If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. \- Peter Drucker

Measurement is one of the most important tools in a manager’s toolbox.

Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.” \- H. James Harrington

Measurement and metrics have other benefits for your team too:

Communicate values Choosing to measure something is an efficient way to demonstrate your values. It sends an unambiguous message to your team about what is important.

Provide feedback Metrics provide clear and understandable feedback on how a team is performing. A team will naturally try to use that feedback to experiment with different behaviours. I’m constantly surprised by how effective visualisations can be in communicating performance.

Never underestimate the power of a red dot.

I don’t know what this chart is about, I just found it on google images. But even I can tell at a glance that January was a bad month.

Traffic light

Be fair Metrics are independent and objective. They are the same for everyone. Metrics don’t care about team politics and they don’t play favourites.

But be careful what you wish for

If you measure it, it will improve. Even if that improvement is stupid.

As soon as you evaluate performance using a metric, it WILL improve, even if that improvement comes at the cost of something more important. That’s because metrics create an incentive to follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit.

Here’s an example, say you work at a supermarket and you decide to measure your deli staff on how many Pepperoni Pizzas they make each day. Your team WILL make more Pepperoni Pizzas, even if they have to cut corners …

Pizza

How about a more software-y example. Say your team is writing too many bugs. A good way to improve their performance is to start measuring how many bugs each developer writes.

If you measure bugs, your developers will be more careful with their work and they WILL write fewer bugs.

But they’ll also find other ways to reduce the amount of bugs:

  • Argue and be more defensive when bugs are found in their work.
  • Waste time trying to shift blame to other developers.
  • Be more specific about what they consider a bug.

It's a feature

  • Claim that a bug isn’t a bug because they did exactly what an incorrect or vague specification asked for.

I did what you asked

Conclusion

Metrics are a fantastic way to improve your team by communicating values and providing fair feedback.

But like every other management tool, there is a trade-off. Metrics aren’t inherently good or bad. You have to decide for yourself what’s a appropriate based on the problem you’re trying to solve. Only you can decide what is right for your team.