What Kentucky Derby Handicapping Can Teach Us About Organizational Metrics
I love horse racing. More specifically, I love betting on the horses. Why? Because it’s a complex exercise in data science, requiring you to integrate (what feels like) hundreds of different kinds of performance measures — and environmental factors (like weather) — to predict which horse will come in first, second, third, and maybe even fourth (if you’re betting a superfecta). And, you can win actual money!
I spent most of the day yesterday handicapping for Kentucky Derby 2015, before stopping at the track to place my bets for today. As I was going through the handicapping process, I realized that I’m essentially following the analysis process that we use as Examiners when we review applications for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA). We apply “LeTCI” — pronounced like “let’s see” — to determine whether an organization has constructed a robust, reliable, and relevant assessment program to evaluate their business and their results. (And if they haven’t, LeTCI can provide some guidance on how to continuously improve to get there).
LeTCI stands for “Levels, Trends, Comparisons, and Integration”. In Baldrige parlance, here’s what we mean by each of those:
- Levels: This refers to categorical or quantitative values that “place or position an organization’s results and performance on a meaningful measurement scale. Performance levels permit evaluation relative to past performance, projections, goals, and appropriate comparisons.”  Your measured levels refer to where you’re at now — your current performance.
- Trends: These describe the direction and/or rate of your performance improvements, including the slope of the trend data (if appropriate) and the breadth of your performance results.  “A minimum of three data points is generally needed to begin to ascertain a trend.” 
- Comparisons: This “refers to establishing the value of results by their relationship to similar or equivalent measures. Comparisons can be made to results of competitors, industry averages, or best-in-class organizations. The maturity of the organization should help determine what comparisons are most relevant.”  This also includes performance relative to benchmarks.
- Integration: This refers to “the extent to which your results measures address important customer, product, market, process, and action plan performance requirements” and “whether your results are harmonized across processes and work units to support organization-wide goals.” 
(Quoted sections above come from http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/2008cmmi/Track7/TuesdayPM/7059olson.pdf, Slide 31  and http://www.baldrige21.com/Baldrige%20Scoring%20System.html. )
Here’s a snapshot of my Kentucky Derby handicapping process, using LeTCI. (I also do it for other horse races, but the Derby has got to be one of the most challenging prediction tasks of the year.) Derby prediction is fascinating because all of the horses are excellent, for the most part — and what you’re trying to do is determine on this particular day, against these particular competitors, how likely is a horse to win? Although my handicapping process is much more complex than what I lay out below, this should give you a sense of the process that I use, and how it relates to the Baldrige LeTCI approach:
- Levels: First, I have to check out the current performance levels of each contender in the Derby. What’s the horse’s current Beyer speed score or Bris score (that is, are they fast enough to win this race)? What are the recent exercise times? If a horse isn’t running 5 furlongs in under a minute, then I wonder (for example) if they can handle the Derby pace. Has this horse raced on this particular track, or with this particular jockey? I can also check out the racing pedigree of the horse through metrics like “dosage”.
- Trends: Next, I look at a few key trends. Have the horse’s past races been preparing him for the longer distance of the Derby? Ideally, I want to see that the two prior races were a mile and a sixteenth, and a mile and an eighth. Is their Beyer speed score increasing, at least over the past three races? Depending on the weather for Louisville, has this horse shown a liking for either fast or muddy tracks? Has the horse won a race recently?
- Comparisons: Is the horse paired with a jockey he has been successful with in the past? I spend a lot of time comparing the horses to each other as well. A horse doesn’t have to beat track records to win… he just has to beat the other horses. Even a slow horse will win if the other horses are slower. Additionally, you have to compare the horse’s performance to baselines provided by the other horses throughout the duration of the race. Does your horse tend to get out in front, and then burn out? Or does he stalk the other horses and then launch an attack in the end, pulling out in front as a closer? You have to compare the performance of the horse to the performance of the other horses longitudinally — because the relative performance will change as the race progresses.
- Integration: What kind of story do all of these metrics tell together? That’s the real trick of handicapping horse races… the part where you have to bring everything together in to a cohesive, coherent way. This is also the part where you have to apply intuition. Do I really think this horse is ready to pull off a victory today, at this particular track, against these contenders and embedded in the wild and festive Derby environment (which a horse may not have experienced yet)?
And what does this mean for organizational metrics? To me, it means that when I’m formulating and evaluating business metrics I should take a perspective that’s much more like handicapping a major horse race — because assessing performance is intricately tied to capabilities, context, the environment, and what’s bound to happen now, in the near future.