The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

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The Art of Measurement

I want to talk a bit about management measurement. I recently spent a number of years in a good sized multinational, and I watched management trying to gain control through measurement. And mostly I watched as they gained the wrong sort of control; as they crystallized behaviour in ways that lose more from employees than they gained.

(This is an old, old piece, one of the few I saved from BOPnews. Originally written in 2004 back when I was still corporate. Since almost no one will have read it, and those who do won’t remember it, here it is again. I’m putting it back up because it relates fairly closely to the recent article on the lack of belief in good and why incentives rarely work.)

When you’re dealing with small numbers of people, simple measurements are all you need, and indeed the time spent measuring can be a simple waste of time. For larger groups, and as management becomes disassociated from the actual work of the organization, measuring is necessary so that management knows what is happening and can modify it. The old saying (which I’m sick of) is that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” It’s a statement with a lot of truth to it, but so is this – “you measure what you manage, so you’d better be sure you’re measuring what you want to manage.”

Here’s an example. A friend of mine used to do customer support for laptops. He was measured on how long he was on the phone and how quickly he picked up. If he spent too long on the phone on average, then he was taken aside and reprimanded. These measurements encouraged tech support employees to get people off the phone as quickly as possible, whether their problem was solved or not. Assuming management actually wanted happy customers (ie, that they saw tech support as a way to sell the next laptop, rather than something they had to do as cheaply as possible) then the way to measure this would be to have an automatic survey at the end of the phone call, asking how satisfied the client is. Since there will always be jerks who are never happy with phone support, you set the threshold at a certain percentage of “unhappy” customers and then if someone goes over that you investigate. To keep productivity up you measure phone time and compare to satisfaction ratios and (horrors) investigate individual reps who spend more time than normal on the phone, then coach them individually on how to solve problems with less chit-chat while still keeping the customer happy.

I’m going to discuss five issues related to measurement. The first is the problem of measuring what you can easily measure. Simply put, it may be more difficult to measure some things than others. Management tends to measure those things that are easy to measure. In a call center there are plenty of systems which will allow you to track a wild variety of phone stats, but you can’t measure one CSR helping another with a call. In sales you can measure how many sales a salesman makes and how much they’re worth, but it’s more difficult to measure whether he’s made verbal promises your company will have trouble living up to. You can measure the number of code lines a programmer put out, but it’s harder to measure how easy they will be to maintain down the line.

This is often a systems issue. Whatever the system assists your employees to do, is easy to measure. So if you have a system that presents work items, and which employees close those work items, it’s easy to measure how fast they’re doing them. But what if some work items are harder than others? And what happens to those employees who are taking calls or e-mails you can’t track and are helping customers or other employees with those problems – is that behaviour you don’t want to encourage? Because if you’re measuring only processing times then those who do other things will be measured as less productive. So they stop helping customers, and soon you have a reputation as having unresponsive employees who never want to take time to help people.

And this leads to the second issue, which is what I call Putting your Fingers Down. Another way of putting it, is “you get the behaviour you measure.” If a job involves 10 activities, and you publicly measure only 5 of them, your employees will gravitate towards those activities. It often seems obvious what an employee does. Let’s say you have repair techs in a retail store and you decide to measure their productivity by measuring how many appliances they repair. Sounds good eh? Productivity increases and you’re happy.

Until you start getting complaints that the repair techs don’t want to talk to customers, and that when they do all they seem to want to do is get away from them. You also hear that some techs are taking easy repairs and leaving the hard repairs for others, who put them off, because that boosts their stats. So easy repairs are getting done fast, the hard ones are getting done slower, and customers aren’t getting individual personal attention any more, so they aren’t happy. That worked well!

