It’s that time of year where people are dusting off their strategic plans, hosting their parties and strategy workshops, and making sure the KPIs and metrics on their scorecards are the ones they want to be watching in 2021.
But most people really aren’t that religious about measurement systems, or tightly aligning specific actions with the needle they are most likely to move. The goal of “becoming data-driven” usually isn’t accompanied by the discipline and perseverance to make it happen, even though the payoffs are huge.
And none of us are immune to bad metrics, even when those things are really important. Sometimes, a metric is just too emotionally enticing to give up.
I use one bad metric myself, and no matter how bad I know it is, I keep using it to evaluate (one dimension of) my personal value. PSA: It is never good to tie your worth as a human to a metric (any metric). Gen Z may have more luck than us Gen Xers on this one.
My bad metric, the one I can’t emotionally detach from, is number of citations on Google Scholar. And the reason why I’m thinking about it today is because… I just achieved my 2020 goal of adding more citations than I added in 2019!
Here’s why this metric is so terribly bad:
Number of citations is a lagging indicator, and the lag can often be 3-5 years.
By the time the needle moves, it’s hard to figure out exactly what happened to make it move.
There are very few actions I can personally take to make that needle move.
Any actions I do take will be indirect. I can make people more aware of my papers, but can’t force anyone to cite one… so the actions I can take will influence reach, but not citations.
There’s an interesting social dimension to past number of citations. The more citations you have on a paper, the more likely you are to attract additional citations; similarly, the more citations you have, the better SEO you get on sites like Google Scholar. It’s a “fit get fitter” scenario.
I can’t monitor this metric on a weekly or monthly basis. If it dips, I won’t be able to respond by taking an action to restore growth.
I haven’t even thought about using this metric as a signal for when I should take action. Because of all the problems I listed above.
I didn’t do anything to achieve my 2020 goal. I just helplessly watched that number creep up, kept my fingers crossed, and (now) celebrated on December 19th when I (just barely) went over the wire before New Year’s.
The calendar is arbitrary anyway. What if I achieved the goal on January 5? Would I feel unaccomplished? Probably yes (this is pathetic)!
Ultimately, I am not in control of citations. I should have picked an intermediary metric that I am in control of… but that’s really difficult, and I’m not in academia any more so I really don’t even need to pay attention to this (another giant problem! Why am I still even paying attention? Attention is expensive!)
My Holiday wish for you is: Select your metrics carefully! Pick ones that are (ideally):
Not limited to lagging indicators with extraordinarily long lags
Monitorable on (at least) a weekly or monthly basis
Designed so that if you aren’t achieving your target level, you can immediately figure out where the problem is happening, and even know how to dig down deeper to figure out why that problem is happening
Triggers for action: every metric that’s not where you want it to be should be link to a thing you can do — that’s in your control — that you know has a pretty good chance of making that needle move the direction you want it to
When your metrics aren’t revealing, actionable, or in your control, you’ve just set yourself up for a special kind of paralysis the entire year.
Over the past week, I’ve noticed lots of people on social media talking about burnout — loss of energy, loss of enthusiasm, and loss of self-confidence at work. The holidays have ended, and it seems many are not getting back into the swing like they hoped they might.
Are you burned out? If so, you’ve probably taken steps already to fix it. Most people have a natural desire to do well at work, and to make valuable contributions… and besides, burnout doesn’t feel good day to day. Maybe you spent lots of time away from your email or phone, and with family or friends. Maybe you focused on “self-care” — those activities that are supposed to pull you back to center, to restore your depleted energy.
And if the concerted steps you’ve taken don’t seem to be working, you’re probably even more stressed out (and more burned out) than you were weeks or months ago.
What’s the solution?
The good news is, the burnout won’t last forever. There’s a natural endpoint for burnout, and that’s when you completely reach your limit and don’t even have the energy to remember why you cared in the first place. Most of us would rather not get to this point. So what’s the alternative?
