John Natarelli, Senior Consultant
In today’s world, metrics can be found everywhere: from phones and cars to offices, where they provide employees with data on various operations. However, metrics alone are not important until they can be properly used to identify areas requiring analysis and action, and thus lead to improvement.
A metric is a unit of measurement: a piece of data that by itself could be considered rather meaningless. It could be five megabytes, twenty miles or eight spills. However, if it can be used for comparison or to show a relationship, its meaning can be extremely important: the relevance of derived metrics, which demonstrate a relationship between two or more values, can be extremely high when problem areas arise.
For example, if a car´s display shows that it averaged twenty miles per gallon of gas used, this information alone is not important unless the car usually averages twenty-five miles per gallon. In this case, the metric has indicated a problem which could lead to long-term consequences. A metric without a meaningful baseline to compare to, is only a data point which by itself does not impart good or bad performance.
In the workplace, a metric showing “eight spills” alone is not helpful unless that information can be applied to operations and therefore be properly utilized. If, over the course of one year, a refinery records 106 spills of over 25 barrels, of which eight occurred in the last month, it could be concluded that December was just under the average spill level, justifying either a lack of further action or signifying an improvement in spill reduction.
However, as the refinery should take all spills seriously, any spill over 25 barrels should be immediately reported to management and an accident investigation launched. So regardless of monthly fluctuations, the metric has actually highlighted a consistently high spill level over an extended period of time, which is a cause of serious concern and demands immediate attention.
Understanding what a metric demonstrates is only the first step: using that information to apply change is key to instigating improvement. Knowing that every spill of a 25-barrel magnitude should be taken seriously means that not only should a growing trend start alarm bells ringing, but that the obvious consequence should be a root cause analysis of why a spill occurred in the first place.
When, as in this case, a metric has outlined a trend, not only why the spill occurred, but why subsequent spills kept occurring over the space of a year should be immediately analyzed and addressed. Only then, with the results of that analysis, can systems be put in place to prevent it happening again.
Regardless of the method used to identify the root cause, seeing the barrier removal process through to completion is vital. It’s imperative that metrics continue to be monitored: without measuring the improvement against the original state, it will never be fully clear whether the root cause of the problem was eliminated or not. If, for example, the metric doesn’t improve, it could be that more than one problem exists, or that the root cause wasn’t actually identified.
Metrics must be captured and evaluated on a regular basis to ensure that the correct causes have been addressed and the right systems are put in place to prevent recurrence. Taking the time to properly evaluate and use metrics frequently will have a positive impact on the whole company: they provide measurement, but cannot improve effectiveness or productivity alone. Action must be taken to ensure that metrics are used to benefit an organization and its people: improving safety, reducing waste and preventing repetitive problems. Only then can metrics contribute to continuous improvement.