Metrics-Driven Improvement: Using Metrics to Drive Service Excellence


by Charles Araujo


 

In the summer of 2009, my wife, my son, and I decided to take up tennis. We thought it would be a good way to get some exercise and stay fit. But we also knew ourselves. We knew that if we played casually, every once in a while, it would never happen. So, we decided to hire a tennis coach, and we gave him the daunting job of taking three people, at different ages, with differing levels of natural abilities, and turning them into at least passable tennis players. Let’s just say, I’m glad I’m not our tennis coach.

We spent the first six months or so learning the basics. As we were going through it, I began to see a lot of parallels with the way we introduce service management principles in an effort to improve IT operations. You start with the basics, you tear down old habits, and you slowly begin to learn new ways of doing things.

We eventually progressed to a point where we could rally fairly consistently and actually get a decent workout playing tennis. It was everything that we wanted—or so we thought. After a while, the novelty of the new, the thrill of learning and applying a new skill, wore off. Our coach would take us back to the basics, but it was becoming harder and harder to find the enthusiasm we had at the beginning.

Then, one day, we decided to try something a little bit different. We decided to keep score. It sounds simple, but up to this point, we were pretty much happy to simply return the ball over the net and have it land inbounds. We thought that if we actually tried to play, we would just frustrate ourselves. And so, for a while, we were content to rally. Once we started keeping score, however, things changed. Suddenly those shots that were too far away to bother chasing became life-and-death races to save the point. Our attitudes changed. We had an extra bounce in our step. The simple act of keeping score somehow made the game more real, more serious.

I’m willing to bet that almost every one of us has had a similar experience. It’s simply human nature. We are programmed with a certain degree of competitiveness, and we are naturally inclined to invest significant effort only in those things that have what we perceive to be real value.

Where Service Management Efforts Go Wrong

Many service management efforts are a lot like my journey to learn tennis. In the beginning, it’s all about the basics: incident management, problem management, and change management. The momentum generated by the simple act of embracing the new concepts carries things forward—to a point. There is so much excitement that maybe, just maybe, things will really change this time that people are willing to do whatever they need to do to be a part of the effort.

But after a while, things will start to plateau. Organizational inertia, the demands of your day job, and competing projects will conspire to make the new effort seem a lot less fun and enticing. It becomes harder and harder to rally the troops and keep everyone motivated and moving forward.

And this is where many service management efforts stop. Most of the promise they held at the beginning—the grand plan to change everything—is left unfulfilled. Worse yet, management is left wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place. The problem is that organizations typically focus their service management efforts on the process. Just like our unrelenting focus on the tennis drills, it’s hard to maintain the same excitement and engagement level when it doesn’t quite feel real. This is where metrics enter the picture.

Metrics are the business world’s equivalent of keeping score. They are a way to make abstract ideas and structured processes mean something. It is how you go from lazy rallying to an intense desire to win the game. Most service management efforts never even get to the game. They get locked in a vicious cycle of practice, practice, practice, and then they wonder why the IT organization never really engages.

Statistics Are Not the Score

The problem is that all metrics are not created equal. Simply having a piece of data is not enough. Numbers need meaning and purpose. If you are a baseball fan, you know that baseball fans love their statistics. The game is awash in stats, but they all serve a unique purpose and are used by announcers, by players, by coaches, by front-office executives, by everyone. But all baseball fans agree that there are really only a few numbers that count: the score, the number of wins and losses, and the number of games your team is behind the division leader (which is hopefully zero, because you are the division leader). But these are all variations of one thing: the score.

All of the other statistics may serve a specific purpose, and may be useful in their own right, but the only thing people get paid for are the scores. Did you win the game? Did you have a winning season? Everything else is only useful insofar as it helps you reach that outcome. And here’s another interesting fact that comes into play with statistics: The only meaningful statistic is the one you can affect right now. Ask any MLB managers about the standings and they’ll tell you that all they’re focused on is that day’s game. Ask MLB players about their batting averages or their ERAs and they’ll tell you that all they’re thinking about is their next at-bat or the next batter they will face.

Instinctively, at least in a sports setting, we know what is important. We understand the value of the statistic, but we also understand that if we focus on it at the expense of playing the game, we will lose. And we instinctively understand that the score is the only statistic that really counts.

Am I Winning?

I sometimes imagine that if we treated scoring in tennis the same way that IT organizations treat metrics, we would have a pretty hilarious scene. Picture it: The ball is hit down the line and just goes out. You look up to the chair umpire and ask for the score.

“You have had thirteen unforced errors,” she says.

“Uh, that’s great. But what’s the score?” you respond.

“You have hit fourteen winners with your forehand, but only two with your backhand.”

“Fine. But what’s the score?” you ask again, getting frustrated.

“Forty-three percent of your forehands down the line go long,” she calmly answers.

Exasperated, you scream, “But am I winning?!?”

This is the scenario (more or less) that plays out in IT organizations every day. There is loads of data, but most of it is focused on minutia, rather than those things that really matter. The reason is that most IT organizations simply don’t know what really matters. Unlike sports, it may not be obvious. So, IT organizations and managers scramble around collecting mountains of data, but they lack the context to apply it in any meaningful way. Most importantly, they’re never able to get to that crystalizing moment where they’re able to answer that all-important question: Are we winning?