You have two choices, both of which can have huge impacts on your life:
Stay, and work on improving the situation, or
Leave, recognizing that you’re not able to contribute to a solution.
Unfair treatment at work. If you’ve been treated unfairly, or if you see coworkers being treated in ways that you feel is unfair, your trust in the organization is going to falter. It takes a long time to build trust, but only one or two incidents to break it.
Unmanageable workload. If you’re given too much to do, or if you work on tasks that (for some reason or another) tend to get changed, shifted, or cancelled in-progress, you’ll have a hard time seeing your efforts pan out. Everyone needs a chance to see their work come to fruition.
Lack of role clarity. If you don’t know (or are not told) what to focus on, OR if you’re told to focus on one area and then later discover someone else actually owns it, conflicts are bound to emerge.
Lack of communication and/or support from your manager. This doesn’t mean you don’t talk to each other, or that your manager doesn’t philosophically support your work — it means that they aren’t doing enough to make sure that #1, 2, 3 and 5 aren’t happening.
Unreasonable time pressure. Being expected to pull off heroics can lead to burnout, especially when it’s the status quo. The people who do the work should always be asked to provide effort estimates, particularly when the work is engineering or software development. Failure to develop and implement systematic, repeatable processes for effort estimation can lead to mass burnout later.
But here’s the part of that HBR article that really resonated with me…
The list above clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual and that they can be averted — if only leadership started their prevention strategies much further upstream.
In our interview, Maslach asked me to picture a canary in a coal mine. They are healthy birds, singing away as they make their way into the cave. But, when they come out full of soot and disease, no longer singing, can you imagine us asking why the canaries made themselves sick? No, because the answer would be obvious: the coal mine is making the birds sick.
The lesson here is: If you’re burned out, it’s not a personal failure.
Burnout is a symptom of structural or process issues… that senior leaders are responsible for repairing.
The “Should I stay or should I go?” question, then, boils down to this:
Stay if you can help the organization treat people more fairly, establish manageable workloads, define more clear roles, improve communication with managers, and/or alleviate time pressure.
Leave if you can’t.
Granted, the decision process for you individually is probably more complex than this… but perhaps, by realizing that burnout is a characteristic of your environment and not a referendum on your personal resilience, you’ll be able to figure out your own path more easily. Good luck!
I read well over a hundred books a year, and review many for Quality Management Journaland Software Quality Professional. Today, I’d like to bring you my TOP 10 PICKS out of all the books I read in 2019. First, let me affirm that I loved all of these books — it was really difficult to rank them. The criteria I used were:
Is the topic related to quality or improvement? The book had to focus on making people, process, or technology better in some way. (So even though Greg Satell’s Cascades provided an amazing treatment of how to start movements, which is helpful for innovation, it wasn’t as closely related to the themes of quality and improvement I was targeting.)
Did the book have an impact on me? In particular, did it transform my thinking in some way?
Finally, how big is the audience that would be interested in this book? (Although some of my picks are amazing for niche audiences, they will be less amazing for people who are not part of that group; they were ranked lower.)
Did I read it in 2019? (Unfortunately, several amazing books I read at the end of 2018 like Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media.)
The biggest obstacle in agile transformation is getting teams to internalize the core values, and apply them as a matter of habit. This is why you see so many organizations do “fake agile” — do things like introduce daily stand-ups, declare themselves agile, and wonder why the success isn’t pouring in. Scott goes back to the first principles of the Agile Manifesto from 2001 to help leaders and teams become genuinely agile.
#9 – Risk-Based Thinking (Muschara)
Muschara, T. (2018). Risk-Based Thinking: Managing the Uncertainty of Human Error in Operations. Routledge/Taylor & Francis: Oxon and New York. 287 pages.
Risk-based thinking is one of the key tenets of ISO 9001:2015, which became the authoritative version in September 2018. Although clause 8.5.3 from ISO 9001:2008 indirectly mentioned risk, it was not a driver for identifying and executing preventive actions. The new emphasis on risk depends upon the organizational context (clause 4.1) and the needs and expectations of “interested parties” or stakeholders (clause 4.2).
