Sweating the Soft Stuff
Why even things that cannot be counted still count.
There is a famous quote by Albert Einstein that says something like, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Having spent most of my life in the pursuit and study of science, which focuses on that which can be counted, I found myself at a loss when it came to things that really count. In business today as well, the emphasis on bottom line impact and only doing that which can be measured seems to me to be overlooking many other things that count.
In my training to become a Six Sigma Black Belt, the focus of our curriculum was how to better measure things, reduce defects in them, and sustain the improvements long term. Which is all very logical. But what about the things that are difficult or even impossible to measure? What about the things that can be measured, but are impossible to tie directly to the bottom line? Like employee engagement, for instance? Today the message seems to be "if we can't measure it, or tie it to the bottom line, let's just ignore it." As if that alone makes it unworthy of study. To me, that seems to be a competitive advantage waiting to happen for someone, because I believe that there are many things that influence, either directly or indirectly, the bottom line performance of a company that cannot easily be correlated to it. Imagine the power of unleashing those things within your company while everyone else sits around discounting them!
The Gallup Organization has gotten as close as anyone in establishing the correlations between employee perceptions and business performance. They outline one of the leading indicators of business metrics as employees, and the trailing indicators as the actual business metrics of Customer Loyalty, Business Unit Productivity, Profitability, and Retention of Employees.1 They even have a "Q12" survey that distills all the common questions on employee perceptions down to the twelve that really matter.
To a Black Belt this makes perfect sense. We are taught that to control the key output variables (business metrics) successfully we must look to the input variables. In this case, the key input variables are the employees, which establishes the need to measure their performance, output, and therefore attitudes. Many companies do this in various ways, for instance with yearly employee surveys. The problem is what they do with the results. Many companies measure their employees' perceptions and attitudes, but do little with the information to effectively improve the culture and working environment. It's as if they are saying, "we want to know what you think, but we have no idea how to address it, so we will just continue to gather this data and do nothing with it." And, the only thing worse than NOT measuring something is measuring it and NOT doing anything with the results.
Where does this leave us? Well, it leaves employees frustrated, overworked, uninvolved, and most importantly UNENGAGED. And it leaves leaders frustrated by these 'soft' things that they can't seem to do anything about, and pressured to deliver on the bottom line.
The easy thing to do is to ignore that which is difficult to understand. I, however, am challenging leaders to look beyond the discomfort and ambiguity of the difficult to understand to the fulfilling and sustainable of the potential organizations they have. I am looking for the kind of leaders that may not yet understand how to get there, but definitely know they want to go. The leaders of the sustainable organizations and businesses of the future will master these concepts and unleash the potential in their employees. Are you that kind of leader?