Breaking Your Addiction to Data

The first thing you’ll need to do to get to that answer is break your addiction to data.

Don’t deny it. You are a data junkie.

It is not really your fault. As an industry, we’ve been banging the drum about the need for good, quality metrics for years. So you got hooked. You need data. It doesn’t matter how good it is; you just need it. You are a data addict.

The problem is that there’s only one thing worse than having no data, and that is having too much of it. Have you ever seen one of those lawyer movies where the lawyers are trying to outmaneuver each other? What does the prosecution do when they are trying to keep some juicy piece of information from the defense? They bury them under a mountain of meaningless paperwork, ensuring that the defense won’t be able to find the one piece of meaningful information it needs to win the case.

Most IT organizations do this to themselves every day. They are drowning in data and swimming in meaningless reports. But there is another way. A way to turn that meaningless data into meaningful and actionable information. But it means breaking your addition to data.

The Three Stages of a Metrics Strategy

Crafting a winning metrics strategy requires you to look at things a bit differently. This isn’t as hard as it may seem. You need a metrics strategy that will enable you to keep score, one that will give you the ability to both know where you stand and what tools you have at your disposal to change the direction of the game if it is not going the way you would like.

Crafting this type of metrics strategy requires you to take your game to another level. It requires you to think about your metrics strategy, well, strategically. That may sound a bit obvious, but many metrics strategies are not strategic at all. They are simply tactical approaches to collecting data on one end and spitting it out the other. They are nothing more than a means to feed the addiction. Taking a strategic approach to metrics is something different. Crafting this kind of a strategy requires that you progress through three stages during its development: understanding, designing, and embedding. These three stages are designed to ensure that you know where you want to go, that you have what you need to monitor your progress on the journey, and that you have the means to take corrective action when you veer off course. They give you the tools you need to align your metrics with both your objectives and your actions.

Understanding

Why do we have metrics at all? What is their purpose? The answer is very simple: Metrics exist solely to enable us to take action in pursuit of our objectives. That’s it. Every metric should lead us to an action. But you see the problem, don’t you? You need to understand what your objective is in the first place. You can’t just run off and start collecting data. You must have a purpose. This is the first stage of defining a winning metrics strategy: identifying the desired outcome around which you will build your strategy. What are you trying to change, improve, or maintain? Understanding (or not understanding) the answer to that question is where most metrics strategies win or lose. Start here.

Designing

Once you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can begin designing the metrics strategy that will help you get there. But you’re missing a vital piece of the puzzle: context. In the mid-twentieth century, military strategist John Boyd designed a decision-making model called the OODA Loop, which stands for observe, orient, decide, and act. Most metrics efforts accomplish only the first step of the OODA Loop. They observe, they collect data. But to get to action, you need to orient that data in the context of other data points and the mission or objectives you’re trying to achieve. This means moving from seeing metrics as a big bucket of one-dimensional data points to seeing metrics as a tightly woven fabric of interconnected data threads. As you design your metrics strategy, you must uncover and define the relationships between your metrics that orient you and enable you to see the story they’re telling.

Embedding

The third and final stage of creating a winning metrics strategy is embedding it in the fabric of your management culture. Remember that the sole purpose of metrics is to enable action in pursuit of your objectives. You will never achieve that unless your metrics strategy becomes the primary mechanism used to manage IT. As long as metrics are allowed to remain an interesting sideshow, they will never realize their potential to create change and move the organization forward. Doing this can be tricky, but you must succeed. Otherwise, you will have nothing but a bunch of pretty charts that make no difference whatsoever.

It’s Not About Numbers At All

Creating this kind of strategy is a journey. You will discover that the journey to a true metrics strategy—one that will drive service excellence—is not really about numbers at all. It is about the things that actually drive us as human beings: vision, goals, stories, and emotion. Those are the things that lead us to change our behavior and move forward. Numbers are the tools we use to align our actions to that vision, to those goals. Metrics help us tell stories, create the emotional engagement we need to pull people in, change behaviors, and improve what we do every day.

Once you see your metrics strategy in this light, the story becomes much more interesting. Metrics, when applied in this way, are not dry or stale. They’re not something to just endure, nor are they the mere dressing to a window to the past. Real metrics are a window to the future. They let IT leadership and management teams know where they stand, the challenges they’ll face, and the actions they can and must take to continually deliver exceptional service. There’s no magic to a metric strategy. It just requires that you understand what it really is, design it purposefully, and embed it into your culture. Then go out there and win the game.

 

Adapted from the forthcoming book, Services That Measure Up: Using Metrics to Drive Service Excellence (TSO, 2013).

 

Charles Araujo is the founder and CEO of The IT Transformation Institute, which is dedicated to helping IT leaders transform their teams into customer-focused, value-driven learning organizations. He is also the creator of “The Quantum Age of IT,” a vision for the immediate future of IT organizations, and a recognized leader and expert in the areas of IT transformation and IT organizational change. Charles serves on the boards of itSMF USA and The Executive Next Practices Institute and his articles have been published and referenced by ZDNet, IT Business Edge, ITSM Portal, TechRepublic, and itSMF USA’s Forum. He is presently at work on two new books and speaks on a wide range of subjects related to his vision of the future of IT.

Tag(s): metrics and measurements, service design, service management

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