Published: November 2, 2012
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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Tackling the Soft Metrics Challenge

For as long as there have been people-related initiatives, there has been the vexing challenge of measuring their impact. It’s infinitely more complex and challenging than the day-to-day metrics of the business. No wonder I see clients wince almost every time I ask the question, “How will you measure progress?”

However, it’s not impossible to set meaningful metrics for soft initiatives, and in fact, an excellent set of metrics can give your initiative the boost it needs to keep going in the early, often unrewarding stages.

It helps to think of soft metrics in a three-level hierarchy:

  1. Activities
  2. Outcomes
  3. Business Improvement

Let’s look at each level, using the one of the broadest and most challenging initiatives to measure: employee empowerment with the intent to improve speed, agility, and engagement.

Activities

These metrics track the activities you believe will move the organization closer to the empowerment goals. In this example, the goals are “improve speed, agility, and engagement.”

Activities metrics do not, however, track achievement of the empowerment goal itself. It’s important to have activities metrics, because big, broad internal initiatives take time to bear fruit, and activities metrics provide a way to ensure that the project keeps moving forward during the more difficult early stages. What gets measured gets done, and in the early months, that’s often good enough.

Examples include:

  1. Every manager conducts developmental 1:1’s with each employee at least twice per quarter
  2. The empowerment guiding coalition achieves each of its 90-day plans over a one-year timeframe
  3. The roles &responsibilities matrix is reviewed and updated twice per year
  4. All directors complete two days of executive communication training
  5. All employees complete one day of empowerment training
  6. At least 10 examples of empowerment success are shared with the organization each quarter
  7. The empowerment SharePoint site is established and then updated in a timely manner throughout the year

Outcomes

These metrics track progress toward achieving the desired state of empowerment. Most soft initiative outcomes have a subjective nature to them, but they can still be measured. Some outcomes metrics require manual tracking, but it is usually not cumbersome if you are careful to choose no more five outcomes to track.

Examples include:

  1. Percentage of critical business decisions delegated at least one level down
  2. Reductions in escalations which employees attribute to their empowerment
  3. Dollar amount of resources controlled at least one level down
  4. Number of outdated, inefficient, and unnecessary processes abolished
  5. Percentage increase in suggestions for improvement from employees
  6. Percentage of employees who agree that they are confident, with a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities and equipped with the tools, skills, and resources to make timely and sound decisions, and have the trust and support of their peers, management and staff

Business Improvement

These are the most powerful metrics because they track the direct affect that the soft initiative has on the BU results. Sometimes they can be tracked in the first year of an initiative, sometimes not. They often require a level of manual tracking that can become cumbersome, so it’s important to focus your attention on no more than three.

Examples include:

  1. Reduction in machine downtime attributed to operators instead of engineers having control over a quality process
  2. Increased profit on a product line due to innovative solutions created by team without the manager’s involvement
  3. Acceleration of new product introduction attributed to directors being able to make gating decisions without VP-level sign-off
  4. Hard and soft dollar savings from elimination of outdated, inefficient, and unnecessary processes, plus business impact of how these savings were invested
  5. Improvement in net promoter score (a measure of how many customers would recommend your products or services) attributed to decisions made faster at a lower level in the BU

Too many large-scale changes perish on the rocky shores of metrics, because they stop at activities metrics only. If you have a large-scale change initiative underway or commencing soon, turn your guiding coalition loose on this challenge, and be sure to include an open space for at least one metric to be set by each team, function, or geographic area.

Then step back and let them run with it. The next time your consultant asks, “How will you measure progress?” you can answer, “We’re way ahead of you on that!”



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