The Tyranny of Numbers

Performance metrics are an excellent management control tool. But to confine one’s attention to columns of numbers is naïve, if not downright dangerous.


Performance metrics are the mantra of modern management. Everything has to be measured, and if it can’t be measured, it often either gets short shrift, or is completely ignored. I’ve even had colleagues say with all sincerity, “If it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.”

It wasn’t always this way, however. When I joined the Foreign Service in 1982, after 20 years in the U.S. Army, my observation was that the Department of State wasn’t just behind in the race to effectively incorporate the newly emerging IT platforms. It wasn’t even in the race.

At some point during my second year in service, State began deploying the clunky Wang Office Information System to overseas posts. Boxes of equipment, cables and inscrutable instruction manuals were shipped to places like Guangzhou, where I was a first-tour consular officer. Unfortunately, technicians with the requisite skills to install the equipment and teach its use weren’t included in the shipment.

For those too young to remember, the Wang OIS was a hardwired computer system with a central processing unit, to which desk units were connected with what seemed like miles of cable. (In some larger posts, it was miles of cable.) The disks in the CPU had to be backed up frequently, and the system was noisy and produced so much heat that it had to be kept in an air-conditioned room.

While the OIS beat the old process of having to feed paper into an IBM Selectric typewriter, the units did not talk to each other. So if you wanted to share a document with a colleague, you had to print it out, or have the colleague come to your desk and read it on the green-and-black screen.

There were at the time a number of things that had to be measured, such as visas issued, supply inventory, etc., but this was all done manually. So unless something badly amiss cropped up during manual counts, metrics didn’t figure too highly in our daily work.

Number Crunching

The Mission Program Plans I recall from those early days in the Foreign Service did ask for numbers, but they also required a lot of narrative to put them in context. After many name changes (the last one I remember was the Mission Strategic Resource Plan), numbers came to rule. In fact, the narrative was generally, in my experience at least, disregarded.

Foreign Service managers often become fixated on metrics, using them to justify budget and manpower requests.

One might think that in a logical world, the narrative would help to put the numbers in context, or explain why, despite a certain set of digits, a counterintuitive course of action was suggested. Nope. If the figures in the plan didn’t support it, forget that new program. Plain, unvarnished English wasn’t enough to justify it.

As someone who held management and leadership positions for more than 50 years before my retirement from the Foreign Service in September 2012, I know how important it is to be able to gauge the progress of task completion through effective measurement of the variables that go into that task. I also accept the need to provide some objective justification for the expenditure of resources.

Or to put it another way: Performance metrics are an excellent management control tool. But to say that only things that lend themselves to portrayal in graphs or columns of numbers are important, or can be effectively managed, is naïve at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

The danger I see in State’s almost obsessive reliance on metrics in evaluating proposals from the field is the fact that bureaucrats, like water, tend to take the path of least resistance and rely solely on the numbers. This, in my view, completely ignores the often-amorphous nature of the tasks assigned to the department and its employees, as well as the inherent difficulty of depending solely on a quantitative approach to assess relationships, whether between people, organizations or nations.

One should also bear in mind that we in the Foreign Service work mainly in foreign countries. The different cultural practices and legal systems within which we have to function often have an unpredictable impact, and require modification of management techniques that would be perfectly appropriate in Washington.

Don't Forget the Intangibles

If I learned one thing during two decades in the Army, it was this: To be successful, an organization must get the numbers right. There are, however, a whole host of other factors that defy measurement, but can also ensure failure if they are ignored.

Morale and dedication to the institution’s objectives, for instance, are crucial. But I would defy any manager or leader to tell me how many units of morale make the difference between success and failure. How much dedication and commitment on the part of the members of a unit are essential to push that unit over the top?

Sometimes these critical components of effective performance (or more accurately, their absence) can be intuited from other measurements. Excessive absenteeism, on-the-job accidents, labor-management disputes and employee complaints, for example, can all be measured. But those measurements don’t always indicate what we think they do.

