And Then He Yelled - "You Can't Handle The Truth!"
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Why we avoid the rigor of developing metrics and using them...
It took a terrible congressional fight to get a United States food labeling law enacted... That law is called the "Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990" and it mandated a Nutritional Facts label on most foods listing "the percentage supplied that is recommended to be met, or to be limited, in one day of human nutrients based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories". Today, we all take these labels for granted, but before the U.S. FDA initially required them, any labeling provided on food was completely voluntary, and there was no standard on how to best inform consumers what was going on with the foods they were considering ingesting.
Why was the idea of food labeling controversial - other than people don't like being told what to do? It was not embraced by most in the food industry for a pretty simple reason: "Telling the truth" about food isn't always beneficial for the food seller nor is it desired by the food consumer. It turns out, humans are not always big fans of the truth!
Here's the problem - knowing the truth about a subject is uncomfortable because then we have to do something about it, or at least admit we are choosing not to act - in spite of the truth. My tiny package of Chips Ahoy! cookies are forced to tell me that eating both of them = 110 calories. A person of average height (5'6" to 5'11") who weighs ~180 lbs. would then have to walk more about 2,500 steps to burn off the 110 calories... Yikes!
Pizza Hut (among others) hates the menu labeling requirements that took full effect in 2018 is because knowing the "truth" regarding the food you are thinking of ordering can make you change your behavior. Being confronted with menu labeling "truth" forces us to experience "expectancy violation" - where "what we think" gets pushed up against "what is true". In a very practical example, I may "think" a single slice of a 14" Large Meat Lover's® Pan Pizza has about 275 calories, until I look at the chart Pizza Hut is required to provide to me and see it's actually 480 calories per slice - a major expectancy violation! Now - what am I going to do with that truth - especially since I was intending to eat 3 slices for lunch?
Every organization has a common struggle - the need to develop meaningful metrics that tell us the truth about how we are doing. And yet, in almost every organization I have been a part of or worked with, this is a struggle with two edges to it.
Edge #1 - What metrics are "meaningful"? It's important to start here because you get what you measure. Measuring focuses the resources of the organization and if you are focusing on the wrong things, you will get the wrong results. Garbage In = Garbage Out. So, the first and most important question is what inputs and outputs of the organization are the most important to its success or failure because those need to be quantified and measured. Measure "sales increase" and you'll probably be able to achieve a sales increase but is that more important than "profitability"? Measure "profitability" but not "sales increase" and you may just have the most profitable enterprise that nobody knows about before it goes out of business.
Edge #2 - How do we measure things that are important? Some things are easy to quantify and measure: How much did we sell yesterday? How much inventory do we have at each location? Other things are much more difficult: How satisfied are our clients? How is our value proposition perceived by our clients? Quantifying and measuring "soft" metrics are more difficult (and the subject of a subsequent Brite Idea) but equally important if we are going to obtain the proper results.
We need to stop at this point and deal with this fact: We often don't want to quantify and measure key metrics in our organization because we're afraid we won't like what we see... and we're not sure we can handle the truth!
Which (finally!) connects us with the headline reference to the most famous few lines of the 1992 movie "A Few Good Men" starring Tom Cruise, Kevin Bacon, Demi Moore and the inimitable Jack Nicholson. I won't go through the plot of the movie other than to say, the question that triggers the famous courtroom exchange between Cruise and Nicholson is regarding a "Code Red" order that results in the death of a Marine. This exchange has become a well worn meme and synonymous with keeping the truth from someone because it is "too difficult" for them to handle. But is that really our problem? Would the truth really too difficult for us to handle or would we rather avoid the potentially unpleasant reality that discovering the truth creates?
In practical terms, this is how it works: If I don't quantify and measure the meaningful and important metrics of my organization, then I will proceed with what I think is going on. I can go with "my gut" on the subject and do what I think is best with the information I do have. I will place decision making weight on my opinions, my observations and - putting my finger to the wind - I'll be charting the organization's course with my best guesses.
Someone wisely said that knowing the truth would "set us free" but perhaps our problem is we would rather not deal with the burden truth imposes. If I don't quantify and measure the most important metrics of my organization, then I won't be confronted by the "expectancy violation" they would potentially produce. Perhaps it's time to get real with ourselves and admit that we have not done the rigorous work of developing meaningful metrics because it allows us to avoid being confronted by what they would reveal...
That, however, leaves us in a very difficult situation. If we are not solving our problems by doing the work to quantify and measure, then we are simply avoiding them, for now. Diminished profitability, missed growth opportunities, customers gone because we didn't know they were unhappy, products shipped with defects that disrupt our clients - these could be avoided or mitigated if we could "handle the truth"!
The bottom line: it's a wise investment of time and energy to get your organization's metrics figured out today - in every possible area. Trying to solve your organization's problems without the clarity of meaningful key metrics is at least frustrating and potentially disastrous as you move forward. It's been a difficult year; why not decide to do this important work before you head into the next one?
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