Understanding Key Performance Indicators

By Ian Meaker on 04 Jan 2021

Key Performance Indicators do just what they say on the box; they indicate how well your business is performing in key areas. If we liken a business to a vehicle, KPIs are the dashboard. They can answer questions such as: How fast are we going? How much fuel is in the tank? Should we change gears?

Just as you would check your car’s dashboard while you drive, so you should also keep an eye on your KPIs as a business.

“Key Performance Indicators indicate how well your business is performing in key areas.” 

Although KPIs are not compulsory, they should be included in a management report pack where they can be regularly viewed and, where necessary, investigated.

Designing your KPIs

When designing a set of KPIs for your business, you should ask the question: “What information do we need to make decisions based on the core operations of the business?”

This enquiry should be your point of departure and the KPIs will naturally emerge from the answers to this question. Answering this question will also help you to crystallise a deep yet simple understanding of the nature of the business.

Less is more

There is always the temptation to overcomplicate the KPI creation process. This often leads to a myriad of vague KPIs across the board, most of which will be of little use in making mission-critical decisions. Moreover, a weak set of KPIs will inevitably dilute crucial insights. We should guard against this over-the-top approach. KPIs are, after all,  key  performance indicators.

To return to the vehicle analogy, the dashboard shows you only the most important readings for your car. A cluttered dashboard is distracting and essentially useless because the crucial indicator should be evident at a glance. The same applies to KPIs for your business.

In order to whittle down the various indicators, we need to align our priorities and focus on the few measures that are truly indicative of the performance of the business. The idea is to be able to answer this question at all times: “Are we winning or are we losing?”.

“We need to align our priorities and focus on the few measures that are truly indicative of the performance of the business.”

Keeping score

Behavioural psychologists have proven that people play a game very differently when scores are being kept. In this sense, KPIs can be used as the scoreboard within an organisations’ incentive structure to motivate the team to play harder and assume more ownership of their deliverables and responsibilities. Everybody wins, and when they know they are winning, that is good for the whole business.

“KPIs can be used as the scoreboard within an organisations’ incentive structure to motivate the team.”

When designed correctly, these incentive structures can lead to positive feedback loops within the organisation. This has the potential to unleash greater human ingenuity, which is arguably one of the most valuable commodities in any organisation.

Lead, don’t lag

In their book   The Four Disciplines of Execution  Sean Covey and his team make a distinction of particular relevance to KPIs: the idea of lead and lag measures.

Lag measures  are reported after the fact. They typically shed light on what has already happened. Little attention is paid to the causal factors of this historical data. By contrast,  lead measures  are predictive and future-orientated. So while lag indicators look backwards, through the rear-view mirror, lead indicators look forward to the road ahead. In essence, lead measures are proactive, taking initiative for the future journey.

“Lag measures are reported after the fact; lead measures are predictive and future-orientated.”

Let’s use the vehicle analogy as an example. Our lag measure is revealed when we do a roadworthy test. Let’s say the car failed the roadworthy because the tyres are slick and one brake light is broken. The lead measures in this example are regular service check-ups on the car, to ensure that broken lights get fixed and tyres are in good order. When we concentrate on lead measures (regular car services), we can be more confident about the lag measure of “roadworthiness”, and that our vehicle will pass the test.

To put it simply, attaining lead measure targets invariably leads to the attainment of lag measures. This is far better than looking at a lag measure of, for example, revenue growth at the end of each month, and hoping that it will look better next month. Instead, we should be focused on lead measures, for example, reducing machine downtime through routine preventative maintenance. We predominantly want to make use of lead measures because this puts us in control.

Qualitative and quantitative indicators

Not all KPIs need to be finance-orientated. In fact, it’s a good idea to have a blend of both quantitative (hard numbers) and qualitative (softer and more subjective, but still measurable) indicators.

Quantitative indicators  will zoom in on things like revenue growth, machine downtime and physical output.  Qualitative indicators  bring awareness to the more subjective and ethereal dimensions of the business. This includes customer and employee satisfaction and motivation levels, the success of training programs and awareness campaigns, as well as other elements which are harder to quantify in absolute terms. Although they are slightly more difficult to measure, however, we should not neglect them.

“Quantitative indicators focus on things like revenue growth and physical output, while qualitative indicators bring awareness to things like customer and employee satisfaction and motivation levels.”

There are significant lead measures to be uncovered on the qualitative side of the KPI dashboard. Take the time to figure out how best to collect the data to gain these insights. As an example, Creative CFO used OfficeVibe, and now Lattice, to gauge the morale of its team anonymously. It is a great way to keep tabs on the more subjective side of running a business, which can be just as illuminating as the hard data.

Final thoughts

When identifying a business’ KPIs, what are the key takeaways?

  1. Keep it simple. When designing your KPIs, distil them down as much as possible to gain only the most essential and illuminating insights.
  2. Are we winning or losing? Ask this question of every KPI.
  3. Lead, don’t lag. Concentrate on being proactive and focus on lead measures that will invariably help you achieve your lag measure targets.
  4. Blend qualitative and quantitative indicators. Don’t focus exclusively on hard statistics, but look at the affective aspects of your business performance too.

Ultimately, every set of KPIs will be as unique as the business that designs them. They should be tailored to reflect the key drivers of value, as well as the best way to interpret these. The process of building out a business’ KPI dashboard should take time and careful reflection, which can be seen as an exercise in setting priorities.

Business owners have often been impressed by the clarity and decision-making capabilities that emerge from this exercise. Moreover, the exercise empowers business owners to initiate effective action to take their organisation from strength to strength.

No matter the size of your organisation, there will be those few key indicators of unparalleled importance. Identify them, track them, refine them, and let them lead your decisions.

If you require some assistance in this process, please reach out to us. We would be happy to cast a KP-eye over things.

Happy reflecting!