The Problem with Metrics

On-time Performance
Given the way the airlines manipulate the on time statistic, I’m not sure it means anything.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I don’t know who coined that phrase, but I have to tell you, I have some problems with the concept. My primary problem is that “it” often refers to a person, or at least the activity of a person and I think people should be managed more holistically. I wrote a version of this post on my technical blog, several years ago, but I was reminded of it recently by the folks at WordPress.

WordPress recently offered a “how long will it take to read this post” plugin. My guess is that it’s an attempt to be more like Medium.

I’m not a fan (of the metric/plugin, not Medium. I like Medium just fine). The plugin seems pretty accurate, if all I want to do is consume the words someone wrote. Sorry, that’s not how I read your blogs. I think about what you wrote. I study the pictures you chose to accompany your words. If you’re a poet, I think about the shape and the form you chose to use. Sometimes, I look up words, follow links or Google things that you make me think about. The metrics can’t account for that.

Another problem that I have with metrics is that since we are managing or influencing people, we are dealing with people who know they are being managed or who know that I’m (you’re) being influenced. That leaves us at the mercy of folks who might use the metrics to game the system.

My first job after college was as a programmer/analyst for Burroughs Corporation, working in one of their manufacturing plants. I was responsible for payroll, Human Resources and work management systems. Our plant made memory sub-systems for various Burroughs computers. I was exposed very quickly to two problems with metrics. Problem one was the ease with which metrics can be manipulated.

Our plant manager, aware that a key metric of his performance was the elapsed time between receiving components and shipping an assembly, purchased a used trailer from a trucking company. Material that arrived before we were ready to deal with it was unloaded onto our loading dock and reloaded into his trailer. When we were ready to start building the assemblies, he backed his trailer to the dock and the components were “received.” This little bit of subterfuge kept that metric, and his bonus, squarely in the “you rock” range.

Inside the plant, and much more problematic for me, was the fact that we measured every operation that was conducted by every person on the assembly floor. Several people were operating machines that stamped memory chips into circuit boards. One of the systems I was responsible for would calculate and report the cost per chip inserted.

Unfortunately, the collection system didn’t differentiate between new assemblies and repair work. So, while a guy building new circuits was feeding racks of memory chips into an automated press, the woman at the next station was unsoldering and re-soldering defective chips by hand.

Joe Pressguy might mindlessly insert hundreds of chips per hour, while Rosie Rework struggled to get five just right. Mine was an ethical dilemma caused by a math problem. The nature of the repair business meant that sometimes we would receive a part for repair that was no longer in active production. In the reporting side of my system, when I had to do the math that involved “average insertion times” the results were too small to measure and, after rounding and truncating to fit a corporate defined file structure, they would lead to a divide-by-zero error. Discarding these results made the woman look bad, including them crashed the system.

There is a similar ethical dilemma for bloggers concerned about the word-count-driven-how-long-it-will-take-to-read thing metric. WordPress counts the words you use in photo descriptions. I could skip those, but then people with vision problems wouldn’t know why I had included the photo.

WordPress Insights
So, write more on Tuesday? Post more at 8:00 AM? Does this tell me anything?

One last new metric that I don’t understand is the new “Insights” page. This tells me that the most popular date and time that you’re reading this blog is Tuesday at 8:00 am. What does that mean? Should I publish more often on Tuesdays? Should I always publish at 8:00 am? I tend to schedule my posts for just after 6:00 am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Are they suggesting that I should publish more of the kind of stuff that I publish on Tuesday? That wouldn’t work because, well, you know, Thursday Doors, SoCS and If We Were Having a Beer.

If you like my old plant manager’s tactics, there are ways to game your WP stats so you fill opera halls instead of subway cars. You can fork over a few dollars to some sketchy character who will spam-visit your blog and cause your views to skyrocket. Nobody else is really reading your blog, but if you like the metric, go for it. As for me, I’ll stick to writing what I want to write and hoping you will read it. I’ll also be following the people whose writing and photos I enjoy. If you write a long post, I’ll stick it aside and read it later.