Which leads to what I call the The Limits of Coercion. Public measurement is a form of coercion. The idea is to measure people and then push them to do better and get rid of the ones who don’t measure up. You put your fingers down and say, “do this!” And you can absolutely do it. Whatever behaviour you are able and willing to take the time to measure, you can and will get. But what you can’t get is positive cooperation. You can’t make people do the extra things. And people resent the wrong type of measurement. The problem is that you as management think you understand the job. Problem is, unless you still do it yourself, you probably don’t. Outside of the sort of jobs that are truly subject to Taylorization, most jobs require a myriad of little tasks and if people don’t do them, the overall job suffers. If you start measuring the wrong specific things then people’s attitude when you pull them in for a talk is “I’m doing fine on the stats you said you want, I don’t have time for the other stuff.”

The other problem is that people subvert the measurements. There are almost always ways to make the numbers come out better than they should, and people will take the time to find them and do them. Which leads to the fourth issue, the question of “Public metrics and private metrics.” Simply put, when you’re setting up metrics you should first find out which metrics track each other; figure out why they track each other; and measure both sets. But one set you keep private and the other is the public set. If the private set starts diverging from the public set then you should investigate if people are fiddling with the public set. Odds are they are.

But the real, final point is that you should be looking for your “Bottom Line Metrics”. In a call center it might be the percentage of happy callers divided by the average time per call. In a processing center I once worked in the VP (a very wise man) used to publicly (I’m sure privately he had a number of measurements which had to remain satisficed) measure only one thing – the average time from a piece of work entering the center to the time it left. He didn’t measure any specific processing times – only how well the center was working overall. If that number went up he’d want to know why, and when he wanted it to go down he let people tell him how they were going to get it down, not the other way around. The center ran very well. When he left his successor started putting his fingers down and both customer satisfaction and employee happiness declined.

In the end you should ask yourself “what are we trying to accomplish?” Then you publicly measure that, and only that. It may seem that you want to do multiple things, but in most cases you can boil it down to one thing – as with the customer service center where happiness was divided by call times. You want people to go away happy after their call with the least time necessary to make them happy. If you can’t break it down then you either don’t understand what the job actually entails (or what your division or company does) or you may need to break the work into different functional groups.

Finally, don’t fall into the MBA trap. As a manager you probably don’t really know what your employees are doing. You probably don’t really understand what is required to do the job well. However unless you’ve beaten them down too hard, or you’ve got a crew of reprobates, most people want to do a good job. Most people want to be able to say “damn, we’re good!” Don’t treat them like untrustworthy children, and you may find that they’re on your side and that measuring only the bottom line, on the minimum, is sufficient. When you go to war with your employees and try and measure every specific behaviour, generally both sides lose.

(Originally published in 2004 at BopNews. Republished April 17, 2009.)

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When the Ideas that Run the World Change

Real political change happens infrequently. The cycles are decades long. So, most recently, there was the crisis of the 70s which led to the rise of neoliberalism: Thatcher and Reagan. Everything that has happened since then, in the Western world and Japan, has been an unfolding of that. There are some important sideshows, but this is a neoliberal world.

Before that the Crisis of the Great Depression and WWII led to the post-war era. In the US, that runs from 1933 to 1980, essentially, but it was in crisis from about ’68 or so.

There are other such cycles, for example, in the early 1900s there was a collapse of support for Imperialism in Britain. It disappeared in a few years (I know a lot less about this). Everyone had to support it for decades, and suddenly they didn’t.

During a period where a sub-ideology reigns (all of these were capitalist periods, but they were very different forms of capitalism) it’s almost impossible to do things against the trend. The best you can do is grip on for dear life and try not to lose too much. You can, alternatively, go orthogonal: Neoliberals are basically okay with identity politics, so you can make gains there. Doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it can be done.

But the real fight is over the NEXT period, the transition. Key ideologues created neoliberal thought long before Thatcher and Reagan. When things go to hell (stagflation is the end point of the 70s) for long enough, people become willing to change ideologies.

They choose from the available ideas. Ideas with muscle and money, or which appeal to elites (if the elites aren’t being changed), have a better chance. But the key point is that if your ideas aren’t there, and being considered in the crisis period, you’ve already lost.

