Measuring for the right reasons.

In a recent article Simon Caulkin gives a vivid description of how it emerged at a recent event on ‘results-based management’ run by the consultancy Vanguard that “what to measure may be the single most important management decision a company makes.”

 For an indication of why, take the case of a typical local authority child protection department which operates to two standard measures. For children at serious risk, it must carry out a fast initital assessment of 80 per cent of cases within seven days. For a full core assessment, the standard is 35 days. The department meets both standards; under the widely-used ‘traffic-light’ signalling system (red-amber-green) it rates a green, so managers judge that no further action on their part is necessary. 

 Now look at the same department through a different measure: the end-to-end the time taken to do the assessment from first contact to completion. The picture that emerges is very different. The urgent assessment predictably takes up to 49 days, with an average of 18.5, while the 35-day assessment takes an average of 49 days, but can equally take up to 138. Worse, the clock for the core assessment doesn’t automatically start when the initial assessment finishes but only when it is formally opened. So the true end-to-end time for the 35-day assessment is anything up to 250 days. ‘Now tell me Baby P and Victoria Climbié were one-offs,’ says Vanguard consultant Andy Brogan, who gathered the data, grimly. ‘They weren’t – they were designed in.’

 When the underlying cause is looked for we find, Caulkin says, that “from assessing and protecting children, the imposition of the government-mandated measures ..has shifted the de facto purpose to meeting the standard within officially laid-down parameters”

Unlike standards, the end-to-end measure on the other hand throws light on how well the department is meeting its purpose. Learning takes place. The workplace conversation is no longer about how to meet the standard but what accounts for variation and how to how to save time in assessments to make children safer. Contradicting the traffic lights, action is urgently needed. As the process is repeated, improvement becomes continuous.

 The “why” we measure must, Caulkin insists, always precede the “what”,  and in the remainder of his article he states very plainly why this must be so.