January 10, 2019

9 pitfalls for managers to avoid when agreeing your KPIs

By Hanne Sorteberg

As we all start working towards our goals & targets for the year, what defines a good KPI? Guest blogger, Hanne Sorteberg returns to answer that question. She also helpfully shares 9 pitfalls to avoid.

So whether you are an Analytics leaders setting KPIs for your team, or influencing other teams, this is for you. Hanne shares her experience and advice on how to get these priority metrics right.

Over to Hanne…

A new business year often brings new strategies and plans. KPIs, Key Performance Indicators, are metrics that provide information on how a business is performing. KPIs ensure that a strategy is achieved, by giving direction to the employees that can realise it.

Best case, KPIs are the compass that makes sure we are headed in the right direction. Worst case, they may drive behaviour we do not want. 

Best case, they motivate for increased and improved effort, worst case, they discourage and demotivate. Oftentimes, they are a theoretical exercise put in a drawer without value.

Avoiding worst case KPIs

How can we build KPIs that contribute to the growth and development of our business?

KPIs should follow the checklist for SMART goals:

  • S = Specific, it is evident and clear what the goal is
  • M = Measurable, it is possible to measure the goal unambiguously
  • A = Ambitious, it’s a stretch to achieve, and at the same time realistic
  • R = Relevant, it contributes to the business’ strategy
  • T= Timed, the timeframe for when the goal is to be achieved is clearly defined

There are many pitfalls to avoid to succeed with KPIs and goal management. Here are 9 to consider:

Pitfall 1) Too many KPIs

The most common mistake is to be too ambitious and clever. Vigorously defining KPIs for the entire business with fancy graphs and excel macros. It requires a lot of time to set up, and even more to maintain. Important deviations drown in information overload.

A hospital went from one report of over 150 measurements, that no one paid attention to, to a lamp on the managers desk. It had a green, yellow or red light depending on the waiting time in the emergency room. The lamp caused a significant improvement.

A few, important, KPIs can be enough to model the most important business processes. First ensure these are established, communicated and anchored in the organisation. Then you can consider adding or adjusting the KPI process.

Pitfall 2) Over fancy KPIs

Some KPIs can measure performance well, but still be a bad choice. It can be too difficult to obtain the data. It can be difficult to explain what the KPI is, or there is disagreement on how the KPI should be defined or calculated.

Pitfall 3) KPIs that are impossible to measure

Some KPIs that are important can be difficult to measure. In such cases you either have to drop them, or find an alternative way to measure them. For instance, customer satisfaction can be measured by an index based on surveys.

It is important that the KPI is a numerical value, so that you can define thresholds, and measure historical development. Make sure the KPI has the same meaning over time. 

Pitfall 4) Vanity KPIs

Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup“, uses the term “vanity metrics“. He uses it for measures that are celebrated as achievements, but don’t contribute to the growth and development of the business.

The number of page views, clicks, downloads and likes are examples of metrics you can boast about. But they don’t necessarily contribute to increased sales, customers or loyalty. Vanity metrics can take your attention away from the important stuff to follow up on.

Pitfall 5) Not defining “good”

What are satisfactory results? 

KPIs should drive the right behaviour. It is important to define the thresholds of what is a good result, or green. Making clear when there is a deviation that requires actions, to improve a yellow or red/critical situation. 

Pitfall 6) Not following up KPIs

Many businesses define KPIs as a part of their yearly strategy planning. The KPIs should be followed up so frequently that you have a chance to adjust course in time.

Some KPIs may be measured daily or weekly, others more seldom. If something is measured less frequently than quarterly, it is probably not a good KPI.

Pitfall 7) Not distinguishing between result & effort KPIs

Most KPIs show results a business has achieved. Sales, the number of customers and contracts, waiting time etc. You cannot influence these metrics directly, they result from what you do.

An effort KPI measures the activities you do to affect the results. The number of sales calls, marketing campaigns, number of service calls and hours used for improvements are examples of such KPIs.

It is useful to link result and effort KPIs. When a measurement hits yellow or red – which actions are taken? And how much effort does it take to correct?

Pitfall 8) KPIs that drive unwanted behaviour

Some KPIs can have consequences you did not foresee, or even lead to behaviour that is unwanted. If you, as a software vendor, introduce a KPI on the number of bugs, the development time may increase significantly. 

Measurements comparing when features are delivered to an estimate, may lead to estimates that are way too high. 

A KPI to shorten the length of a telephone call at a service desk to decrease waiting time, may cause fewer issues to be handled at the first call. But it may also actually increase the total waiting time.

Some of these KPIs may be kept if they are balanced by an additional KPI. The number of bugs measured at the same time as development effort. The length of service calls in addition to the number of issues solved at the first call, in addition to customer satisfaction.

It is critical to reflect on whether the KPI will introduce negative and unexpected consequences. If you can imagine any, set-up monitoring to evaluate how effective the KPI is over time.

Pitfall 9) KPIs aren’t communicated and anchored in the organisation

KPI’s are meant to change the way you act. To measure without doing something different based on the results, is wasted time. 

If you are to introduce a system of goals and measurements, it is important that the KPI’s are communicated. This needs to be done in a clear way, and the organisation need to agree to them. Stakeholders should perceive that their effort can impact the KPI’s. They need to believe that the goals are realistically achievable.

Something should happen when a KPI turns yellow or red. Either corrective action or an adjustment of the KPI to make it reflect reality.

How are your KPIs?

Thanks to Hanne for that practical post, that I’m sure is relevant to many managers at this time of year.

What are you going to do differently as a result? Are you confident that you have the right KPIs for 2019? If not, how could they be improved?

If you do make changes that work, after reading Hanne’s advice, I’d love to hear your story.