Measure of performance

My father used to walk at four miles per hour. He kept a continual pace while hiking, up and down hills, through swamps. As a small child, if I fell behind, he would say, “go ahead. The hairy man, the Sasquatch is out here, and there is not a lot to eat in the forest.” What? “Go ahead and feed him with your flesh.” And so I would stumble after my father and by the time I was a teenager I thought that four miles per hour was a regular walking pace. I began to jog recently and after fifteen years of sitting at a desk, my pace was appalling. One of the reasons I couldn’t run well was that I had an unrealistic expectation of running at least eight miles an hour when instead I was actually running just under three miles an hour, or slower than my standard pace as a child. I had tried to run a number of times and always failed because trying to run eight miles an hour exhausted me before I had run even a quarter of a mile. Instead, I reversed what I was doing and measured myself but focused on running and keeping my body in a state of motion and discovered I could run, but only slowly, at just under three miles an hour. The demoralizing part of that was that wasn’t that much faster than my walking speed.

The term KPI is used in the business world has a patina of the serious efficiency expert. All that the acronym means is a key performance indicator. Most people don’t have KPIs, but businesses with contracts often have KPIs because a KPIs is a term where there is an expectation of reliable performance. Most of the time the chocolate factory can produce a hundred boxes of chocolate an hour. That is a KPI. It is a unit of measure (a box of chocolate), a unit of time (an hour), and a stated expectation 100/hour. The three things make a KPI. With my running, I had the unrealistic KPI of 8 miles per hour. Really, I could only deliver 2.6 miles per hour reliably when I first began to run. If I were to sign a running contract, it would be prudent for me to agree that I could run 2.5 miles per hour.

A performance measure is typically units in time. You can image then something moving a distance in an amount of time. Mo Green ran 50 yards in 5.56 seconds. Or you can imagine products on a conveyor belt. 1.5 million Cadbury Creme eggs come off the production line in the factory in Birmingham, England each day.

The difficulty here is focusing on quantifying something. There are conceptual tools that will help you identify what you can quanitify, such a S.M.A.R.T.:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

A specific goal provide clarity, concision, and visibility to a general goal. The goal to write a novel seems precise, but the success of Nanowrimo I think is due to the specificity of the goal for what a novel is: 50,000 words in a month.

To be as specific as possible, consider the six W questions that you learned when first learning about writing an essay in school:

  • Who
    Who is involved?
  • What
    What do I want to accomplish? Try to make the what as tangible as possible. A tangible what is something you can taste, touch, smell, sight or hear.
  • Where
    Identify a location.
  • When
    Establish a time frame.
  • Which
    Identify requirements and constraints.
  • Why
    Specific reasons, purpose or benefits of accomplishing the goal.

A measurable goal is a tangible thing that can be quantified. This can be less intuitive than you would think, but for me I often turn to the grammar guidance for the difference between less and fewer.

“You can count M&Ms, glasses of water, and potatoes—so you eat fewer M&Ms, serve fewer glasses of water, and buy fewer potatoes for the salad.” — ‘Less versus Fewer’, Grammar Girl

With an item that be fewer or greater you have a countable item that can be measured and turned into a numeric quantity.

An attainable goal is one that is important and you have a sense of how you might achieve. You can develop the insight, processes, efficiencies, or capabilities to reach the goal.

Distant goals can be broken into short steps that can move you closer to them. For instance, I wanted to run 5K even though I was only walking and hadn’t run for more than ten years. I set out to accomplish a number of interim goals, such as run for one minute and walk for one minute. I gradually lengthened the time I would run and reduce the amount of walking time, and then edged up the distance. I had several milestones, such as being able to run continuously for twenty minutes, thirty minutes, and then increase my pace until I was able run 5K.

In addition to an attainable goal, you want a realistic goal that might be high but is something that you can obtain. When setting your goal, it’s helpful to push this goal toward a boundary that makes you pause. Can you really accomplish this? A goal that seems a stretch will require the commitment to achieve the goal. However, the converse of this is that when setting key performance indicators you may are setting realistic goals that should statistically indicate consistence performance. For instance if you are a runner it is possible to run six-minute miles, but if you find that 80% of the time you run a ten-minute mile, then consider what you can confidently deliver every time.

Set your goal to a time. When will the goal be achieved? With my 5K running goal, I gave myself six weeks from the start of running, and then set weekly milestones. A time for a goal will force you to assess if your goal is realistic and attainable

With a defined goal, it becomes an important goal when you have a business agreement and expectation around the delivery of whatever it is you made. Most creative writers can avoid committing to KPIs, and a good rule would be to only commit to KPIs that will clarify your business, expectations, and provide both tension in terms of performance and delivery. If you are writing for yourself, you don’t really need KPIs.

Informally, I make agreements with myself such as record ten ideas a week. There isn’t someone waiting on these ideas, but I want to record something, ten fragments or sketches, under the theory that a good idea is easier to realize as a finished story or essay than a bad idea and that I would prefer the luxury of choosing from an existing pool of concepts than sketching out the first thing that comes to my mind.

However, I have worked jobs where I’m expected to produce four articles a week, or a finished report and presentation every week. Unlike producing ten ideas a week, this is a KPI because that is the expectation. If I miss the delivery, I have some explaining to do, and there are other people downstream in the production line who have to change what they are planning on doing.

Unlike defining a goal, a KPI should be a realistic number that can be consistently produced. You should keep track of your measurements as you produce so that you can estimate how long it will take you to do something, but also to know what can be realistically produced in a certain time frame.

