Why metrics aren’t enough in management

03 December 2015 -


KPIs and dashboards give useful insight into a business’s performance, but bosses can’t afford to forget the art of Management by Walking Around

Patrick Kniveton

A couple of years ago, the forecourt of the railway station in my home city was redesigned to allow access for public transport. All very good, but the previous space to drop off and pick up was moved to an access-controlled car park. As a result, people started doing quick drop-offs from cars in the bus-only area.

So cameras were fitted, and fines applied. Cue loud protest in the local press. Now there are large signs everywhere near the station ordering: “Do not drop off here. You will be fined. Use the access-controlled car park.”

Why do councils often do this, instead of thinking: “We have many different customers, so how do we create the best solution for all of them?”

In a similar way, modern hospitals are usually designed with large waiting areas. Yet think of the capital investment required for the space, the running costs of heating, lighting, administration, cleaning etc. If the hospitals operated an effective throughput, they’d only need a few chairs.

In many organisations today, the art of Management by Walking Around has been lost. They spend lots of time and effort bringing in experts to set up metrics and dashboards to monitor everything – “You get what you measure” – but forget to listen to those at the coalface: the customers and workforce.

Instead, set an example, lead by speaking to people, don’t rely on emails and spreadsheets. If you really want to boost productivity, use that time walking around to look at waste, and feel the mood of the business. These are some questions you could ask:

Robust IT: Do your systems work and are they easy to use? How often do people grumble that they can’t find things on their computers?

Good offices: Are you providing the right working environment? Would you feel comfortable in that office or workshop?

Software tools: Do you have effective systems or a plethora of home-grown spreadsheets? If it’s the latter, I bet this isn’t the most effective method (though it may show the dedication of your teams to get the work done).

Unsung heroes: Who are the real stars in your organisation? They won’t be the ones grabbing your attention to get promoted, but you can be sure they’ll be keeping your organisation going, despite the inefficiencies.

Blockages: What is the biggest thing preventing you from getting on with your job?

Morale: Is there a sense of pride and enjoyment at work?

Generally, there are two types of productivity change: unblocking inefficiencies and implementing a step change with innovative processes or products.

A few years ago, I was developing a new type of driver information sign. My colleagues and I went beyond the customer’s standard technical specification, and identified the two factors that would be critical to the project’s success: ensure the driver can see the signs, whatever the weather or lighting conditions; ensure the signs are reliable. We stayed focused on these, and the result was technical excellence and the lowest cost in the market. We transformed the business and won all the orders available.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has said that the UK needs more than a million new engineers and technicians by 2020, which will require twice the current number of annual engineering graduates and apprentices. Any shortfall will have the greatest impact on small and medium-sized companies that can least afford to advertise. So how can they find the skills to boost productivity and grow?

Well, your local university or university technical college would love to hear from you, as they need course placements for their students. It’s a win-win situation: your business gets enthusiastic people full of the latest thinking, while the students get to learn about real-world challenges.

The university or college also learns more about the needs of local organisations and can tailor its output to suit. What’s more, you get extended interviews with potentially great employees of the future. One way to get things moving is to join the college’s industry liaison board. And if they don’t have one, set one up!

Patrick Kniveton is a visiting professor at Derby University and a past president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

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