Unfortunately, the ISO 9001 revision does not provide guidance for how to incorporate risk-based thinking into operations, which is where Muschara’s new book fills the gap. It’s detailed and complex, but practical (and includes immediately actionable elements) throughout. For anyone struggling with the new focus of ISO 9001:2015, this book will help you bring theory into practice.
#8 – The Successful Software Manager (Fung)
Fung, H. (2019). The Successful Software Manager. Packt Publishing, Birmingham UK, 433 pp.
There lots of books on the market that provide technical guidance to software engineers and quality assurance specialists, but little information to help them figure out how (and whether) to make the transition from developer to manager. Herman Fung’s new release fills this gap in a complete, methodical, and inspiring way. This book will benefit any developer or technical specialist who wants to know what software management entails and how they can adapt to this role effectively. It’s the book I wish I had 20 years ago.
#7 – New Power (Heimans & Timms)
Heiman, J. & Timms, H. (2018). New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World – and How to Make it Work For You. Doubleday, New York, 325 pp.
As we change technology, the technology changes us. This book is an engaging treatise on how to navigate the power dynamics of our social media-infused world. It provides insight on how to use, and think in terms of, “platform culture”.
#6 – A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession (Maldonado)
Maldonado, J. (2019). A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit (CRC Focus). CRC Press: Taylor & Francis, Boca Raton FL, 154 pp.
One of the best ways to learn about a role or responsibility is to hear stories from people who have previously served in those roles. With that in mind, if you’re looking for a way to help make safety management “real” — or to help new safety managers in your organization quickly and easily focus on the most important elements of the job — this book should be your go-to reference. In contrast with other books that focus on the interrelated concepts in quality, safety, and environmental management, this book gets the reader engaged by presenting one key story per chapter. Each story takes an honest, revealing look at safety. This book is short, sweet, and high-impact for those who need a quick introduction to the life of an occupational health and safety manager.
# 5 – Data Quality (Mahanti)
Mahanti, R. (2018). Data Quality: Dimensions, Measurement, Strategy, Management and Governance. ASQ Quality Press, Milwaukee WI, 526 pp.
I can now confidently say — if you need a book on data quality, you only need ONE book on data quality. Mahanti, who is one of the Associate Editors of Software Quality Professional, has done a masterful job compiling, organizing, and explaining all aspects of data quality. She takes a cross-industry perspective, producing a handbook that is applicable for solving quality challenges associated with any kind of data.
Throughout the book, examples and stories are emphasized. Explanations supplement most concepts and topics in a way that it is easy to relate your own challenges to the lessons within the book. In short, this is the best data quality book on the market, and will provide immediately actionable guidance for software engineers, development managers, senior leaders, and executives who want to improve their capabilities through data quality.
#4 – The Innovator’s Book (McKeown)
McKeown, M. (2020). The Innovator’s Book: Rules for Rebels, Mavericks and Innovators (Concise Advice). LID Publishing, 128 pp.
Want to inspire your teams to keep innovation at the front of their brains? If so, you need a coffee table book, and preferably one where the insights come from actual research. That’s what you’ve got with Max’s new book. (And yes, it’s “not published yet” — I got an early copy. Still meets my criteria for 2019 recommendations.)
#3 – The Seventh Level (Slavin)
Slavin, A. (2019). The Seventh Level: Transform Your Business Through Meaningful Engagement with Customer and Employees. Lioncrest Publishing, New York, 250 pp.
For starters, Amanda is a powerhouse who’s had some amazing marketing and branding successes early in her career. It makes sense, then, that she’s been able to encapsulate the lessons learned into this book that will help you achieve better customer engagement. How? By thinking about engagement in terms of different levels, from Disengagement to Literate Thinking. By helping your customers take smaller steps along this seven step path, you can make engagement a reality.
