Measuring Inputs

I used to love my job. That love was based on my boss’ attitude that could be paraphrased, “give me results.” I gave him results. Results and earned accomplishment are like a drug. I was happy. He was happy. The company thrived. Life was good. I paid off my mortgages and cash-flowed sending my kids to college.

As you may expect, something changed to cool this love. This was good, because it got me to create this experiment in catfood retirement.

I write software. This work requires thought. One must think about the requirements, your design to satisfy requirements, whether it solves the problem at hand, and how you’ll prove it’s right.

In 1911 Fredrick Winslow Taylor wrote a highly influential book, The Principles of Scientific Management. He famously asserted that there is no such thing as skilled labor. His chief contribution to society was to hover over workers on an assembly line with a stop-watch analyzing the motions they followed. If you’ve ever heard the term “efficiency expert,” this guy was the first such. And his principles for management were scientific. They had to be great.

Mr. Taylor also holds the distinction of being the world’s first management consultant. Managers have ever since aspired to follow his lead. And I suppose there’s some assembly-line somewhere (that’s not yet been automated) where workers are living Taylor’s dream. The calculus of Taylorism is simple. People are fungible “resources” and you simply measure their productivity to ascertain the number of man-hours input to create some unit of output. The rub is when you try to apply the principles of Taylorism to something more interesting than assembly-line work.

Like Lawyers, Doctors, Engineers or Teachers.

One can run an office of professionals on the basis of billable hours. You worked X hours on the so-and-so project. We’ll measure that. We’ll charge some mark-up of your hourly rate. Does it matter whether you get anything done? Maybe results matter to the project’s stakeholders, but not the worker or the company. A billable hour is a billable hour. Suppose the worker devises some amazing gordian-knot-cutting thing to get the work done 10x faster, the company will only bill 1/10th as much as if you slacked off.

Into the context of these perverse incentives shambles zombie Frederick Taylor: Managers start measuring everything they can easily measure. Trouble is that it’s so easy to measure inputs. I want results. I work for results. Any manager who wants to measure results (outputs) has my enthusiastic support.

Measuring inputs is such a bad idea it isn’t even wrong.

It’s not wrong because for some tasks there’s a linear relationship between inputs and outputs with little variariation and few perturbations. Just put the right number of hands in front of the assembly line and crank its rate as fast as those hands can move.

There are other tasks where these conditions do not obtain. The relationship between inputs and outputs may not be straightforward. There are times when the worker may need to contribute something unique. Legal fees pay for legal thought and not all thoughts are of equal value. The same is true of engineering thoughts, medical thoughts, or any profession.

Some results may be within the worker’s scope of influence, but outside his control. The salesman can’t control the potential customer’s decision to buy or to walk away. If I create an advertising campaign, I can’t control the public’s response.

I can’t control my weight or my pulse or my blood pressure.

I can influence these things.

I know a second trip through the buffet line won’t help me lose weight. Another half-hour on the treadmill can help move the scale in the right direction. Actions that contribute to or hinder health are well known. However, they don’t control, they influence the result.

Non-trivial results require keying multiple interlocking necessary conditions. And when it’s something like making a sale, asking a girl out, or landing a job, it’s probabilistic. Doing everything right will only maximize your odds.

Here’s where Taylor isn’t even wrong: In college my friend Russ wanted a date. I listened to him go down a list of ten girls’ names calling each in turn until he got a “yes.” And eventually he did get a yes. Any salesman who makes cold calls knows he’s going to hear “no” without regard to the virtues of his product or its suitability to his caller.

With probability you can calculate the number of expected events by multiplying the probability by the number of trials.

The salesman who wants to double his number of sales is well advised to make twice as many cold calls. He cannot control whether the call will succeed, but he can control whether he makes the call or not.

The inputs are worthy of measurement. You should measure how many calories you ingest at mealtimes. You should measure how much exercise you perform. Such measurements were key to my losing 100 pounds and maintaining the motivation to keep going. But these measurements, the sea of numbers I filled for myself during this weight-loss crusade were not the point. The point was the number of pounds the scale said. That’s the result I wanted. That’s the number that matters.

What am I saying? Are measuring inputs good or measuring inputs bad? They were encouraging me to go through the motions instead of ruthlessly striving for results. That’s bad. Measuring inputs were key to my avoiding death due to overweight. That’s good.

The difference seems to be why the input was measured.

I don’t count calories when my weight is trending in the right direction. And I want to know how many calories I’ve consumed today to see whether I can afford that piece of pie or not. In baseball there are hundreds of statistics. Runs-batted-in, batting-average, earned-run-average, and RUNS-SCORED. You win games when your team scores more runs than the other team. Those other numbers don’t win games.

When I got to the point where I was paying more attention to Fitbit steps, or MyFitnessPal calories, or my Apple Watch cycles than my weight, I knew I was doing something wrong. I was measuring steps, calories, etc. in order to maintain a healthy weight.

There are a zillion things you can measure and all manner of statistics. Some put points on the board, and others can be distractions.

Know the difference. Then own the things you can control.

Steve Poling

Masters degrees in math and computer science. Poet in several computer languages. I write stories about Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft, steampunk, and SF.

Grand Rapids, Michigan