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beware the vanity metric

I recently ordered takeout from a local restaurant. Before COVID-19, we had frequented it in person but due to spiking numbers, our family has kept to supporting them via the takeout route. The food, was as before, delicious and we enjoyed our meal.

However the experience that I had when I arrived to pickup the order has left me contemplating the meaning of metrics in our personal and professional lives.

I received an email prior to walking in the restaurant which told me that the order was ready. It literally said “Your order is ready for pickup”. Walking in, I could not find the order on the pickup shelves. I approached a server who checked and informed me that the order was still being readied, and the preparer had marked it as ready and that “they do that often”.

It would be ready in a few minutes.

After talking with the server a little longer, it became apparent that how quickly after an order is placed that the status is updated to “ready for pickup” is closely tracked. It is something their people are evaluated by each week.

It had become the point of their work instead of what a metric should track:

Are we meeting our customer’s needs and delighting them?

“Customer’s needs” could be content, timeline, etc.

It is always about quality, so never compromise there. (quality can mean many things but it should always be met to the customer’s satisfaction)

It was a minor inconvenience, but I can say that I was not delighted. This was a clear case where human nature, being what it is, caused the person to make the metric of greater importance than what it was meant to track and solve for. People rise to how they are measured.

How quickly the order status was updated, instead of customer satisfaction, became the measure of success.

At the end of that business day, the company likely had great statistics that showed alignment with their stated objectives. It lacked, however, any measure of actual success.

Outputs over outcomes struck again.

The same can be said for any goals that we set in our personal lives. Are we measuring the progress in a meaningful way, or are we setting ourselves up for failure? Failure could be realized by metrics that give the false impression of success (hence the term “vanity”), or even by metrics that mask the real progress being made and cause us to “abandon ship!”.

So what is an example of a good metric?

Those that know me know that I am an avid Amateur (Ham) Radio hobbyist. As such, I have spent part of 2021 learning how to send and receive Morse code.

Live, on the air.

I recently joined a group called CWOps and their Basic Course. It is an organization that provides, free of charge, coursework and live instruction from accomplished advisors to people like me. Their goal is to grow and sustain the use of Morse code.

One of the first things we did was to record ourselves using an online app which played the Morse code for all letters and numbers, where we try to say out loud the character as soon as we can. That recording is then fed into an audio editing application where the spacing between the playback of the code and our response is measured and recorded.

Ideal response times are less than half a second.

Over the course of the last 4 weeks, I have been able to see the average time to recognition fall continuously (that is a good thing) across all characters.

I am clearly getting better at something that without a good metric, would be much more difficult to recognize. It encourages me as I dedicate part of each day to practice and improve, while allowing me to still see where I get tripped up and need more focus.

As a metric, it is clear and focused on the outcomes. The metric is an output, but is not the point. I am now getting on the air and having Morse code conversations (short ones, but conversations nonetheless) whereas a month ago I was terrified each time I tried.

Outcomes over outputs.

Do your metrics provide clear insights and actionable outputs that drive to the right outcomes?

If not, why are you doing them?

I will still give the restaurant my business, but I don’t trust their notifications any longer.

Trust is probably a good topic for a future update. 😉

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