The conservatives were and are right: Ideas have consequences. Ideas are powerful. Next to physical facts, they are probably the most important factors in human existence (every invention is an idea first).

We are probably in a transition period. If we aren’t, we will be soon. Take this into account: Whoever wins this transition period will rule, if not the world, then a significant chunk of it. Everyone else will either be working out their ideas, resisting them, or trying to do something orthogonal to avoid them.

Finally, there are different types of ideas. Technological ideas are one subset. They aren’t as determinative as we moderns think. They determine the possibilities, but possibilities can lie fallow for a long time. Certain societies are possible with the steam engine, or the internal combustion engine. Composite bows and stirrups make other societies possible. The stirrup and composite bow were around for a long time before Genghis Khan showed what they could truly do. The Chinese invented gunpowder, the Ancient Greeks had toy steam engines.

So beware of over-determination, and also beware of the idea that histories and societies which didn’t happen–or have not happened–were therefore impossible.

Meantime, transition period, ho. Get to work, your enemies (and you have enemies) are.

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You Will Never Be Free of Identity Politics

(MANDOS POST, people who don’t want to read things they disagree with please stop here)

I don’t normally watch horror movies, but I made an exception and recently watched the horror film Get Out. It’s a horror-satire movie that constructs its underlying trope from the concept of racist microaggressions, and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year, if not the best, period. It’s a Stepford Wives style of horror, in which a young black man discovers that his well-meaning-seeming white inlaws-to-be believe in human improvement by the literal supplantation of black identities with white ones and the submergence of the black identity into a spiritual void called the “Sunken Place” — a literal sort of black/white solidarity where, of course, the white opinion matters more.

The privileged white horror-family in question is conceived of as stereotypical rich politically-correct liberal Obama voters, but the main character himself is a relatively successful young photographer who had access to that kind of company through his work, starting from less privileged roots and with black friends still living the working-class life, and his working-class black best friend — who correctly names and identifies the microaggressions and where they were leading — is his only lifeline in the entire story. The illustration clearly intended by the director (well-known black comedian Jordan Peele) is that even when a black person in America manages to succeed on white terms, that in itself is not just, not sustainable, not sufficient.

That was a movie, but the point is illustrated periodically in real life — and occasionally in famous, very public rows.  Some of you may remember that a few years ago, there was a row over Oprah Winfrey’s attempted purchase of a very expensive handbag, worth twice or more than what some of her viewers make in a year, from a shop in Switzerland, wherein Oprah believed that she had been discriminated against by the saleswoman for being a black buyer in a fancy store. Many could easily view this as a rich woman publicly bullying an innocent, ordinary-income shop attendant for a social faux pas, possibly based on ignorance of the American media landscape. A class analysis. But for people of colour, the incident is instead evidence that, even if one is doing well economically, one is still one of them, that the incident was no accident even if the saleswoman had no conscious intention of discriminating.

That sense that even under relatively positive overall circumstances, how one is treated in life is nevertheless conditioned on the sufferance of the majority/dominant community unless one erases one’s entire particularity (and even then) is not a trivial feeling. It is a continuous burden, a headwind in life, and one that cannot be erased by exhortations to class solidarty and and one-sided demands to put the material advantages of class solidarity as prior to the domain of conflict called “identity politics.” Class solidarity does not erase those conflicts, does not remedy them, does not alone create a long-term, sustainable basis for rectification of discrimination. Minority groups remain vulnerable even when the dream of a more just economy is realized.

The only way to proceed is to recognize that, while the working-class American black has a cause in common with the working-class American white, she or he also has a cause in common with a rich woman like Oprah Winfrey, one that can be neither ignored, denied, or erased. And the only way that class solidarity can take full precedence over that is when whites agree to disarm their own identity politics without demanding that blacks and other minority politics disarm theirs.

