Metric, not another one please

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Metric is a dirty word to some.  Making metrics automatic takes the hard work out of them but how do you go about removing the stigma and the effort.

An instant source of irritation and a sign of extra work often buried in that other dirty word “reports” metrics are vital to a business but often maligned.

This article looks at “why metrics?” and how to take the heavy lifting out of them.

  • Why a metric?
  • Systems
  • Where do the problems come from?
  • Final thought


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Why a metric?

Why bother?

You walk into a doctor’s surgery.  You’re not feeling well.  The doctor looks at you and says “In all my years of experience, you look fine to me.” What should your first reaction be?

This has never happened me.  My temperature, my heart rate, my blood pressure and a myriad of other things are given a number.  These are metrics.

Metrics are just numbers.  They provide the doctor and you with an objective fact that is indisputable.

The average human body temperature is 98.6°F (37°C).  Yet “normal” body temperature can have a wide range, from 97°F (36.1°C) to 99°F (37.2°C).  If your temperature is greater than 37.5 or 38.3 °C (99.5 or 100.9 °F) you have a fever and there’s something wrong.

A manager needs to be able to “take the temperature” of different aspects of the business.  They should not solely rely on gut feelings or “I think that…” opinions.

To you a high temperature may be irrelevant yet to a doctor this may represent a vital piece of information which is guiding their decision making processes.


A personal metric

The snapshot from the FitBit app on my phone for July 1st 2018 for Philip Lacey

When you are fit and healthy you don’t think about things like body temperature.  There’s life to live.

My wife bought me a FitBit 2 with Heart Rate monitor for Christmas 2016.  It continues to be a very generous gift.  It gives me more than one metric about my life.  More than I ever knew could be there and certainly had never monitored.

  • Did I sleep last night?
  • How fast my heart is beating over time
  • Did I get much passive and active exercise

The metrics display in unrelenting figures.  They supply me with a barrage of metrics, one metric after another.  Things I had previously believed were OK were, in the sharp glow of the app on my phone, not OK.  My exercise levels were too low and my heart rate too high.

So a simple watch on my arm gives me information through my phone.  This enables me to make decisions which affect my life.  I am able to tend to potential issues before the become a real problem to deal with.





Which ones are important?

If you want metrics then there are metrics for just about everything.  Being able to decide which ones to pay attention to and which ones to discount as “normal” is the challenge.

There are three schools of thought on deciding which metrics are important and which are not.

  • Static metric.  If a constant number is required then a simple number display of that is easy to obtain
  • Ranged metric.  If a number is within a range then it too can be ignored.
  • Sliding metric.  Where a number is trending up or down over a period of time.

If your static number is not spot on, then it needs attention.

Ranged numbers that remain in range can generally be ignored.

Where sliding numbers are concerned these point to trends which influence decisions.

A metric is important if it affects your decision making process.


When a metric becomes a statistic

Metrics are data.  Raw numbers.  When they become a pattern over time or in a group then they become statistics.

Lets look at two definitions:

Metric: a system or standard of measurement.

Statistic: a fact or piece of data obtained from a study of a large quantity of numerical data.

Statistics are derived from the collection of metrics.

Previously I discussed the important difference between the factual language of mathematics and the expressive language of English.  As statistics is a subset of maths, in the same way love is a subset of English, it has its own lexicon and jargon.

This specialised language can put some people off studying or understanding the area.

Statistics show patterns in history whilst simultaneously building models that can help predict the future.


Statistics in sport

In today’s society managers value the input of the statistician as more helpful than hindrance.

Angus Loughran playing Clive ‘Statto’ Cohen
Image from

Angus Loughran is a racing pundit and journalist but rose to fame playing Clive ‘Statto’ Cohen, the resident statistician on the 1990s BBC2 TV show Fantasy Football League alongside Frank Skinner and David Baddiel

He was known for wearing a dressing gown and pyjamas, and would stand in the corner of the set – a kitchen – and provide facts and figures on each of the guests’ fantasy football teams, while being made fun of by hosts Baddiel and Skinner. He was often made fun of for being dull and naive, but quickly became an audience favourite with chants of ‘Statto, Statto’





Moneyball (2011)
Image from

Statisticians contribution to modern sport has revolutionised sports entirely.  Baseball famously changed their entire model to be based on averages.  The movie Moneyball (2011) details the story of how computer-generated analysis was used in baseball to choose the best players to fit the team.

Rugby coaches review tapes to analyse and identify opportunities and fix weaknesses.  Teams such as Saracens Rugby Football Club use supporting software such as Coach Logic to optimise the management process.





Facts vs. feeling

There are two important words for you to differentiate between when gathering metrics, qualitative and quantitative.

  • Quantitative: relating to, measuring, or measured by the quantity of something rather than its quality.
  • Qualitative: relating to, measuring, or measured by the quality of something rather than its quantity.

Any noun (person, place or thing) that is unambiguously counted is a quantitative metric. How many phone calls came into the business yesterday?

When you measure how happy your customers is you end up with a qualitative metric.  Happiness is ambiguous.



Different aspects of the business have different foci.

Sales metrics as opposed to HR metrics can look at the same aspect of the business in completely different ways.