Now this is a metric I can trust.

52 thoughts on “The Problem with Metrics

Add yours

  1. I am doing a pre-study course in prep. for an Open University course on Data analysis and management. The prep course is all about using Python to analyse World Bank statistics. It comes up with a correlation with a statistical value – a Spearman rank correlation coefficient – which indicates a direct correlation between GDP and Life expectancy except that the number is near the extreme so if you look at a scattergraph, you can see that the correlation isn’t that strong. This just shows that doing the statistical maths is sometimes almost irrelevant unless you have other data. Given the Tuesday at 8 o’clock number, maybe we should know the statistics about when these people who read the blog got out of bed against the fact that you post at I would like to know if the statistic changes if you don’t post unto Maybe then, the popular time would be 5pm (i.e. 5 hours after rather then two). Anyway, you can play around all you like but they are only calculated numbers after all. One of the numbers used in the course was the USD/GBP exchange rate. The lecturer used an average rate for the year. What? How about a rate as at the 31st Dec. or some such – at least this is a real number. It is likely that there was no closing rate for any day in the year that equalled the average rate. (Sorry my FX trader background coming out).

    Oh, sorry – rant over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha – As soon as I saw US/UK exchange rates mentioned, I knew the instructor was in for some flak. The other metric that always bother me was “lines of code” I didn’t include it because I try not to get too technical over here, but I worked in places where bad programmers were rewarded for sloppy code. If a good programmer studied the process and came up with a brilliant way to do it, in fewer lines of code, he was penalized. I figure you would understand that one. Thanks for reading and sharing your comment. Go easy on that instructor.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah – blogging and stats. I stopped looking at stats of any kind when I stopped posting for weeks on Facebook and kept getting ‘likes.’ If I ever needed a reminder of how fickle some ‘likes’ are that was it. I blog when I have something I want to say or remember, and I do not look at the numbers. I tend to write on the concise side, but that is just me. I read the words of those I enjoy and unsubscribe from those I don’t. I guess I’m what you could say is a very simple person. :-)

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I would say “normal” person, or at least what I wish was normal Judy. I appreciate you reading this blog, I love you comments and I read your blog whenever you post. That’s a stat you can understand and rely on.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. One blogger I follow started having this ‘average reading time 1 minute’ note on her posts, and I wondered what that was all about. I felt like I had to speed read to meet the time. Why do we need so many measures for everything? Where has the sheer enjoyment of things gone? Tuesdays at 8 doesn’t work for me ’cause I am at work already. I tend to save your posts for when I get home so I can take my time reading them. I’m with Judy–I don’t look at stats, either. I like being simple. Good post, as always, Dan.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks Lois. Tuesdays at 8:00 doesn’t work for me either. I’ll get around to replying to comments during lunch. I’ve suffered under stupid measurements and I’ve had meaningful measurements be ignored. I don’t pay a lot of attention to stats on WP or in other areas of my life. I’m too oblivious to the world around me to notice trends. I like what I like. Now, get to work Lois and Dan.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dan, I am right there with you about the metric system. People cannot be lumped into one neat little box that is labeled “how much time you spend reading posts”. Since that little add-on has been in use, I think it has ruined a lot of the “fun” for me because now darn it! my eye tends to look at that add-on and then decide to read the post or not. I do NOT like to be controlled and I do like, when I have the time, to spend time at the actual blog, not on the plain white version, and look at other comments, get immersed in the “feeling” of the blog and other visitors, and really incorporate what has been written or appreciate the photography. I will not have someone telling me how long to be at a blog. This “more more more”, “faster faster faster” world lately, has been driving me bonkers and the worst thing about it all, I find myself seemingly going faster as well! NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That is when I unplug and get immersed with Mother away from social media, away from technology, so that I can hear my own heartbeat. And about posting …. I post WHEN I WANT TO. No one is gong to tell me that either! For real! Only on occasion do I look at my stats because numbers don’t mean anything to me. It’s the interactions with others that do!! Great post, Dan!! As you can see, it resonated with me!! LOL <3