The 90/10 rule as applied to medical practitioners

I’ve spent a lot of my life sick, and a fair bit injured.  In my twenties I spent 3 months in the hospital all in one go.  When I left I weighed 90 lbs and could barely walk.  (Full details here.)  I’d had back issues in hospital (sacroiliac joint) and about 6 months later, I picked up some boxes and moved them about 50 feet.  No big deal.  Went to bed, woke up next morning, and the least movement would cause my lower left back to clench in the most excruciating way.  It wound up that the fire department had to break down the door to my room (I was living in a moderately unpleasant rooming house), sheet pull me and take me to the hospital.

Over the next six months I saw plenty of doctors.  One thought I was faking (and to this day I hate him with a blinding passion—I could barely walk, couldn’t sit down, couldn’t get out of bed without excruciating pain), the others gave me a variety of anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants, none of which had an noticeable effect.  Finally I found a doctor who wasn’t paranoid about pain killers and at least gave me a prescrition: she was 7 months pregnant.

I was amused, but not happy.

Over time it fixed itself.  After about 6 months I could get out of bed, bend over, sit down, put on shoes, etc… without the expectation of major pain.  Still inadvisable to do any manual labor, but I did some, because I needed the money, and I paid for that money with agony.

After a few years, it resolved itself.

About three weeks ago, the day after a heavy lower back workout in the gym, I was out for a walk.  Stepped off a curb, twisting slightly as I did, and felt the left lower back go: felt it clench up agonizingly, and my left leg lost almost all its strength.  I dropped into a squat with my feet together, to take pressure off my back, steadying myself against a lamp-post.  Gingerly stood up.  Found that I could barely walk, but that I could barely walk.  Found that the least jostle or bump would cause the muscle to clench agonizingly.

I was about half way to the local farmer’s market.  Because I’m cussed I walked the rest of the way, then walked home.  That night I went to bed with codeine, a phone, and a book next to my bed, in case I couldn’t get out of it.

I could, but it was a long and painful operation.

I suffered for about a week, then I had an appointment with my naturopathic doctor.  He said, “I have no idea what’s wrong, I want you to see this sports therapist.”

Next day I walked in to see that sport’s therapist, who has worked for multiple professional teams.  Within 5 minutes of meeting me, he said, “the muscle in your lower back which attaches to your lower spine on the left side is in spasm, protecting your spine’s curve.”

A diagnosis!  I went to a pile of doctors in the 90s—not one of the diagnosed what was wrong with me.  Not one of them sent me to a physiotherapist, sport’s therapist, chiropractor or even a decent massage therapist.  (And one of those doctors was a rheumatologist.)

The sports therpaist does some massage, using elector-accupuncture to try and tire out the muscle so it’ll relax so that magnesium can get into it so it can relax more.

Minor results: I felet a bit better.  Second session didn’t seem to do anything.

So I lookedup a chiropractor, searching online till I found one who seems to deal with such problems and sounds competent.  Dr. Kevin Ho.  I go in, he looks me over, he tells me my hips are misaligned, so the muscle is, in part, in spasm to protect the spine from my right hip pulling it out of alignment.

He goes to work, tells me to see the sport therapist to wear out the muscle: next day I don’t feel much better. I go see the sport’s therapist, he does his thing.

The next day (today) I feel vastly better.  I can put on shoes and pants and underwear without the expectation of agony!  I go see the Chriopractor again, I ask him how much of the hip alignment he had corrected in the first session.

“Oh, about 50%, but you’ve lost 15% since then.”

Now this is interesting to me, because some time ago I saw a chiropractor regularly, for about a year.  In that year, I do not recall him making as much progress as Dr. Ho has made in, oh, one session.

He works away, by the time I leave, I can bend over more than twice as far as when I came in.

Now what’s interesting to me about this (other than not being in so much pain, which is of great interest to me, but probably much less to you) is that these guys, between them, appear to have diagnosed what is happening and why, and gone a long way to fixing it when a pile of doctors before couldn’t even diagnose it, let alone fix it!