#2 – Principle Based Organizational Structure (Meyer)
Meyer, D. (2019). Principle-Based Organizational Structure: A Handbook to Help You Engineer Entrepreneurial Thinking and Teamwork into Organizations of Any Size. NDMA, 420 pp.
This is my odds-on impact favorite of the year. It takes all the best practices I’ve learned over the past two decades about designing an organization for laser focus on strategy execution — and packages them up into a step-by-step method for assessing and improving organizational design. This book can help you fix broken organizations… and most organizations are broken in some way.
#1 Story 10x (Margolis)
Margolis, M. (2019). Story 10x: Turn the Impossible Into the Inevitable. Storied, 208 pp.
You have great ideas, but nobody else can see what you see. Right?? Michael’s book will help you cut through the fog — build a story that connects with the right people at the right time. It’s not like those other “build a narrative” books — it’s like a concentrated power pellet, immediately actionable and compelling. This is my utility favorite of the year… and it changed the way I think about how I present my own ideas.
Fifteen or so years ago, I was a member of a review team that assessed a major, multi-million dollar software project. We were asked to perform the review because the project had some issues — it cost nearly $2M a year, was not yet delivering value to users, and had been running for 17 years.
Were I the ultimate decision-maker, my plan of action would have been simple: shut down the project, reconstitute a team with some representation from the old team, and use the lessons learned to rearchitect a newer, more robust solution. It would have customer involvement from the start to ensure a short time-to-value (and continuous flow of value). But there was one complication: the subject matter for this software package was highly specialized and required active involvement from people who had deep knowledge of the problem domain… and the team already had about 60% of the world’s experts on it.
Still, I was focused on the sunk costs. I felt that the organization should not choose to keep the project going just because over $20M had been poured into it… the sunk costs should not factor into the decision.
But then something very curious happened two years later, as the project was still hemorrhaging money… I was put in charge of it. So what did I do? Launched a two-month due diligence to reassess the situation, of course.
I was not on the review team this time, but their assessment was not a surprise — can the project, reconstitute the team, use the lessons learned to plan a new approach to delivering value quickly.
So that’s what I did… right? NOOOOO!!! I decided to try a little harder… because of course we could get the current software project to be stable and valuable, if we just gave it a little more time.
Even I was shocked by my transformation. Why was I feeling like this? Why was I ignoring the facts? Why was I, all of a sudden, powerless to make the appropriate and most logical choice?
Turns out, I was just demonstrating human nature via the Endowment Effect — which says, simplistically, that once you own something you value it more than before you own it. This is not just a curiosity though… because it can get in the way of effective decision-making.
Think about it:
Before you buy a house, you psychologically devalue it because you want to get a better deal. But once you move in, your psyche inflates the value because you stand to win as the value increases.
Why is it that leaders often value the opinions of consultants more than the opinions of full-time staff? Because consultants are more expensive, and once their reports have been submitted, you now own the intellectual property… and value it more.
The same effect occurs if you buy a company. You may be sensitive to issues and opportunities for improvement prior to the sale, but once your signature is on the dotted line… the endowment effect kicks in, and the rose-colored glasses magically appear.
This has a huge implication for quality and process improvement. Once you own something, you are less able to see the problems that need to be solved. This is why we use external auditors for our ISO 9001 programs, or review panels for our government projects, or a quality award assessment process for evaluating how well we are translating strategy to action.
Other people can see areas for improvement that you can’t, if you’re an owner of the process that has problems. The lesson? Get external eyes on your internal issues, and pay attention to their insights.
…your organization’s blueprint: it identifies your business model and processes, provides details about how your people will work together to get things done, and establishes specifications for performance — so you can tell if you’re on track… or not.
