Too much time treating symptoms?

A man drives down the highway each day on his way to work. On Monday he gets a flat tire. Like anyone else, he takes his lumps, changes his tire, and moves on.

One month later, almost to the day, the same darn thing happens. Just his luck. Only this time, its raining and he is forced to return home after changing his tire because he had gotten his new suit filthy in the process.

Convinced that he’s hitting a string of rotten luck, the man buys a good raincoat, and develops a faster routine for changing his tire (not bolting his spare down in the trunk, keeping his tools out and available, and keeping the raincoat close at hand). Next month, almost as predicted, same thing happens. Only this time, he gets into a fender bender trying to get over to the right shoulder to repair the flat. Talk about the life of Job!

Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long for him to go back to the well for another creative solution. No more wrecks trying to change a flat tire- nope, not for this guy. He’s figured out that its always the right front tire. In response to this keen observation, he’s now decided to always ride in the left lane so that if (sorry, I mean when..) he gets another flat, he can more quickly glide over to the shoulder, avoiding risk of accident on his way to another speedy tire change. He also decides to keep his speed lower than normal so that if (when) another blowout occurs, he’s not endangering too many people. That is, until a highway patrol officer pulls him over for clogging up the left/ passing lane of the freeway. Back to the drawing board he goes.

One of these days, that poor guy is going to figure out that it might just be his wheel alignment that is causing the problem. But not this time. Instead, like many of us, this man is trained to react to symptoms rather than taking the time analyzing the root cause.

A big problem with our performance measurement systems is that they provide us too much information on symptoms, and not enough feedback on our core system breakdowns. Does your management system tell you when you tire has gone flat? Does it measure the speed with which you change the tire? Or does it alert you that your vehicle is pulling to the left, outside of its normal control limits? The former is clearly reactive, responding only to a plethora of symptoms. The latter is proactive, and will lead your more quickly into a mindset of real problem solving.

I’ve seen this play out all too often in the workplace. Take a call center, for example, whose performance management focus is on getting better at average speed of answer, abandon rate, cost per call, and the many other indicators that are all too common in that industry. But how many companies look at the volume of calls per customer served? Is it higher than it should be? What if we do something to reduce the VOLUME of calls in the first place. Ahhhh….now we’re getting somewhere. Would you rather reduce the cost per call by 10% (something that I guarantee you is envied by EVERY call center manager out there), or eliminate the call entirely by fixing the process (something that is valued by every SHAREHOLDER out there!).

Reactive or proactive? Symptom or problem oriented? Activity or process focused? What approach does your performance management process favor?


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at

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