“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.
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.