What does a 9 out of 10 mean?

Last week, wife and I visited a store in downtown Evanston. Usually, we are served by the store manager or one of the assistants, but that day we were served by both of them.

As always, the service was great. As we were leaving, the assistant told us we might receive a survey from the HQ about the experience and added, “Just to share, it’s based on a 10-point scale and for our HQ anything less than 9 out of 10 would be considered a fail.”

Wife and I found the encounter interesting. Perhaps there’s something about the rating systems in the US we’re are not familiar with, but for a 10-point scale we would consider an 8 or 9 as a great score. Apparently the HQ doesn’t think so, and there appears to be some inflation going on so that the passing mark is 9. As a result of this, its stores nationwide are likely feeling the heat and telling their customers about it. So now if customers felt that the service was reasonably good we have only two options in a 10-point scale to express it – a 9 or 10.

Some of you may wonder, maybe there’s no such HQ rule at all? What if it was just the store’s strategy to garner high scores? This is possible, but we think it is unlikely because we know the people at the store and we don’t think they would do this. But even if it were true, it is likely that enough importance is placed on the rating scale for stores to want to influence it.

Either way, the scores the HQ receives will likely be skewed. The HQ will likely receive a ton of 9’s and 10’s, but what would that mean?

nines tens

Performance measurement is always tricky. There is a popular saying “what gets measured gets done”. The problem with this is that if we put too little emphasis on it people may not care much about it; yet if we place too much emphasis on it people may find creative ways to go around it. Sometimes, the act of measuring something changes it altogether!

How then can the HQ keep track of how its stores are doing? In the past, when businesses were much smaller and localized, it wasn’t that difficult for bosses to know how things were going. They just walked around to find out. However, as organizations exploded in size and expanded across geographies, the sheer scale made monitoring difficult.

Over time, the idea of the management dashboard became attractive. This is similar a car dashboard. According to Wikipedia, it is “an easy to read, often single page, real-time user interface, showing a graphical presentation of the current status (snapshot) and historical trends of an organization’s key performance indicators to enable instantaneous and informed decisions to be made at a glance.” From my observation, it is a pretty widespread management tool, because of the attractive idea that sitting in a board room you can see the key things about an organization at one glance, and use that to manage the organization.

So if managements are running their organizations through such dashboards, what do strings of 9’s and 10’s mean? Maybe a lot, but maybe not much too.

You can probably guess I’m not a big fan of management dashboards. To be fair, I think they have their use and I have used them. I just don’t think they tell us a lot about an organization. What’s the alternative then? Honestly, I don’t have very good answers. I was fortunate that the outfits I used to run were relatively small ones, so I could spend time moving around, observing and talking to people. And even when we worked with multiple partners in a much larger community, we could spend time moving around, observing and talking to stakeholders.

Is there an equivalent for massive organizations with stores or units spread across the country (or globe)? I think so, but I’m not sure. What I believe is that it is unlikely that the things we need to know to run such organizations can be handed to us on a plate. And we should not assume that we can do so.

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