Key Performance (mis) Indicators

kpi

Key Performance Indicators are meant to keep an organisation on track. By measuring the performance over time, you are able to look at deviations and to take measures. As Wikipedia defines it: A  key performance indicator (KPI) is a type of performance measurement. An organization may use KPIs to evaluate its success, or to evaluate the success of a particular activity in which it is engaged. Sometimes success is defined in terms of making progress toward strategic goals, but often success is simply the repeated, periodic achievement of some level of operational goal (e.g. zero defects, 10/10 customer satisfaction, etc.).

The concept behind Key Performance Indicators is to build a feedback loop between input and output. Its working principle does not differ from a thermostat, which senses the temperature of a system so that the system’s temperature is maintained near a desired set-point.

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In order to get not market driven organisations more efficient the adage “The numbers tell the tale”has become fashion among governments, institutions and not-for-profit companies. There are several metrics or key performance indicators.

However, Key Performance Indicators can also lead to perverse incentives and unintended consequences as a result of employees working to the specific measurements at the expense of the actual quality or value of their work. In the social sciencesunintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action. Perverse incentives are a type of unintended consequence. A perverse incentive is an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable result which is contrary to the interests of the incentive makers.

There are a lot of examples of bad designed Key Performance Indicators. We came across, but not exhaustive:

  • Police officers get a predetermined quota of fines to give out. The unintended effect of this KPI that the police organisation will be focused on easy to obtain files, f.i. traffic fines instead of fighting serious crime;
  • An organisation involved in handling objections has a KPI for the amount of rejected complaints. Imagine how employees will approach complaints. . .
  • It is generally accepted that the progress of students is evaluated by tests. However, student tests assess only a small part of needed knowledge, skills and attitude of students. Also, often the purpose of the test, timely warning of learning difficulties and study delays, dilutes to “a (missed) ticket to the next hurdle”;
  • An agency of child protection is responsible for placing abused or emotional neglected children in foster parents and child care institutions. It is very logic to design a KPI: like the number of placed children. If this performance is coupled to the financing of the agency, it can easily lead  to placing children out of their home, against sound indications that there is no need for or against parents objections;
  • It is complete reasonable to expect higher efficiency and experience of surgeons as a hospital performs at least 30 knee surgery or angioplasty a year. However, such a KPI can lead to more instead of less knee surgery and angioplasty, an example of a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (an intended solution makes a problem worse);
  •  The selling of mortgages as an end in itself, even to people who could no pay the interest, led to the bank crisis in 2008. Another example of a negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy to motivate sellers to do better their best.
  • To increase the efficiency of university studies universities are judged on the number of successful students per year. It is now tempting to reduce the requirements for passing exams.
  • In order to increase the efficiency of General Practitioners many assurance companies allow for not more than ten minutes consults by patients. This KPI leads to far more referrals to medical specialists because GP’s have not much time to carefully investigate the medical complaints. This is an example of a counterproductive KPI: it is more of an “obstacle” than a help in the achieving of a productive project or an objective;
  • Crews of warships run annual series of nautical and operational exercises. Through a complex multi-factor analysis, a KPI is derived: Operational Employ-ability. Members of Parliaments asked questions when the KPI decreased to 10%, as a warship was actually deployed in a crisis;
  • Notorious are budgets: the setting of expenditure levels for each of an organization’s functions. It expresses strategic plans of business units, organizations, activities or events in measurable terms. However, such budget tends to be exhausted at the end of the year, because organizational units realise that they will be shortened in budget for next year, because last year they needed not the full budget. So, as an example, in many towns you can observe that every five to ten years the same streets and squares are completely overhauled without any need but in order to use the full budget.

Many Key Performance Indicators have unintended effects. They function as rules for behavior. Key performance Indicators are designed to notice need for adjustments of the course of an organisation. However, more often than not, they are invitations to cheat, by employees but equally by companies and institutions,  especially when financial consequences are attached to the KPI.

Whenever designing or encountering a Key Performance Indication, be warned!

 

unintended consequences

For more examples of perverse incentives, see here. For examples of unintended consequences see here.

To built up your Thinkibility skills, imagine your are the director of a hospice. You have set a thinking task: how to improve the occupancy (KPI) of the hospice. Then check your answers with How Dying Became A Multibillion-Dollar Industry.

 

 

World Thinkers’ Ideas – Creative Machines

Robots are machines that are programmed to perform tasks. Can a robot be creative? And how can you use robots as inspiration for new insights.

Driven by a desire to build a scientist smarter than himself, Jürgen Schmidhuber decided to become an artificial intelligence expert.  He believes that our dominated place as creativity experts may end around 2040 when Omega, or Singularity, will mean the end of our dominated position.

What is this idea based on?

Predicting the future is tricky, and although science fiction can provide great inspiration, few things can be predicted confidently. But that there will be computers faster than the human brain may be one of those predictions. Jürgen Schmidhuber may sound too optimistic when he says that computers will also be able to solve problems faster than humans can. However, at the Swiss AI Lab IDSIA research into artificial neural networks and reinforcement learning means that the day when machines are faster than us is creeping closer.

Can you read French, Arabic or Chinese handwriting?

Machines can and the fascinating thing is that it is not  a program. Instead, the machine has learnt from extracting regularities and making generalisations from data.

The step to being creative may look enormous. However, the project Formal Theory of Fun and Creativity may prove that it is possible. A theory has been developed that explains in a formal way science, art, music, and humour. Building curious and creative agents that never stop generating new ideas may be a work in progress, but when computer have the power of human brains, the explosion in ideas is a reality. He says, curiosity is the desire to create or discover more non-random, non-arbitrary, regular data that is novel and surprising.

Does the idea sound scary? Jürgen Schmidhuber does not think in terms humans versus robots. He believes that we are stepping stones leading towards more complexity and we should be happy with our role.

Seeing an idea in the light of another idea can provide new insights. Lee Smolin says in the book What is your Dangerous Idea: “Seeing Einstein in the light of Darwin suggests that natural selection could act not only on living things but on the properties defining various species of elementary particles.”

Seeing the solution to problem with Internet Trolls in the light of a Machine Troll may provide some ideas that can be used as a solution to the problem with Internet trolls.Writing the code that the machine will use is a way to gain insights into human minds. What do you need to include in a code to make sure that the machine acts like a human Internet troll?

Photo:Robots In Bright Colours by Victor Habbick