The never-ending road to world class performance

11/03/19

These days, it seems to be sufficient that if somebody repeats something often enough it becomes ‘true’ (or ‘fake’). Facts? Who needs them?

But what may work in the world of politics does not hold water in business. When it comes to performance, there can be no substitute for firm evidence and data.

We spend a lot of time thinking about which internal metrics give a rounded view on how we’re doing – without creating a cottage industry to produce and monitor them – and then ideally seeing that performance reflected in how clients see us through measures such as Net Promoter Score (NPS).

I heard recently that a well-known train operator does a similar thing but starts the other way round. They ask customers for feedback all the time, when booking tickets, waiting on platforms or sitting on trains, and then combine the thousands of responses into an overall customer happiness score. That’s the killer KPI they focus on all the way through the company, from top to bottom, even to the point of flowing it down to their suppliers. Having one metric that everyone is oriented towards is brilliant in its simplicity.

Of course metrics don’t need to mean anything in absolute terms. One of our clients told me recently how he has a measure for the complexity of their IT infrastructure. To calculate it, they simply count up all the servers, arrays, LUNs, switches, routers, racks, operating systems, software variants (and so on) each month. In itself this number doesn’t tell anyone much, but in relative terms it says a great deal: a 1% reduction means their infrastructure really is getting simpler, which is precisely what they’re trying to achieve.

We watch one particular metric like a hawk: ‘backup success before intervention’ gives a strong indicator that systems have been designed and configured properly, and that they’re operating well. When you’re running over half a million backups every month, as we are, it doesn’t take much of a drop in performance to make a big difference to the amount of paddling we have to do beneath the surface. And if the dropoff isn’t corrected, eventually clients notice that the swan is not gliding across the water with its usual serenity.

Having the right measures, then, is a vital part of the performance improvement journey. But a data point is nothing unless you know what action to take from it. ISO9001, the international standard for quality management, provides an excellent framework in this regard. Implementing it a few years ago helped bring about a genuine change in our mindset from reacting only to the bigger, uglier problems to responding to every anomaly, however small, even if all that means to begin with is making a note of it. It encourages teams to look behind a problem for the underlying cause, bearing in mind that it can sometimes be several steps removed.

We also appointed an Agony Aunt – he won’t thank me for that epithet! – whose job was to act as sounding board for the rest of the team whenever they had an observation about something that wasn’t right or suggestion for something that could be better. Just by giving people an easy outlet, we unearthed all manner of potential improvements across the ‘golden triangle’ of people, process and technology.

If one has the aspiration to be world class, that means a commitment to making things better, all the time, whatever they are, without fail. Sure, you can’t tackle everything immediately, priority calls have to be made and it is inevitable that some opportunities will get pushed right for months or even years.

But leave no stone unturned. Every anomaly is an opportunity for improvement.

Barnaby Mote