Metric Or 2x4?
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

Generally speaking, process metrics are a good thing. As we already know, you can't fix what you can't measure.


There are certain cases I've observed when metrics can be, let us say, counterproductive. I call these the "2x4 Metrics" since as I see it, they are not meant to incent process excellence, but to be used to hit process participants over the head, with a figurative piece of a common nominal size of lumber.

In short, the metrics don't meet the SMART criteria Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Time-Bound.

Pop quiz: An incentive plan implemented for members of a United States-based team included the net income from an international subsidiary, subject to exchange rates. Which SMART criteria does this not meet?

Answer: Actionable and Relevant. The team has no control over exchange rates, nor did they have any influence over international operations. And yes, this is a true story.

The most common 2x4 Metrics set goals that cannot possibly be met. That could be in the form of a single criteria, or through opposing measures that can't be met simultaneously. A humorous but accurate example of the latter is often applied to computer software: "Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick any two." A less amusing case is pitting speed of customer service against accuracy. It takes thinking to optimally balance the two, as opposed to setting both at the highest theoretical point and expecting compliance. Failure to address this can negatively affect another important metric: employee turnover.

I'll hasten to add that I don't mean "stretch goals" which are usually meant to encourage people to do their best, as long as you don't have to be Stretch Armstrong to make these stretch goals. (Look it up, kids.)

Although you might think that a typical purpose of 2x4 Metrics is to over-manage workers, it's been my experience that they are also used to prevent bonuses from being paid out. I was told of a case of this a few years ago when a large group of employees was informed that even though the company made "the Street's numbers" the company did not achieve "the Internal numbers" and therefore the incentive plan would be "adjusted." You can probably guess how widely known "the Internal numbers" were.

The reason this is important in Black Belt Land is that if you are working with one or more 2x4 Metrics, there will be very little incentive for participants to improve the process. Instead, there's likely to be considerable energy expended to figure out how to get around the measurement system! As a Lean Six Sigma Practicioner, or a leader who's called one in, you need to be able to understand and evaluate metrics, and point out when they've come from the lumberyard. More importantly, be prepared to explain how and why this will make improving the process more difficult than driving a nail into a 2x4 with a screwdriver.

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