Absenteeism, for instance, may indicate low morale, but doesn’t always lead to mission failure. For that matter, it may not signal low morale. Look at employee attendance around the time of the Super Bowl if you don’t believe me.

Nor is low attendance necessarily an omen of poor performance. If those not reporting for work regularly are your poorest performers, there’s a good chance that output will actually grow.

Going Walkabout

During my career in government, I have on more than one occasion been put in charge of an organization that was in trouble. In all cases, the numbers were discouraging; absenteeism was high, retention was low and performance was substandard. But in each case, I found that the solution to the organization’s problems was not in the numbers, but in the intangibles that affect performance. Things like low morale, lack of trust and employee burnout were at the root of the problems, and fixing these problems required something other than focusing on metrics.

Implementing an open-door policy that was real, not just lip service, helped to rebuild trust. Management by walking around improved communications within the organizations and helped achieve employee buy-in to the mission.

Putting emphasis on the content of work, rather than the number of hours devoted to tasks, worked wonders in one organization I led. When people realized that I was more concerned with a properly completed job than how many hours they spent at their desks, the quality and quantity of output improved dramatically.

Mission Program Plans asked for plenty of numbers, but also required a lot of narrative to put that data in context.

In order to convince people within the organization that I wasn’t just “blowing smoke,” I modeled the behavior that I promoted. When I said overtime was for extraordinary situations, I didn’t undercut that message by staying in the office until all hours. When I assigned tasks, I made sure they had the resources to accomplish them and let them know they could consult me if they ran into problems. I then left them alone until the project was due.

None of these things can be measured, but the impact can be seen. Employees take more interest in their jobs and turn in better work when they feel trusted. Those gains can be measured.

Getting Bogged Down by the Numbers

Foreign Service managers often become fixated on metrics, using them to justify budget and manpower requests. Without numbers to crunch, we find ourselves hard pressed to get a hearing from those up the chain of command.

The danger in this attitude is that unmeasurable factors are likely to be ignored, no matter how important they are. If absenteeism is low and the number of complaints to management is within acceptable limits, we assume that morale is high and the job is getting done.

This is not necessarily so, however. An organization can have zero absenteeism and still produce shoddy work. Suggestion boxes can be empty because employees suffer in silence, allowing simmering resentment to negatively affect output.

Turning an organization around in a situation like this is a daunting task. Since managers are conditioned to focus on the numbers, the remedies aren’t obvious. And even where there are clear solutions, they’re not the ones most Foreign Service leaders are taught to use.

You can’t measure respect, but you certainly know when you’re not getting enough of it. There’s no chart to tell you what level of trust from your boss is required for you to feel like a valued employee; but if you sense that your boss doesn’t respect you or care for you as a person, it will eventually affect your performance.

Similarly, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this type of dilemma. Each leader has to assess the situation and work through it, usually through a process of trial and error.

Keep Numbers in Their Proper Place

Measurements have their place, of course. We need to know the wait times between visa applications and issuance, or how long it takes to process travel vouchers. Financial Management Officers and General Service Officers must master the metrics of their domains. But getting the numbers right is a task, not the core mission of a diplomatic service.

We are expected to husband the resources we’re given and not waste them, but saving money and conserving resources are not our mission. When we become obsessed with measuring output and performance, this can easily be forgotten.

Remember that an American citizen who lost his passport and ran afoul of local law is not concerned with saving money. He just wants to get out of jail and on a plane home. The family depending on a consular officer to find their daughter, who hasn’t checked in for the past several months and was last seen on a boat in the Gulf of Thailand (a haven for pirates), doesn’t want to hear about resource conservation. Regardless of cone, every FSO could probably give similar examples.

So the bottom line is this: Don’t waste resources, or even expend them needlessly—but do what is necessary to accomplish the core mission.

Let me offer two examples to illustrate this principle. The first shows how numbers and measurements almost got in the way of getting an essential task done, while the other explains how the imponderables are often more important than the things you can count.