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The interactions are the best part of blogging Amy. Making friends in the community has been such a reward. I never expected this, after years of writing a technical blog which garnered very little interaction. Your stuff is the hardest to estimate – Reading time, less than 1 minute – “You’re crazy WordPress! I’m going to spend a lot more time that that reading Amy’s post.” And I enjoy every minute of it !!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. LOL How I am laughing right now! I spend a lot of time at your blog, and no one is sitting there with a timer. I Agee that WP in this respect, has gone over the edge. So sorry, WP, but I am most definitely my own boss when it comes to reading my friend’s blogs! How anyone can put a time limit on reading time is beyond me. It spoils the fun!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Let me be the first to quote Benjamin Disraeli, who said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

    I stopped looking at my blog metrics when I found that the three I was looking at had widely differing results. I stopped working the SEO thing when I got bored with what they wanted me to do and started doing what I wanted … and visits to my blog increased, according to the graph that automatically loads on my dashboard. Bleh.

    A friend of mine sometimes amuses herself by checking the metrics and such for friends’ blogs, and recently informed me that Google thinks I’m an herb farmer (I’m not). I assume it’s because I have a fantasy named SAGE; so much for the efficiency of promotion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love when Google makes mistakes like that. It’s funny, because that often drives marketing and I’ll get the strangest emails which I can link back to a blog post and I just have to shake my head. I periodically look at the basic stats, but I don’t care about the SEO on my blog. I care for work, but caring about it for personal writing makes that feel like work too. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post, Dan! My background is finance and analysis, and so I completely agree with you about the challenges with metrics. They never tell the whole story and are merely one tool in the toolbox that need to be used in the proper context. We could spend hours trying to figure out the correct times to publish, tweet, Facebook, etc!! Time better spent creating good content that people enjoy (or at least we enjoy writing whether or not anyone reads it!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Deb. I never try to figure out what to write base don what people liked more of viewed more. My blog is “random thoughts” for a reason. I appreciate the fact that people do read and comment and I learn so much from that interaction. the best part though is that I have met some very creative and interesting people. I’ll go with that as a metric :)


  7. Ah, you’ve touched on a subject that I’ve given a lot of thought to, Dan. Probably just about everybody who blogs on WP has something to say about this, but lucky you — you get to hear me, not them. (My sympathies!)

    First off, let me say that I have no idea how WordPress computes the time it allegedly takes someone to read a particular post. I mean, does some WP employee start a stopwatch, read your post, then record the time? I’m being facetious, of course — it’s obviously computer-generated, but seriously, as you mention, what reading speed are we talking about here? Fast, slow, somewhere in between? Are they, as you say, reading captions and really savoring the piece, or just skimming it? I’ve seen some suspiciously quick read times attached to pieces that seemed as if they would take longer.

    But I’m only guessing, because — like you — I’m trying to appreciate the piece in question. Sure, like the rest of us, I don’t have enough hours in the day. I often feel rushed. But why read other’s blog posts if you’re not going to give them the attention they deserve? The whole idea of attaching a clock to the endeavor plays into the idea that you need to move, move, move. I don’t like that.

    Now, maybe they think it’ll HELP most bloggers. If I already feel rushed, and WP is telling me I can polish off a particular post in under two minutes, maybe I’ll give it a try. But I think it’s more likely that WP is playing into the impatience of our age — and, inadvertently, encouraging that ADD attention span that I talked about in the comments of your last post.

