Today’s post is the featured article from the September 2010 issue of The Front Porch Newsletter. If you would like to automatically receive The Front Porch e-newsletter on the last Thursday of each month just click here to sign-up for your complimentary subscription.

john-newYou get what you measure. This message and practice took hold in business across America and ultimately around the world as part of the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement in the 1990’s. Six Sigma reinforced the message with continuing emphasis on measurement and accountability. Rapid advancements in technology allowed for ever-increasing capabilities in generating more precise measurements … and many more of them.

At the same time, organizations were expanding. Becoming more global. More complex. And the need for precise measurements was becoming increasingly more important. Management, as well as leadership, was becoming more dependent on these measurements to steer their ship. These measurements analyzed the productivity and quality of performance of divisions, departments and even individuals. And rewards were based on their results.

Two decades into the practice of precise measurement, I am sure it can now be statistically shown that you get what you measure. With the best of intentions, however, this potentially leads to an unexpected problem … you, in fact, will get what you measure! So with a word of caution …

Be very careful what you measure!

I have often said … if I really want to understand the core values of an organization, I don’t want to see what is written in their glossy recruiting brochure or annual report. What I really want to see is what they measure … and reward. That ultimately tells me what they truly value.

In the August issue of The Front Porch I talked about the direct connection of employee engagement to an intentional understanding and alignment of personal and organizational core values. There is no doubt in my mind they provide the kindling to ignite passion and fulfillment in our work … as well as stoke the same quality and productivity ignited by precise measurements. Precise measurements, unexamined, can either douse the flames or ignite them into an uncontrollable wildfire.

The bottom-line is that precise measures can cause unintended consequences.

This would be easy to manage if measurements causing unintended consequences were so apparent on the surface. If only they could show their ugly evil motives. But they don’t. Often, on the surface, they appear to be great measures. And they have often been put in place with the best of intentions! But great intentions do not protect us from unintended consequences. In anything, they can blind us from seeing how these measurements are actually seeding a drift away from stated values.

Every measurement needs to stand the test of stated core values.

Not only does it need to stand the test on the surface, but it needs to stand the test of an analysis of the potential unintended consequences. People respond to measurements. They certainly respond to rewards. They respond with their decisions, their actions and how they show-up in relationships. Unintended consequences can result in silos, internal competition creating external problems, and short-cut gains at the expense of long-term failure.

If it sounds like I’m bashing the “measurement movement” I have clearly missed my point. One of my personal core values is accountability. I believe measurements are an incredible tool in helping us with our personal and collective accountability. Measurements, and the results they reward, are potent. We need to understand measurements do make an impact. Therefore, they need to be analyzed. And they need to be analyzed through the filter of core values. Unfiltered measurements, even those created with the best of intentions, can bring damaging consequences. Filtered measurements can celebrate the core values that mold the culture of any organization.

It can also work the other direction. Let’s say you create an impactful set of measurements that, by design, are well-founded. But, let’s also say they are set into action in an organization that does not understand its core values … or with employees who don’t understand their own personal core values. Measurements are typically designed to drive results. Without the foundation of values, the pressure of the measurements can create leaks. I’m not talking about bad people doing bad things. I’m talking about good people drifting under the pressure.

The potential of the power of measurement first begins with a clear understanding of our personal values and the core values of the organization in which we do our work. These values become our first and primary measurement. But measurements, themselves, deserve their own test.

It would serve us well to hold our measurements up to their own measurement!