century Magazine,… in which they were referred to as “words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell.” Theodore Roosevelt attributed the term to Dave Sewall, claiming that Sewall used the term in a private conversation in 1879…
In the political sphere, this type of language is used to “spin” or alter the public’s perception of an issue. In 1916, Theodore Roosevelt argued that “one of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use …‘weasel words’; when one ‘weasel word’ is used … after another there is nothing left.”
My first exposure to the term was from Don Watson, an Australian political speech writer and author of many books but two in particular to do with weasel words, “Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language” and “Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words”. Irrespective of the source of the term “weasel words”, its impact is profound in our struggles to find meaningful performance metrics to align to our strategy and convince us of its execution and achievement.
Look at any strategic plan, perhaps even your own, and the chances are astronomically high that you’ll see aplenty words like effective, efficient, productive, responsive, sustainable, engaged, quality, flexible, adaptable, well-being, reliable, key, capability, leverage, robust, accountable. That’s just scratching the surface of the glut of empty words that sound important and fail to say to anything at all, or at least speak of anything that can be verified in the real world, or measured.
Here are some more examples of strategies rendered meaningless with weasel words:
Where you have used weasel words, you must define specifically what you mean by them. A strategy’s purpose is to let people know where they’re heading and what paths they’ll take to get there. If people can’t interpret the strategy, they’ll be heading anywhere or nowhere and most definitely not all in the same direction to the right destination.
And until you “de-weasel” your goals and objectives, you’ll have no chance of finding the measures or KPI that matter.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stacey Barr is the Performance Measure Specialist, helping strategic planners, business analysts and performance measurement officers confidently facilitate their organisation to create and use meaningful performance measures with lots of buy-in. Sign up for Stacey’s free email tips at www.staceybarr.com/202tipsKPI.html and receive a complimentary copy of her renowned e-book “202 Tips for Performance Measurement”.
You made me laugh with your article. So many organizations post hollow words of their “mission statement” on the wall of their organization’s lobby entrance. And then it stops there.
Measures like you describe bring teeth and traction to accomplish the mission.
Gary Cokins, SAS
A business that cannot measure its performance lacks a strategy. If you read its strategic plan you will find it is full of vague aims that no-one can attach a meaningful measure to. A statement like “increase market share” or “improve customer satisfaction” is meaningless without a clear framework for measuring performance.It is little wonder that the people doing the work are unsure about what they need to deliver.
One way to resolve the problem is to construct a complete business model based on linking the KPIs at each level in the business to the next, so that everyone understands their part in the process and their contribution to the end result.
It is not hard, it is not too difficult to understand, and almost evgeryone can contribute to the process.
People wil find that if they start without a clear, measurable strategy, they have to define one to finish the job.