(And I left out the massage therapist on Sunday who made it worse.)

But this does accord with my experience with doctors:  most doctors are mediocre. They do what they do, which is hand out prescriptions for a few problems they see regularly, they are horrible diagnosticians, and they do not care.  As with most people working in any field, about 9 out of every 10 is a drone, barely competent, doing the bare minimum not to be charged with malpractice.

About 1 in 10 is actually good, knows what they are doing, and doesn’t work by rote, but can actually diagnose and fix problems.

(And about 1 in ten of the good ones is more than good, is brilliant.)

This seems to be true of healthcare practitioners in general.  Over the last few years I’ve had maybe two dozen massages.  One of those massage therapists was brilliant, a couple were good, and that’s it.  The brilliant one was taught by her father, a blacksmith, and at age 50, as part of her two hour fitness routine, started with 20 pull ups (most marines in their 20s can’t do 20 pullups.)  If you had, say, a headache, when you left it was almost gone and two hours later it was gone completely: guaranteed.  She regarded your problems as a personal affront to be healed.

When I was young, to me a doctor was an M.D., and if I needed to see someone else, I figured the M.D. would refer me.  As I’ve aged I’ve learned that for body mechanics issues most M.D.s are worthless, and that most physical therapists are mediocre, but the good ones are amazing. I’ve learned that, in fact, alternative medicine often  has the people who can actually make you feel better, but that most of them are mediocre too.  I’ve learned that if you want a doctor to actually sit down and listen to your symptoms and history, you’re going to have to pay for that out of pocket, even in Canada.  Traditional Chinese Medicine is FAR better for something like Eczema than anything western Medicine has, and so on.

We have, for one thing, too few doctors right now.  They are actively scared of seriously sick people, because they have to push you out the door in fifteen minutes.  This is supply and demand, we need to have more doctors, they will also cost less.  We have systematically chosen doctors for their cold manner for decades, because people who cared would “burn out”.  Going to a TCM doctor from China was a shock to me, he looked at my skin and made what sounded like genuine sounds of sympathy: he seemed to understand it was painful, and care, in a warm, human way. I can think of maybe two M.D.s who have ever given me that feeling.

The Skeptics movement are a bunch of authority worshipers.  A lot of alternative medicine does work, and they do not apply their own skepticism to standard medicine: where if you get all the studies for many medicines you discover they are little better than active placebos in many cases, only work for a minority of the population when they do work, and have nasty side effects besides.  For many illnesses regularly treated with powerful neuro-active drugs, exercise is as effective, or more, and does no harm, besides.  We should be prescribing a lot more exercise, for those who can stand it, and a lot less drugs, and we should be looking at drug trial results with a great deal more skepticism because many of them are badly designed and the ones which fail are generally not released to the public.

We should also be doing far more research into why some drugs are very effective only for a minority of people with the condition.  What are the markers that determine such effectiveness?  And we should be completely cleaning up our food system, because the reason we have so much illness is bad diet and no exercise in far too many cases (plus various forms of pollution.)  Healthy food costs more, but we are subsidizing unhealthy food, and paying for it on the back end with illness and the costs of illness.

But to bring it back to the first point: most healthcare practitioners are borderline competent, and only a small minority are actually good.  Throughout my life I’ve seen that this is the case.  When you’re looking for a competent one, look for one of two things:

1) someone who takes your disease or injury as a personal affront, to be defeated at all costs, because Goddamn It, no fucking disease is going to beat them; or,

2) someone who manifestly cares and wants you to be better, because they hate seeing you suffer.

Absent caring in one of these two ways, very few healthcare practitioners are any good.  They fall quickly into a rut, giving out prescriptions or doing treatments just to get through patients, through the day, and back home.

If your doctor or therapist doesn’t care, either about you or their own pride, get the hell away from them.

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