Where stress plays a part in the conversation about KPIs, is that the underlying measure might be obscure. So you aren’t really sure what this measure is. And then the second thing is that the agreement might be for the best-case scenario. In an ideal circumstance you can make four toys in an hour. One time you made 32 toys in a day of work. You agree to this pace. But this might be an outlier of a value. The negotiation comes in finding the real average of the unit that is being measures, and if the business that has an expectation on this production can accept that threshold.

This is all there is to a KPI. It is merely the measure of a unit in time, measured as a flow, and it goes hand-in-hand with a level of flow that a business you are writing for expects from you. You can use the concept for your own personal measures and expectations as well, but really, what is the rush?

What is a measurement?

The distance between my house and the store is 1.4 miles. I take less than ten minutes to drive there. Half of this distance is 0.7 miles. A fourth is 0.35 miles. I can continue to divide the distance by half and still have distance to divide by half. That is there is an infinite measure of distance between my house and the store, or according to Waze, 1.4 miles. If there is an infinite number, then how can I ever arrive at the store? This is the root of a Zeno’s paradox. This paradox throws light onto one paradox of measurement itself. All measurement is an abstraction.

Measurement is an abstraction. Numbers attract us because they seem so intuitive to humans, but we have peculiar brains. We may be apes who talk but we are also apes who count. A measurement is an abstraction. As an abstraction is a model. A model is a useful lie. We define the boundaries of things and then count them. And this definition and counting forms the basis of measurement and a statically practice.

Objects are often linguistic definitions of material reality rather than intrinsic properties of reality. After the credulity of learning that name of things, a rock is a rock, a tree is a tree, a bird is a bird, we ask, “why is a r-o-c-k the word for rock?” This connection between our language a material reality superimposed by our language. It is not as if ant eaters and termites much fewer people using a different language call a rock a rock because there is property of a rock that carries with it the token, r-o-c-k.

Numbers, too, are not inherently a part of a thing. We learn about counting from objects that have a particularly well-defined thingness. Counting books have us counting apples, carrots, bunnies, and so on. We also a frame of reference in this case that lends itself to the particular thingness of something like an apple. But if you move the frame of reference out, what is an apple? Before it finally becomes fully formed on a tree, it is a bud on the tree a more tree than apple. The apple itself neaten rots and becomes soil which may be taken up again by another the apple tree. Eaten it is scattered to the compost heap and sewer. An apple is a good example of thingness but it is only a thing for a little while.

More often material things are like molecules of water where even their composition of individual thing is constantly being swapped out. If an H2O breaks up and switches hydrogens is is still the same thing? How much is a thing of water? It is an individual molecule of H2O or is it a unit of measure of water, a cup of water? And what then is this cup? We end up with something as invented as the token r-o-c-k to define a cup of water, a cup, which defined a volume of liquid but is completely made up.

The word r-o-c-k and a cup share the same property as the natural number one, two, three. They are abstractions.

Abstractions get a bad rap in writing.

This has been distilled into the writing law, “Show don’t tell.” Never mind that this supposedly pithy nugget is only dragged out for student writers and here it is meant to shame them into making their writing more specific and engage the five senses. The concept if all knowledge is derived from the five senses, than to make your writing like an experience that is being lived, you nee to engage the senses. There are issues with this concept on both sides. In terms of knowledge, it is not true that all knowledge is derived from the five senses. If this were the case, we would not learn to bond with care givers, learn to say our first words, or even walk.

Yet there is also something direct in appealing to the thing we know trough their taste and feel rather than thing we’ve just heard. In writing about a possible way in which the ideogram of red was derived, Ezra Pound writes in the ABCs of Reading:

He is to define red. How can he do it in a picture that isn't painted in red paint?

He puts ... together the abbreviated pictures of:

iron rust

Abstractions are inevitable in communication. The ideogram of red makes a link to material reality. The orchardist counts trees. A single tree may actually be part of a larger system of trees, but there is a single trunk with branches filled with applies in his orchard, and his orchard is made of rows and ranks of these countable things. Each tree produces apples that are collected into bushels and sold at market.

Despite the vague items to counting numbers, these natural numbers have been enormously insightful about perceiving material reality. If you know the miles per hour your are going you can estimate when you will arrive somewhere. We are surrounded by numeric feats such as the prediction of eclipses, the arrival of comments, humans landing on the moon, robots traversing Mars. As a writer, if you know how many words you produce on average per day you know how long it will take you to write your novel.

Numbers applied in the right way have a predictive quality where we can sense the future.

Yet, as an abstraction a natural number is a model. A common aphorism in statistics is attributed to George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Box create the Department of Statistics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and is the author of Statistics for Experiments.

I would say models are only useful because they are not real. As abstractions they leave something on the table in order to make something else conceptually possible. For example, a map can fit into your pocket. If a map were a literal representation of a place it wouldn’t be 1:32 scale but 1:1 scale and completely useless because it would be the same size as the place.

“How long will it take you to drive?”

“Let me take out my 1:1 scale map a drive on it to find out how long it will take me to drive there.”

Numbers have the same quality as a model. One thing is a thing and the non-thingness of its are lopped off or suppressed as it rolled up into a thing. Then we can out this thing and that thing. When counting the number of people in the theater we are counting each individual an indicted countable object. To make it less creepy, we usually say, “how many seats are in the theater?”

Numbers are insightful and have great utility. But there are enormous gaps between numbers in which reality still exists but where numbers cannot in any practically reach. With numbers we have lain a scaffolding, a foundation, and we can produce great insight with numbers and models that have the veracity of reality.