By this definition, the U.S. Constitution is a quality system — just like ISO 9001, or any system developed using the Baldrige Criteria, or a system for strategy execution based on Hoshin planning and other lean principles. The Constitution defines the blueprint for how power will be distributed (among the three branches of government, and between the country and the states), provides details about how the branches will work together and what principles they will abide by, and establishes clear standards for performance right up front:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
(The preamble is the Constitution’s quality policy.)
But even though I’ve been working with (and researching) quality systems since the late 90s, I didn’t see the connection until yesterday, when I read some excerpts from the Don McGahn case. McGahn, who was subpoenaed by the House of Representatives to testify in the Trump impeachment hearings, was instructed by the White House to disobey the order. He asked a court to decide whether or not he should be made to appear. Federal District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, in a 120-page response, called on the characteristics of the Constitution that make it a quality system to make the determination:
…when a committee of Congress seeks testimony and records by issuing a valid subpoena in the context of a duly authorized investigation, it has the Constitution’s blessing, and ultimately, it is acting not in its own interest, but for the benefit of the People of the United States. If there is fraud or abuse or waste or corruption in the federal government, it is the constitutional duty of Congress to find the facts and, as necessary, take corrective action.
This pattern should be really familiar to anyone who’s worked with ISO 9001 or similar quality systems! After your company’s processes and procedures are put in place, and your performance standards are defined (for products as well as processes), you implement a monitoring system to catch any nonconformance that might arise. Then, after root cause analysis, you implement a corrective action to improve the impacted process.
In the U.S., those nonconformances are fraud or abuse or waste or corruption or even injustice that one person (or entity) experiences at the hands of another. You can take up the issue with the courts, which will (in many cases) interpret the laws, implement countermeasures, and potentially lead to larger-scale corrective actions, like new laws.
How can you tell if the quality system defined by the Constitution is working? Evaluate it against the performance standards. Is justice taking place? Is there domestic tranquility, adequate defense, and general welfare? If not, then the structure of the quality system (e.g. the Amendments) should change to better enable the desired outcomes.
Although the system is imperfect, it does — by design — support continuous improvement that incorporates the Voice of the Customer (VoC). This is done through Congressional representation, carefully selected juries of peers, and NGOs that research and advance specific interests.
So the next time you’re wondering whether your ISO 9001 system adds value, ask yourself… does the U.S. Constitution add value? I think you’ll conclude that both can provide a necessary foundation.
The link between quality and structures in the U.S. government was also noted by Tim J. Clark in this 2008 article from the Indianapolis Star, entitled “People working together can make a more perfect union.” He notes that ‘The aim of the American system of government is to enable “We the People” to work together to make progress – not toward a “perfect” union, which would be impossible – but rather toward a “more perfect” union’ and explains how this aligns with Deming’s philosophy.
Years ago I consulted for an organization that had an enticing mission, a dynamic and highly qualified workforce of around 200 people, and an innovative roadmap that was poised to make an impact — estimated to be ~$350-500M (yes really, that big). But there was one huge problem.
As engineers, the leadership could readily provide information about uptime and Service Level Agreements (SLAs). But they had no idea whether they were on track to meet strategic goals — or even whether they would be able to deliver key operations projects — at all! We recommended that they focus on developing metrics, and provided some guidelines for the types of metrics that might help them deliver their products and services — and satisfy their demanding customers.
Unfortunately, we made a critical mistake.
They were overachievers. When we came back six months later, they had nearly a thousand metrics. (A couple of the guys, beaming with pride, didn’t quite know how to interpret our non-smiling faces.)
“So tell us… what are your top three goals for the year, and are you on track to meet them?” we asked.
They looked at each other… then at us. They looked down at their papers. They glanced at each other again. It was in that moment they realized the difference between KPIs and metrics.
KPIs are KEY Performance Indicators. They have meaning. They are important. They are significant. And they relate to the overall goals of your business.
One KPI is associated with one or moremetrics. Metrics are numbers, counts, percentages, or other values that provide insight about what’s happened in the past (descriptive metrics), what is happening right now (diagnostic metrics), what will happen (predictive metrics or forecasts), or what should happen (prescriptive metrics or recommendations).
