Besides Hours, What Can We Use to Measure Performance?

Measuring work in time is a topic that has interested me for a while now. Work is iterative and collaborative and yet we reduce it to the simple unit of an hour. As an anthropologist, I’m a champion of qualitative data. I love the gray areas, the “messiness” of emotion, the complexity of the human thought process. I look for individual stories behind statistics. But I also like to create order and I enjoy the productive tension between simplicity and nuance. Measuring productivity in a company is a great example of this challenge. How can a business measure its performance without glossing over the nuance involved in the process? 

Time is the dominant metric for performance: there’s a time you’re expected to get to work in the morning, there’s a time it’s ok to leave, you log the number of hours you spend at the office and you log the number of hours you spend on a specific project. The New York Times recently featured a “Room for Debate” on the 40 hour work week. Its articles discussed historical understandings of work and pleasure, the health and ecological costs of overworking and the most effective incentives for working. But my favorite contribution turned the topic on its head by questioning the use of time as our main metric for success. Dharmesh Shah’s article “Don’t Watch the Clock; Watch your Business” reminds us that time is just one quantitative shortcut to understanding productivity: “Exceptional employees count their successes in code shipped, projects completed, people inspired and impact, not the minutes they’ve spent at their desks.” There are other factors and outcomes - both quantitative and qualitative - to be measuring.

 

Who are we measuring?

First off, who’s behind these hours? No matter how much an organization acts like a well-oiled machine, there are individuals who are making it run that way. Each person has their own way of working, upholds their own set of responsibilities, requires access to a specific type of equipment, and commits to their unique priorities involving both work things and outside life things (that rarely stay outside). Office-wide rules might not bring out the best work in all employees. In his New York Times opinion article, “Be More Productive. Take Time Off,” Jason Fried of 37signals wrote about shortening his company’s work week to four days May through October. While this is an appealing and generous policy in and of itself, what most impresses me is that he lets each staff worker choose the day they take off in addition to Saturday and Sunday. Allowing individuals to define their own schedule, responsibilities and methods of measurement can honor individualities.

 

 What are we measuring?

What are we creating? Companies offer a variety of services and deliverables that each require specific time, materials and effort. The billable hour originated in the Industrial Age when manufacturing was the dominant industry in our economy. Jon Lax of Teehan+Lax gave a terrific history of the billable hour for Creative Mornings Toronto last month, pointing out: “It’s impossible to really account for time in a linear way. We’re not moving pig iron, we do things in a disjointed way.” We need metrics that allow for this iterative process. 

The popularity of startups and entrepreneurialism is also on the rise, blurring the line between professional services and production/manufacturing. In 2012, Fried tried what he calls a “June-on-your-own experiment,” giving his staff the month of June to work on whatever they wanted. He described the outcome as “the greatest burst of creativity I’ve seen from our 34-member staff. It was fun, and it was a big morale booster. It was also ultraproductive.”  Measuring client satisfaction will be just as important as measuring the number of products launched. 

 

What are we striving for?

How do our products affect the world? What are we striving for besides quickly completing a project? Shah highlights “solving big problems,” “doing work [we] truly love doing” and having “a significant impact on the business.” These goals are at a high level, relating to the vision of a company. Lax calls for talking about “how effective we are, not efficient.” From the client perspective, he explains “clients shouldn’t be buying time. It doesn’t tell you how good the work is...if it’s doing what you need it to do.” He doesn’t want another time tracking tool, he wants “better tools to understand if the work is valuable to the larger world.” What if we added these goals to “time” sheets? Having a ritual at the end of the week to take stock of what you accomplished and what comes next is a valuable ritual to have. But that sheet can include much more than quantified hours. 

Lax reminds us that “the majority of what we manage cannot be measured.” But he goes on to say, “what you measure defines what you value, what you value is intrinsically tied to what you sell and that in turns shapes you and your culture.” Metrics are about so much more than performance and bottom lines. They’re about people, creation and impact. Defining metrics distills a company’s complex values and strengthens its culture. With this clarity, you can set goals and reach them.