Measuring for improvement

One of the things I have to do as a leader is to guide my group to reach its goals. This, of course, requires setting measurable goals. Then we have to monitor our progress based on data that somehow describe the goals we set up. If we do not measure our achievements, we will not know if we have succeeded. If the goals we are to reach are not described in ways that are in accordance with actions we can take to reach them, we might as well save ourselves the trouble of setting goals in the first place.

In the swimming hall in Uppsala where I like to go to do my laps, there are three lanes: Extra fast, Fast, and Exercise swimming. In Melbourne, there were also three lanes: Fast, Medium, and Slow. There was also a sign saying that if someone taps your toe while swimming you should move to a slower lane.

If my goal is to be faster at swimming what should I do? “Exercise” will get me there, right? But if no one taps my toe if I am too slow, how will I know I should be moving faster? If my goal is simply to exercise – is the Exercise lane the right one for me? Well, no, because the ones who swim there are extremely SLOW and I do crawling.

ImagePhoto: Fanni Sarkadi, Melbourne, Australia

The issue of measuring is of course not an easy one. In science we use things, such as impact factors and rankings. Such technical measures of success are criticized for creating a business management paradigm in research and are argued to not necessarily enhance quality. However, I guess the fact that there is a journal called Scientometrics (a Hungarian co-publication) shows that bibliometry is here to stay.

It is also hard to measure quality in health care. Physicians are particularly weary of letting the essence of their profession be forced into dry numbers. Nevertheless – if your loved ones had cancer, would you rather have them treated at a centre with 0,5% complications and 85% 5-year survival rates or somewhere with worse or not even measured outcomes?

Schools are a third sector where measurement is a subject of perpetual debate. Should we or should we not give grades, from which age, based on what criteria?

When Johanna saw her grades in year 5 in Australia she said she wanted better ones. At our meeting to develop Johanna’s study plan for this year in Sweden I asked the teacher if she could help Johanna by giving her an indication of what grade her performance on tests would give her. “We don’t do grades in year 5”, she said. I know that, I said indication, you know, make-belief type of thing. Nope. And my daughter, obviously in need of some kind of measure and/or external motivator simply said: “Ok, I will study in sixth grade, not now”. That really made my day.

Don’t misunderstand me: I truly believe that intrinsic motivation (fun animation of Pink’s book in the link) is the best motivator and that as a research group leader my task is to find, not kill people’s drive to do good work. But even people who are truly intrinsically motivated need a certain measure of goal fulfilment. They want to know they are doing their job well. They want to be reaching goals. They want to know they have contributed!

I have heard so many frustrated colleagues who work hard and never know whether or not they are doing a good job. They become bitter and negative and lose their motivation, not because someone is trying to control them, but because nobody cares to value their work!

So I think the discussion every sector and workplace should be having is not whether we should be measuring our goals, but rather how this should be done best to tell us (and our clients and financers) if we are doing a good job.

2 thoughts on “Measuring for improvement

  1. Those who can, do it. Those who can’t, teach it. Those who can’t even teach it, measure it. Those who can’t even measure, are blogging about it. (Bocs, ezt nem lehetett kihagyni… Azért kösz a Scientometrics propagálását.)

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