We can all agree that metrics are helpful, if not essential, to good business. Implementing metrics successfully can be a challenge, but living with them day to day can present its own problems.

At my current engagement, we've tracked an increasing array of metrics across the past few years, and we've learned quite a few lessons--some of them painful. For example, when we started tracking employee utilization almost two years ago, it was devastating to morale. Team members joked with gallows humor that we should start addressing one another by target utilization number rather than name, and that everyone should be issued a uniform with their target number plastered on the back.

As one of my associates notes, "People never forget the way you made them feel...Never." Two years after implementation, "utilization" is still a loaded word for us. Although this is a somewhat extreme example, it's a great lesson in remembering that the perception of metrics needs to be managed because of their impact on people.

In my experience, no one likes to be "tracked," and most people mistrust numbers. Even if you can properly explain the rationale, most team members will assume on some level that metrics are being tracked in an effort to downsize headcount, reduce salary, or otherwise support some morale-busting, dehumanizing initiative.

Although staff perception and reaction rate are high on the list of potential challenges, there are others. What's the best way to introduce a new metric? Who is responsible for tracking? How do you double-check accuracy? Who needs to be involved? What is the objective?

With these questions in mind, here are a few lessons we've learned in living with metrics on a regular basis:

  • You only get one chance to make a first impression: When collecting metrics, do so as transparently as possible and involve only necessary team members. If you're introducing a new system, make sure it's vetted before rolling it out on a large scale. You can always fix things afterward, but people will remember the initial chaos.
  • Metrics only have value if they're accurate: Without proper instruction, metrics will be skewed by human error. This can be especially apparent early on, if people are not educated properly on how and when to enter data. If you're asking folks to collect and submit information, provide clear, consistent direction.
  • A set of numbers is just that--a single set of numbers: Without context, it's easy to reach incorrect conclusions. As a simple example, we were reconciling hours from our billing system and another time-tracking system to determine compliance and found that there were a large number of discrepancies, leading upper management to believe that many team members were entering their time incorrectly. In reality, most of the issues were the result of vacation time being tracked differently in both systems, or of people entering actual time worked in the time entry system versus the "standard" 40 appearing in the billing system. With proper context, more than 90% of the inconsistencies were inconsequential.
  • React when the time is right: Although there's a science to implementing and using metrics, there's also an art--part of which is knowing when to act. Too early and you're making decisions without sufficiently robust information. Too late and you're collecting numbers just for the sake of collection. The first example will lead to bad decisions, the second to frustration and apathy.
  • Don't over-communicate...: Too much information for the leadership team, and they'll expect unreasonable fine-tuning and change before anyone is ready. Too much information for the other team members will lead to paranoia.
  • ...or under-communicate: Within reason, more information for the leadership team is better, but incomplete information will lead to confusion and--once again--paranoia for individual team members.
  • Don't be dogmatic: Metrics are only as good as what you do with them, and that means good judgment is needed. Similarly, there will always be outliers. It's good to understand where they come from, but that's often time consuming. It is usually more important to recognize the outliers so they don't skew the truth of the results.

My intention here is not to attack metrics, merely to remind folks that there's a whole layer of complexity that can easily be forgotten when you're nose deep in a spreadsheet or series of reports. Looking past the numbers to consider the possible fallout in reality is vital to good business and a strong culture. The unintended consequences of a 0.03% increase-in-whatever may be a massive slam to morale or even the loss of valuable team members, if not properly managed.

The impact of metrics on people is very real and, ironically, impossible to measure.