You Get What You Measure

David Foster, in the comments to my previous post, links to this article. Actually, one of the factors that got me to thinking about the problem of bureaucratic failure about 10 years ago was an article in some British medical journal, probably either  the Lancet or  BMJ (I can’t remember which and if anyone knows this article, I’d appreciate the cite), talking about how measuring specific performance factors in the British Hospital system made things less safe because anything that was not on the government performance evaluation was not given any thought or resources, and the government had missed some pretty big and life-threatening issues. If it jogs anyone’s memory, I believe that the author was an Indian practicing in Britain.

As a small “l” libertarian, I tend to take the same approach to civil society and business regulations that I take to parenting. Laugh if you wish, but I came across an expression of this philosophy when I was 7 or 8 in a children’s book, The Great Ringtail Garbage Caper. It’s a book about a bunch of raccoons who take matters into their own hands and “borrow” a garbage truck to make their own rounds when two new garbage men start cleaning up too efficiently. Pretty libertarian book, now that I come to think of it. It resonated, and I even thirty years later I still recite the line verbatim:

“Make as few rules as possible, but don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

4 thoughts on “You Get What You Measure”

  1. Examples are ubiquitous in the dysfunctional “How may I deliver excellent service to you today?” customer-service bureaucracies of many large organizations. A minor but typical example: a (then) BellSouth sales rep promising that my new DSL service would be available in less than one week, when the actual wait at the time was at least four weeks as confirmed by every other BellSouth person I spoke with after my DSL didn’t come online as soon as promised. It was obvious that the sales reps were being compensated based on how many new accounts they opened rather than on how many satisfied customers they recruited. My first thought was that BellSouth mgmt was stupid. But on second thought maybe they were just taking the easy way out in a context where nobody was likely to lose his job merely because some customers were dissatisfied. On third thought, if you were a big-company manager whose job depended on satisfying customers, you might have a disincentive to develop realistic measures of customer satisfaction, and an incentive to develop phony ones. So I am guessing that at BellSouth and other big organizations that are not known for providing good service the general explanation for this kind of failure is bad management at the top.

  2. Here’s a related example from the Iraqi military (from a CENTCOM newsletter):

    Some of the help includes providing a new attitude toward accident prevention and investigation.
    “Their primary issue right now is overcoming a previous culture under Saddam Hussein which punished when you had accidents,” Bonneau said. “After an accident landing a MiG-25, one of the pilots was put on house arrest and unable to speak to anyone for three months. He was released when they found out it was a maintenance problem. We’re developing a new attitude to identify hazards and use risk management.”

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