    Which brings me to the other points you touched on. The “insights” metric, for example. Hardly a day goes by (certainly not a week) without social-media sites introducing “improvements” that seem to be anything but. Sure, it’s smart to pay attention to customer feedback — tweak things, fix bugs, etc. All well and good. But I get the impression that they are in a perpetual cycle of change, change, change because they’re terrified of being thought irrelevant. Of being left behind by the Next Shiny Thing. Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc., all feel (at least to me) like carnival barkers at times, waving and yelling at the people on the fairway (that’s us) to come in and try their wares. It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s different! I get it, believe me, but it can get a bit fatiguing after a while. A very SHORT while.

    As for what to publish and when, I’ve struggled with this myself, but I finally kind of gave up. Not because I didn’t want to think about it or figure it out, but because there are hardly any firm answers or definite patterns you can trust. I’ve seen posts (and FB statuses, and tweets, and so on) that I worked hard on and thought would be sure-fire hits simply fizzle, while something that I dashed off for fun in a few minutes proves to be a big hit. I’ve felt that pull to do things that I thought would be popular, and solely for that reason, but I have to admit, I’ve given up on that. Partly because it’s obvious, “insights” or no insights, that you can’t predict a hit. They can’t do it for movies, music or books, so they sure can’t do it for blog posts! And partly because, as much as I want big hit posts like anybody, in the end I’m not happy unless I’m writing something that *I* want to write, WHEN I want to write it. Something I can be proud of.

    Rod Serling once said that he’d written plenty of things he wasn’t crazy about, but that he’d never written beneath himself. I try to keep that in mind when the quest for the Next Hit Post starts gnawing at my insecure brain. I can reread every post on my blog (and I have, believe me) and say I have no real regrets. One thing that I like about your blog is that you write what you want and just let it flow, long or short, serious or silly. And people really respond, which is nice, but I think you’d do the same even if they didn’t. I can tell you this — I never look at the WP time-estimator when it comes to a No Facilities post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Paul. You are right, I would write like I write regardless. I have posts from the first year of this blog that I think, besides me, only my brother and daughter read online (my wife, as you now know, reads and edits the paper copy before I push publish). I can’t be driven by what I think somebody else wants. When I read about the various struggles Serling went through to keep the essence of his stories in the face of the network”s wants, desires and criticisms, I have even more respect for him. I have never read anything on your blog where I stopped in the middle and moved on. I have read things where I’ve had to go back and reread portions to make sure I understood something I read too quickly.

      WordPress is in a tough spot. They keep trying to appeal to new writers, new readers and the transients that peek at everything for a few weeks. But the core of WordPress is made up of people who take writing, and I think reading, seriously. It’s not the technology, it’s the content and WP doesn’t control that, we do!

      Thanks for the well-reasoned comment Paul.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That means a lot, Dan. WP can tell you how many views you get, but there’s no way of measuring how far people read. I often wonder what it means when I see the page views climbing but very few comments being made. Did everyone love it and they simply didn’t have much to add? Or did they click, read a bit, then move on? I get good word-of-mouth comments via Twitter, which is encouraging, but still. So I’m glad to get that kind of feedback. Thanks, Dan!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Gosh, I’m reading this on Tuesday at 8:30am !!! I’m going to switch to Sunday at 11pm to see if I have that much ‘sway’ over your WP metrics 😊
    I can’t even ‘get it tioether’ to post on my blog these days, let alone pay attention to stats or plug ins.

    I have learned that WP is an amalgam of business, entrepreneurial and personal blogs. If my blog mattered for financial reasons, those metrics would matter. Nevertheless, you are so right about how any piece of data or stat can be manipulated.

    Good topic and insights, Dan. And I read blogs exactly as you do – there is no metric for how a reader scrutinizes, absorbs and enjoys a blogpost.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So you’re that guy! Ha, Sammy, my leading indicator. Please don’t switch and throw things into an uproar :)

      I don’t care when people read. I settled into a posting pattern because it works for me. If the stuff is out there, people can read it whenever they like. If I have to catch a reader at a particular point in their busy day, maybe they shouldn’t be wasting their precious time reading this stuff. This ain’t breaking news over here.