During my second year as ambassador to Cambodia, Phnom Penh was still a relatively unstable city, and armed invasions of residences that were unguarded or only lightly guarded was endemic. The embassy community had experienced relatively few robberies because we had residential guards around the clock. This motivated the criminals to pick softer targets, sometimes including homes next door to an embassy official’s residence.

Someone with green eyeshades back in Washington decided that the low level of incidents indicated that we no longer needed 24-hour security, and ordered the contract terminated.

To be successful, an organization must get the numbers right. But there are many intangible factors that must also be taken into account.

Fortunately, there was a scientific way to test our theory that we were relatively incident-free thanks to the guard service. We could remove the service and shift to roving nighttime patrols (despite the fact that some of the home invasions occurred during the day) for a period of, say, three to six months, then measure the number of incidents. If it rose, our thesis was proven; if not, the bean counters were right.

But as the leader of a large organization, I was not prepared to put people in harm’s way. So I fought tooth and nail to keep the guard service without conducting that experiment. Fortunately, we won that battle. Whether it was because of my tenacity, or the reminder that shortly after I arrived the city suffered a convulsion of violence when rioting students burned down the Thai embassy, I will never know. I do know that I was not prepared to put people at risk to balance a column of numbers on some spreadsheet somewhere.

Taking a Calculated Risk

The other incident occurred during my second Foreign Service tour, when I ran the consular section at the newly opened consulate general in Shenyang. A vast expanse, my consular district was as big as Western Europe, with some 50 million Chinese and several hundred Americans looking to me for consular service.

During my second month at post, an American businessman fell asleep in his hotel room in the northern city of Heilongjiang with a cigarette in his hand. As you might expect, a fire started. He was able to get out unscathed, but several other people, including his business partner and members of North Korea’s government there on official business, perished in the fire.

The businessman wasn’t arrested right away, but he was prohibited from leaving the city while the investigation ground on. After nearly a week of this, with no charges being filed, he became frantic. And as the sole consular official for more than a thousand miles, I had to resolve his status.

This is the heart of what we FSOs do overseas, along with observing and reporting and representing America to the local population. This case included elements of these functions as well, for I was the only American government official there, and I had to observe and report to the embassy and Washington on how the Chinese justice system worked.

There was no metric-based solution to the American’s problem, however. And because of the state of the communication system (this was before cell phones), I couldn’t even call headquarters for advice or instructions.

The solution was partly taking a calculated risk, and partly understanding the local environment. So, with the businessman’s concurrence, I told the Chinese authorities that if they weren’t prepared to formally charge him so that we could report a clear status and know what to expect, I would be taking him with me to the train station to travel from Heilongjiang to the consulate, which was in Shenyang. They would then have to make a public arrest, which could lead to an incident that would be embarassing since I would be present—or worse.

Within 10 minutes, the man was officially arrested, then immediately released on his own recognizance so long as he stayed in his hotel. The process of adjudicating his case finally began, and he was eventually convicted of accidentally starting a fire that resulted in fatalities, sentenced to prison, and then paroled four months later. Under the circumstances, this was a most satisfactory outcome, and one achieved through actions and methods that couldn’t be graphed or charted.

The Presence of Absence

None of the foregoing is by any means a call to stop measuring things. There will always be a need for specifics: how many, how long, how expensive, etc. I am, though, urging that we put performance metrics in the proper perspective. They measure progress in some facets of what we do. But it is not the mission.

We must stop believing that we can only manage things that we can measure, for it’s just not true. Not only can we manage intangible things like morale, dedication and commitment, but as leaders we must manage them—lest we end up with perfect numbers and failed missions.

The imponderables, the things we can’t measure, are like the air we breathe. We can’t see them, but we can see the result of their presence. More importantly, we can feel their absence.

Charles A. Ray retired from the Foreign Service in 2012 after a 30-year career that included ambassadorships to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Ambassador Ray also served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for prisoners of war/missing personnel affairs, deputy chief of mission in Freetown and consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, among many other assignments. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Ambassador Ray spent 20 years in the U.S. Army. He currently chairs AFSA’s Professionalism and Ethics Committee, and does freelance writing and speaking.