For the human brain to be able to detect and respond to patterns in organizational performance, limit the number of KPIs!
A good rule of thumb is to select 3-5 KPIs (but never more than 8 or 9!) per logical division of your organization. A logical division can be a functional area (finance, IT, call center), a product line, a program or collection of projects, or a collection of strategic initiatives.
Or, use KPIs and metrics to describe product performance, process performance, customer satisfaction, customer engagement, workforce capability, workforce capacity, leadership performance, governance performance, financial performance, market performance, and how well you are executing on the action plans that drive your strategic initiatives (strategy performance). These logical divisions come from the Baldrige Excellence Framework.
Similarly, try to limit the number of projects and initiatives in each functional area — and across your organization. Work gets done more easily when people understand how all the parts of your organization relate to one another.
What happened to the organization from the story, you might ask? Within a year, they had boiled down their metrics into 8 functional areas, were working on 4 strategic initiatives, and had no more than 5 KPIs per functional area.They found it really easy to monitor the state of their business, and respond in an agile and capable way. (They were still collecting lots more metrics, but they only had to dig into them on occasion.)
Remember… metrics are helpful, but:
KPIs are KEY!!
You don’t have thousands of keys to your house… and you don’t want thousands of KPIs. Take a critical look at what’s most important to your business, and organize that information in a way that’s accessible. You’ll find it easier to manage everything — strategic initiatives, projects, and operations.
(special shout-out to those of you who saw the typo the 30 sec it existed!)
In college, to meet my phys ed requirement, I chose a class where I wouldn’t have to exert much physical energy: golf. Almost three decades later, I still can’t play golf, but I did learn one thing in that class that has helped me through life.
When you’re trying to reach a goal, figure out a process to help you reach that goal, then focus on the process instead of the goal. I used this approach to improve my putting. Here’s how it worked: to get the ball in the hole, don’t aim for the hole… aim for a point along the line that goes to the hole, which should be easier to hit. If your ball hits that midpoint, it’s more likely that your putt will go in.
For example, if you’re at the white dot, aim for the Red X, not the hole:
This approach centers you on the process of making the putt. Getting your mind off the pressure of the goal results in the freedom to focus on what’s most important: developing the discipline and habit that will lead to success.
Bryan Cranston, the actor who played Walter White in Breaking Bad, had a similar experience until he was in his mid-40s. Although he had landed many roles in films and television series, none were the kind of long-lived and memorable performance Cranston was aiming for. So he made a conscious effort to shift his perspective.
Author Scott Mautz, citing Cranston’s 2016 memoir, describes the process:
Early in Cranston’s career he was an auditioning machine for commercials or guest-starring roles, a bevy of high-pressure stabs that might serve as at least a step up to the big time. But he was walking into a slew of rooms where he felt he had no power. All that changed when a mentor suggested a new outlook, and it led to an honest-to-goodness six-word secret to his success.
Focus on process rather than outcome.
Suddenly, Cranston felt free. He approached each audition as not going to get something, but to give something–a performance. And giving a great performance requires staying obsessively focused on the process of preparing to be able to give a great performance. He learned that if he overly focused on the outcome (will he get that part?) it set him up for disappointment and left him yearning for validation. Focusing solely on the outcome had also kept him from taking risks as he didn’t want to give a potential gig away with a mis-step.
But this mindset shift, of falling in love with and staying laser-focused on the process, changed everything for him. Soon after he adopted it, he got the role in Malcolm in the Middle, and then the career-changing Breaking Bad starring role.
When you have a challenging or aspirational goal in your sights, like when your organization is starting a lean transformation or digital transformation, it can seem overwhelming. The heavy feeling can actually prevent you from getting where you want to go.
The solution is to identify your intermediary goals — the ones you can achieve by developing and tuning an operational process. Let go of the aspirations, and focus on the daily work, creating the habits that will make you and your organization successful.