How are the team doing? is the company wide question yet the sales manager wants sales metrics and the HR team wants HR metrics.

Therefore when putting systems in place you need to choose a system that can provide the information to support the different foci.


The Information Systems pyramid

Information Systems Pyramid
Image from Michael A. Urmeneta from

When trying to decide which metrics to look at it is important to consider the Information Systems pyramid as it puts metrics into context.

At the bottom of the pyramid you have raw metrics.  Data.  Red, green, one, twenty five.  On their own they mean nothing.  To an experienced operator they mean something.  Red means don’t cross the road.  Green is the colour of the apples we sell in the store.  One is the amount of staff who were in work Friday.  Twenty five is how many of that stock item we have left in the store.

When data is contextualised it is becomes information.  This allows a manager to make a more informed decision.

Where a business can gain a lot of value is in knowing what is gong on around the business without having to know the specifics of how the area is working.

At the top of the pyramid that information has become advice.  It is not stating you have to.  It’s advising you.




Where do the problems come from?

The reporting trap

Quality trending from
Quality trending from

Before choosing a system ensure that you know which metrics you need to make your decisions.  Many people don’t know the area as well as they would like so they turn to systems to hopefully provide the metrics that will make them better in their job.

Systems need to train you on what metrics you should be looking for in order to sell their product.

It is ideally better that a manager knows the numbers required to deliver their role.

Also if a manager reviews many similar systems the primary metrics will be available on most of the platforms.




More work

People aren’t lazy, they’re just not computers or assets.  Gathering data is not fun for everyone.

I would not count every step I took for a day.  It would be too costly time wise for me to carry out that exercise.

Businesses employ technology instead to gather the data.  For all quantitative measurements a computer of some form can do the gathering.

This question should lead managers to ask, why is my team generating reports when the computer could do it faster and more precisely than my team.

The challenge usually lies in qualitative work.  “How happy are the team?” is answered by a survey or similar mechanism which requires invested time.

As a manager it is important when optimising your work, what can be automated and what must be gathered.

Furthermore given that all metrics are not vital do you need to gather all those metrics?



Fear becomes shame

When people become dehumanised and turned into a statistic, fear is the instant result.

The expression “don’t become a statistic” is frequently associated with death and horrible situations in the common vernacular.

When you are viewed through the lens of metrics there is a psychological effect on your sense of identity. What score did you get in your Leaving Certificate / SATs?

The ability to objectively review yourself and compare yourself with others can be painful.

As we grow up “fear of failing” is an emotion we need to learn to manage which leads psychologists to describe a fear of failure as more of a fear of shame.  As we become an adult that shame amongst our peers brings us back to a time when we were children.

Yet just by existing you are a statistic.  Gender, age, ethnicity, nationality are all statistics.

Consequently using metrics requires communication and education on the part of the manager.



Theory of Gaming Motivation
Image from

Gamification theory demonstrates that metrics improperly used can actually decrease motivation and performance.

The theory of gaming motivation proposes that people are driven by different approaches and above all each approach needs metrics.

Some people prefer to collect badges rather than have their name at the top of a leaderboard.  There can only be one winner on a leaderboard.

Also some people prefer to work for rewards, such as points towards a free gift, than trying to beat their colleagues.  Each person’s motivations are unique to them and require management to facilitate and recognise which works best for each employee.





Lies, damn lies, statistics and a metric

Mark Twain
Image from

Mark Twain popularised the saying.,_damned_lies,_and_statistics

Numbers can be persuasive, very persuasive for your argument however they can be used to bolster a weak position.

In a contact centre over a week.  The calls answered for the week in the centre are Monday through Friday 500, 500, 300, 500, 500.

The manager looks at the numbers and surmises that Wednesday was a really bad day.

Furthermore when the manager actually chats to the team about why only 300 phone calls came in.  Why? The customers on Monday and Tuesday didn’t need to call back. They team treated them so well.

Subsequently Friday was the really bad day because 1000 calls came in and the team only answered 500 of them.

Consequently when choosing metrics context to convert it from data to information and better into knowledge is the ambition.


Reliance vs. Innovation

If our numbers are within the specified ranges we are doing well?  Right?  Not always.

Operating in isolation, like only looking at the temperature of a patient, instead of checking blood pressure as well, can lead to fatal mistakes.

Often operations become fixed on the primary statistics in the belief that the operation has not and will not change.  Change is an inevitable part of the business.  Identifying key people in key roles and their motivations is essential for a business growth.  

Reliance is expecting tomorrow to be the same as today.

Encouraging innovation to make things better, find betters was of doing something and helping the business is difficult.

Also I often hear in business “You can change the process so long as you don’t make it worse.”  Innovation is change and leads to unexpected scenarios.

The challenge now for the employee is that there is fear of failure.  Furthermore if it goes wrong fear becomes shame which leads to stagnation and demotiviation.


Final thought on a metric

Over a decade of operational reporting and psychology has gone into various solutions I have built.

It represents in my opinion as a manager one of the most cost effective and easiest ways of gathering metrics without interfering with operational duties.

Consequently knowing how best to interpret operational metrics with all of the above thinking in mind is key to good managment.


If you would like to chat about any of the points in this article or know more about automatic metrics please get in touch.


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