Busy Doesn’t Equal Productive: Distinguishing Between KPIs and Goals

Author: Bryan Ritchie

Is it possible we’re too busy to get anything done? Could we be reducing our productivity through the very efforts we’re making to increase it? I have observed that in many organizations people think that the more they can be working on the more they can accomplish. But in reality, the opposite may be true.

Economists have done a lot of great research on the law of diminishing returns. The idea is that more is not always more. At the same time, psychologists have shown that the human brain does not multi-task (not that it doesn’t multi-task well, but that it doesn’t multi-task at all!). The counter-intuitive point is that doing fewer things at one time, that is, concentrating and focusing on fewer things, will lead to us accomplishing more.

That’s all well and good on the surface. But the reality is that we really do need to do a lot of things, and it seems at one time (!) for our organization to be successful. Just keeping the doors open requires a tremendous amount of energy. Perhaps a nuanced understanding of focus can help. The trick is in understanding the difference between tasks that must be done to maintain the business measured by KPIs, and tasks that must be done to progress the business, measured by goal achievement. They are not the same.

A great analogy is the way our body and brain functions. There are a large number of tasks that are operated by our subconscious mind. Things like breathing, digesting, perspiring, and so forth are done without any conscious thought. There are literally thousands of these kinds of subconscious activities going on at any one time. Then there are those tasks that take conscious thought on our part to accomplish. Things that can only be accomplished when our brains tell our bodies to do it.

Work can similarly be separated into two camps: things we know how to do and things we don’t. Or things that are well understood and things that are not. In any organization there is a large amount of work that is part of our work“dna.” We know how to do it. We are proficient at it and we do it largely without thinking. These tasks form the backbone of the business. These kinds of tasks are best managed not as gaps that need to be closed, but as performance standards that need to be maintained. KPIs are usually a great way to measure how well we are doing. Think of these as maintenance lights on a car dashboard. As long as the light remains off, we’re functioning well.

On the other hand, there are new tasks that we are not accustomed to doing. These are new behaviors that are necessary to move the organization forward. These activities are not natural and require great energy to move past inertia. There is always a gap in performance with these objectives. If we were doing them well now, we wouldn’t need to focus on them as a goal. These activities are best measure as an objective to reach.

If we understand the difference between these two kinds of tasks, we can better structure our activities to be successful in both. With the first kind of activities, we can do many of them at a time, but we cannot improve our performance in many of these areas at a time. That is, we mostly need to monitor these activities to make sure they are within a set of constraints. Think of it like your heart rate. In most cases I don’t have a goal for heart rate. I simply want it to function within a set of parameters: higher than 40 beats per minute and less than 80 when I’m resting. This is like KPIs in a company. Most of these are ranges within which the business should be operating. But I’m not trying to achieve any specific outcomes.

The few areas that we consciously work to improve are different. Here I am trying to achieve a target or close a gap. Unlike the unconscious areas, these tasks require great focus and attention and I can therefore only do one or two at a time. Instead of KPIs that measure a range of acceptable performance, I measure these with specific target goals and objectives. This way, I can know when I’ve achieved the objective. At that point I have probably learned how to do this new thing and it becomes part of the unconscious component of my work and ready for a KPI to monitor it. At this point I can move on to the next thing.

In summary, outcomes we know how to do and monitor within a range of performance:

  • Lend themselves to KPIs for measurement
  • Can be done in bunches
  • Don’t detract from other efforts

Those tasks that we do to close a gap, improve performance, or move the organization forward:

  • Are often new and untested
  • We have to learn how to do
  • We can only do one or two at a time
  • Lend themselves to be measured by target outcomes rather than KPI ranges

In the end, busy is not the same as productive. Productivity includes two parts, the outcomes we know how to do well and are governed by the subconscious of the organization and the outcomes we don’t know how to do well which are governed by the conscious efforts of the organization. Using KPIs to monitor the first set while setting a very small number of targets for the second can ensure that our busyness in fact leads to achieving the outcomes we desire.

Bryan Ritchie and James Western are co-founders of GrowthSPORT, a successful consulting company whose mission is to improve SCORES (Stimulate Culture, Optimize Results and Engage Staff) for Teams, Divisions, Departments and Organizations through the SPORT model (Strategic Alignment, Personnel Performance, Operational Execution, Results Accountability and Team Strength), which are the Five Core Elements of Success.

GrowthSPORT provides resources, tools and experienced consultants to effectively implement the SPORT performance model from companies ranging from Startups to Fortune 500 companies.

Feel free to reach out to GrowthSPORT at (801) 676-2500 or at www.growth-sport.com.


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