The 110F heat of the summer of 2000 was made even more intense in the broom closet of a factory floor of a major manufacturing facility. I was in there, against my will.
Several minutes earlier I was sent there to look for my missing clipboard by some of the union workers who had befriended me on my first day of internship. I wasn’t sure if this was a hazing ritual or pre-mediated murder.
Previous attempts at work-study and time-study were major fiascos with the unionized workforce and the quality department made sure never to cross paths with workers of Plant 7, the pilot site for the last disaster in quality control. I was in Plant 7 on day 1 of my internship, to take a look at the “problem” and submit proposals. Within 15 minutes I was scoped out by the floor force, within 30, locked in the broom closet.
Being physically short and slow, and yet ambitious, I had learnt how to deal with bullies. Back in high school, I held the highest public position in student government, which meant little except for a colorful sash and being locked into classrooms when gangs broke out into fights ~ and keep me from alerting the authorities.
I drew on my extensive experience in being locked up with a gang of thugs outside and decided to meditate on the issue at hand. My department sponsor wanted ideas about operation quality measurement and try my best not to die. An industrial engineer’s dream come true.
I made an attempt to engage my captors in a conversation about their work and how I, there for just a 3 month internship, can tell management things that the industrial engineers wouldn’t dare say. Speak truth to power, if they shared their thoughts with me.
I had made sure to converse in the local language. The information flowed through the smelly door in a frenzy: Plant 7’s floor, unlike an assembly line, could make a single, giant boiler for 6 months or 3 tiny ones over a week. Boilers were custom designed. Work was being rated on assembly line standards and there were constant quarrels between the Quality, Marketing, and Sales departments, which agreed on just one thing: the problem was not their department.
The quality department, my home base, had figured out measurement of final quality on parts, but was wrangling with the issue of monitoring operations. The worker’s
KPIs were hard to set, harder to measure consistently, difficult to communicate and vulnerable to being gamed by the hacker worker. Years later while studying dashboards in a Benchmarking practices class in Ann Arbor MI, I realized my unsolved mystery was not localized to sweaty broom closets and reality shy quality departments in boiler manufacturing factories. I discovered advanced techniques like data envelopment analysis and other econometrics which helped measure dissimilar production units. But it wasn’t until this year that the coin finally dropped.
KPIs are never the answer in a batch or custom order production facility. Uniform metrics are an operation metric system, PDCA style, where you introspected on “A” from the previous cycle to “P” the next cycle. Rinse and repeat. In the organizations of today, which live in chaos, uncertainty and missed opportunities, a better method was invented at Intel in the 1970s. OKRs or Objectives and Key Results.
OKRs accomodate total lack of similarity of work, yet create tight integration with strategic goals for governing dynamic organizations. John Doerr, formerly of intel, introduced OKRs to Google and it became a part of the search giant’s fabric permanently in 1999.
Leadership desires a dashboard to monitor, tweak, accelerate and brake an organization which moves like a glacier over plains of time. KPIs are the metrics that feed into dashboards for enterprises that are evolve into chimera-like creatures but expected to run like horses of Arabia.
It’s time for organizations to embrace chaos and monitor it. Leave the control to the change leaders, which can emerge at any level in the organization.
OKRs are great for organizations which cannot afford the time to organize work into neat little projects with team building. However if work has to be accomplished as teams, OKRs may not be sufficient. Roles and responsibilities, rough budgets, and authorization is important for work evaluation. Basically a story card or a charter.
Another key thing to remember is that OKRs are not to be used for people performance measurement.
More on OKRs:
How Google sets goals: Google Ventures workshop
Q&A with John Doerr