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?