In productivity, not everything that counts can be counted

At times I wonder whether one of the most dangerous cliches in business is ‘what gets measured gets done’ (for other candidates you might want to check out this post at Forbes. It is not necessarily wrong, what makes it dangerous is that so many people have come to believe it and therefore it’s right.


So if we really want to get something done, something that really matters, then the only thing we can do is measure it. And conversely, if we can’t measure it (and make it somebody’s KPI) it probably won’t get done.

Take for example productivity. Productivity is perhaps one of the most important measures of success in modern organisations. It is how we measure efficiency, which is not only a key driver of business competitiveness but also the thing that has allowed us to raise living standards and improve the human condition around the world (you can read more about that in this recent blog post).  But somewhat ironically, our efforts to measure productivity often result in unproductive behaviours.

If you read a business text book it will give you a definition of productivity that looks a little like this ‘An economic measure of output per unit of input’ (this one comes from Investopedia because it came up first when I searched Google but you can find similar definitions everywhere). So if we want to improve productivity all we need to do is measure outputs and measure inputs. Simple huh?

The real challenge for organisational leaders  comes when we try and define what ‘output’ and ‘input’ really means. Output is really about the amount of benefit that we can create for our customers. This is sometimes approximated as revenue but for many organisations (especially government ones where the customer pays indirectly through taxes) this is not a great measure of impact.

So instead of measuring benefit or impact we end up measuring something that is, well, a bit more measurable, like throughput. Throughput could be the number of widgets we produce or the number of reports that we can write, or the number of meetings that we can hold. This is much easier to measure but generally a poor representation of benefit. In fact some of these, such as having too many meetings could easily be seen as detrimental…but they are easy to measure.

The same challenge occurs when we come to measuring input. A really valuable measure of input might be ‘energy’ (check out this cool article on Productivity 2.0 for more on this) but once again this is incredibly hard to measure. It is much easier to measure hours worked or even better, headcount.

[tweetthis]Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.[/tweetthis]

So instead of measuring something useful, we end up measuring how busy you were, regardless of whether the work was valuable, and whether you turned up, regardless of what you were doing. These problems are otherwise known as busyness and presenteeism, both of which actively reduce productivity (for more on the problems of busyness I can highly recommend this blog post by Dr. Jason Fox).

So perhaps it is time to update our cliches to something more useful. I quite like this one by William Bruce Cameron:

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

A better approach to improving productivity is to acknowledge that some of the things that matter can’t be measured. Instead we need to motivate people with a purpose aligned to our customers need. We need to provide them the right tools and technology to be productive (because throughout human history we have used technology to improve productivity), and then trust and support them to do what they need to do.

If this sounds challenging, just think about all those meetings you won’t have to go to.