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By Terry Wall

Some managers I’ve met share an important characteristic with a car my sons used to drive: The car’s fuel gauge was broken.

So my sons really had no accurate way to measure how much gas was in the tank, and in a similar way, some managers I know do not measure how their business is performing.

When discussing goals for a coaching or a consulting project, I always ask, “How will we measure progress?  How will we know we’ve achieved the goal?”

What I’m really saying is, “Let’s put this in more concrete terms, in terms we can measure.”  Even terms that initially sound vague can be measured.  Let’s look at “trust” and “purpose.”

A couple years ago, I was talking to the CEO of a company with several hundred employees.  He agreed that trust is important in building a successful organization and proudly told me that the trust level in his company was quite high.

I asked how he knew that.  He thought for a moment, then said, “Well, I just know.  By watching people interact I can tell that they trust me, that they trust each other.”  He stopped, thought again, and then said, “Other than that, I guess I really don’t know.”

And he’s right; he doesn’t really know because he wasn’t measuring it. He had a broken fuel gauge.

Cornell University once did a study of the hotel industry, and through surveys and interviews they measured trust levels at individual hotels.  This was concrete evidence, as opposed to anecdotal assumptions.  Trust can be measured.

Another example is alignment with the organization’s purpose.  People are always saying that everyone in the organization, (or the team, or the division) shares an understanding of the overall purpose of the organization.

And yet they haven’t really measured this “shared understanding” of the purpose.  On a team, the best way to measure it is to ask the team members: Have them individually and privately write down the purpose, and then compare the responses.

You’ll be surprised how often, even with top leadership of the company, at least several members of the team are way off.

Once I was visiting a vice president of Operations and her new assistant at a company when the topic of the company’s mission came up. The assistant asked, “What is the mission?”

The VP squinted across the room at a plaque, and said, “I know it’s on the wall over there, but I can’t read it from here.”  If she didn’t know it, how could the rest of her department know it?  This company probably had no idea how aligned people were with the mission or purpose.

In a small organization, say 15 or 20 employees, the anecdotal evidence will usually suffice.  The owner talks enough about the purpose, and people get it, and it shows.  But as the organization grows, you need more sophisticated ways of measuring:  Interviews, focus groups, surveys.

Whatever you are trying to accomplish, you have to find a way to measure your progress.  Production levels and operating costs are easy to put a number to, but  trust level or alignment with purpose should not be left to just your best guess.

Surveys are effective tools for measuring the elements that are critical to your organization’s success.  The important point is not which tool you use, but that you use some measurement tool.  Something is better than a broken gas gauge.

What measurable outcomes have you identified? What tools are you using to measure them?