Measures should not be targets

November 15, 2013

Read time 1 min

In most companies, measures and targets are directly linked to each other. When you start measuring something it immediately also becomes a target. To make things worse, compensation is based on how well individuals meet those targets.

However, there is a very important distinction between the two. Measures help us understand the system better. The gas level indicator on a car is a simple example of a measure. It gives you valuable information that you can use to make better decisions.

A target for gas level would be to always keep it above 10 litres to prevent it from ever running out. Making it a target for ambulances would lead to ambulances stopping for gas right next to the hospital to make sure they always stay above the target even when it’s an emergency.

“If you give a manager a numerical target, he’ll make it even if he has to destroy the company in the process.”
-W. Edwards Deming

Measures are useful. Numerical targets are dangerous. And once a measure becomes a target it stops being a good measure. (Goodhart’s law)

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