      Thanks for reading, whenever you read and thanks for taking the time to comment. And, thanks for the people I’ve met through your blog.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ditto and right back at ya and my pleasure. It tickles me no end to see familiar names commenting on other blogs. I always remember an early conversation you, and Jude and I had about what we want in followers, and I think you have blossomed as a commenter in the same way you have as a blogger.

        I don’t understand the importance (or trust the accuracy) of that stat at all. Unless you’re a ‘breaking news’ blogger, what does it matter when readers read as long as they read? And even if you are a ‘breaking news’ blogger, the news doesn’t always break at the desired time (hence the crap they now shove under the meaningless ‘Breaking News Alert’).

        But I digress 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks Sammy. I definitely grew more comfortable commenting on your blog and the other bloggers that I met through your blog. Prior to that, I was always a little nervous that comments might be taken the wrong way.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Grea post, Dan. I worked a few years in quality management and you are right about stats and the manipulation. The company I worked for was sale driven, big sales meant big bonuses and it didn’t seem to matter if profits took giant hits for sloppy mistakes, because next big sale was rolling in. The poor guys at the end of the delivery chain were always left herding the elephant from the room.

    Oh, and I’m reading this on a Tuesday morning! Ha ha. I ignore the WP stats completely. It’s not why I blog AT ALL. I like the human part. After all, I left my big business job to become a children’s counselor (for a fraction of the salary). It’s all about the relationships.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The businesses that are driven by sales are the worst. I say that, because I can expect calls from those sales people at the end of the month/quarter/year and they make it seem like my purchase on October 15th was meaningless.

      It is about relationships. You’re making an impact on people lives, and since you work with children, you might just be making a lasting impact. How can you quantify that? There’s no metric that captures a feel good moment.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I like what you are saying and I agree. I have a draft in my drafts about how people can buy followers. (And now you mention views.) I got a bit pissed and wrote a blog about it and how screwed up the system is. Also thinking how Likes could be good or bad. Social media and art/writing is a bit creepy. I like The Likes and it lets me know someone is reading, but then does it mean I should write more of the same. There is this Pavlovian feeling to it. “Oh they like it, therefore I will write it, and get more of those Likes.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Deborah. I’d like to see your post. I didn’t delve too far into the process but I received an email offering hundred of views for cheap. Likes are nice. Comments are wonderful and fun but I really do enjoy writing these posts and if I put one out here that nobody likes, I wouldn’t delete it :)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I feel the same way. That I want to feel like I can express myself. But OMG this is kind of shocking to me about that email you received. In the article I read the writer said that artists or celebrities did this ( bought false followers) to make it look like their product was more popular. In other words a kind of false promotion. :(

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Since I’m having a fairly brutal time at work lately I am feeling rather blunt. I don’t care if only 5 people read my posts if they really read them. It has already become so easy theough the reader to blast through posts hitting the like button for a hundred posts. But, like you Dan, I actually want to read what I am liking. Plusses, likes. Retweets, tumbler, all just for numbers. Is anyone really capable ofr eading a deep, well written book that takes thought and consideration any longer? Granted, there are psost thatt for me personally run too long without any breaks, photos or shifts that keep me interested. But most posts are the right length. BTW. You do a great job of mixing favt, photo, humor and deep thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Cheryl. I sometimes have to circle back to your Forever Never posts because I can’t squeeze then in at lunch or on a busy evening. I wait until I can read them. I just received some deep books and I’m going to have to set aside some quality reading time. Most of the posts I read are s good length. I read a lot of poetry but that often takes a while to digest. Read and write what you like :)


  12. Thanks Dan. I appreciate that. I try to mix it up with quick photo posts, poetry and then the book chapters. I haven’t felt much like any human experience themed posts lately. I kind of do that with my poems. I always appreciate the time you take to read my words. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I know what you mean! I worked for a guy to tried to apply mathematic formulas to everything – including which people to put together in shared offices and cubes! He insisted on paying no attention to personality types and ended up having enormous human resource issues – including being sued by someone severely allergic to perfume!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my, using math to control people – that’s so scary. I’ve worked for people who got very hung up on numbers, ignoring the larger picture, but they stopped short of telling me where to sit. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Tuesday 8ish works for me. But then, as soon as I say that, I’m reminded that Tuesday has been strange to me today, and nothing was done per the usual. Weird Tuesday is weird. lol I knew it was gonna be weird when I came back at 8am and The Mister was still asleep!
    I understand metrics, and definitely understand statistics — bendability and ethics as well. Tasks and machines, Man, tasks and machines. No accounting for people and safety and errors.
    Mine is Thursday at 1pm, but it used to be Wednesday at 10am. I’m thinkin it’s the shortest stuff I post, and that makes sense. People who may not always read me will throw me a bone on a short post. Then there are the pingbacks on One-Liners and Doors, so that would direct more traffic. I know the earlier I post, the better my day is. But I don’t care. I’ve found I have no idea what’s going to do well, or what’s going to be overlooked. I write when I want about what I want, and I’ll take what I can get.What I really value are the connections I make with regular readers.
    I know the stats lie. I think they’re good on generalities, but they’re not exact.
    Also, people lie. They click Like and occasionally comment like a kid blind-writin an essay ;)
    Pardon my deeply disorganized reply, but like I said, Weird Tuesday!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. During the run of this post, my day stayed on Tuesday but the time changed to 1:00 PM. It’s been 8:00 am forever, but… I guess it is a weird day. I can’t be bothered to change my behavior based on statistics. I’m enjoying the pattern that has emerged and I’ll stick with it as it slowly changes. I appreciate it whenever you drop by. I love it when you comment and I look forward to your posts. That’s about as good as it can get. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Dan, believe me I relate to the insufficient number of hours in the day when it comes to blogging/writing…
    Oh… they spout and drone and threaten about metrics every day at work… Happily I’m off for the rest of the week! Woot!!! Have a wonderful rest of the week. Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucky girl! I am jealous (and not off for the rest of the week). I don’t pay attention to metrics, other than my budget (cause that has consequences). Enjoy what I am sure the statistics indicate is a well-deserved long weekend Teagan :)

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I really get confused when I look at my stats and keep on writing or posting when I feel like it. The photos have been more prolific for me, less words and more views. This I know without too much analysis, Dan.
    On the other hand, you my friend have a rate and beautiful mind. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Dan, did you watch I, Robot (2004)? The main character in that movie does not trust the robots because of their ‘metric system’, as you put it. If two people are drowning, a robot will attempt so save the one with the highest probability of survival. So if you have 20% and I have 11%, the robot will save you and abandon me. The main character argues that a human would know better, which is true. People have been saved when the chances of survival are much, much lower.
    So I feel your moral dilemma about the chips.
    Myself I’ve never liked the mathematics of probability and statistics. It feels sort of forced, manmade. It doesn’t make sense to me. I enjoy studying lots of topics in Maths but not Probability and Statistics. Ever since high school. There was a question that came in a CAT once. It went like this: “The probability that it will rain is 2/3. The probability that John will carry an umbrella when it rains is 5/7, and the probability that his wife will use the same umbrella is 5/8. Calculate the probability that it doesn’t rain, John carries the umbrella, and his wife buys her own.”
    It was easy, but what kind of sense is in that question?
    Sometimes I think things are rather too random to be predicted. Nature is diverse and erratic. And natural ratios like Pi and Phi are even unknowable. Also, humans are slaves to linearity. Straight lines are imaginary (manmade, really) . . . Yet we constantly search for linearity in the curves, circles, and cycles of nature, whose ratios themselves are unknowable and have to be truncated in order fit our metric system. So that to predict anything with accuracy is really impossible. To govern lives, to make permanent life-changing decisions, hopes, etc based on those predictions is severely inhibiting.
    Perhaps this is why we are constantly questioning why things don’t work our way.

    Liked by 1 person

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