Let’s Measure Something Meaningless

Imagine that the government decided an intake of 2.500 calories per day should be the maximum for each person, regardless of age, gender, health, metabolism, dietary habits, etc. And imagine that the government also measured and enforced this every day, claiming it is “for your own health”, and handing out daily fines for each person who went over target. How would you feel about this practice?

Now imagine that the government decided that a speed of 130 km/hours should be the maximum for each driver, regardless of age, health, mental condition, road condition, traffic condition, weather condition, or the condition of their cars. And imagine that the government measured and enforced this, claiming it is “for your own safety”, and handing out fines to anyone who went over this “target”. How would you feel about that? Oh, wait… this is an actual practice in many countries!

I drove 14 hours from Bologna to Brussels yesterday, with a proper break every 2 hours, good nutrition, a healthy mind, a well-serviced car, and an excellent track record as a driver. During that trip I saw people not using their indicator lights when switching lanes, people overtaking others on the emergency lane, people using their mobile phones, and people driving vehicles that barely deserved the name “car”. And among those many thousands of drivers, I’m sure there were also some with mental problems, physical problems, mechanical problems, etc. However, the one who got picked out by the government was me. I got flashed twice because I drove “too fast”.

For every complex goal, there is a metric that is clear simple and wrong.

In organizations we see this all the time. Managers have a goal, such as faster time-to-market or higher productivity. But productivity is a very complex thing. It depends on motivation, creativity, innovation, collaboration, etc. And managers can’t measure all that stuff easily. So they reduce the metric to the simplest possible thing that can be measured with a computer: the number of hours people are physically at the office. And then they turn it into a target: the computer requires at least 8! Or else…

Measuring something meaningful is hard, so let’s measure something that is meaningless but easy.

Measuring real safety on the streets for everyone is next to impossible, so the government reduces it to the simplest possible metric that can be delegated to computers: speed.

I fear the day when governments find a way to have computers measure our daily intake of calories.

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  • Collin Rogowski

    I think the analogy between speed limits and calory intake is quite flawed, because your diet does not impact others… And I think this is the main reason why it’s better to have a bad measurement than no measurement. So in my view a better analogy could be “smoking”, where (in most countries) your personal freedom is limited because of the harm you potentially do to others….

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Would it make sense to impose a limit of 20 cigarettes per day (with a fine when one goes beyond it), in order to protect the safety of other people?

  • http://parabios.com Mark Bugno

    The difference is that not only can speed itself be dangerous: the difference in speed between vehicles sharing the same carriageway that is dangerous.
    The point of a speed limit isn’t to cap speed; it is to provide a target speed at which all vehicles should attempt to drive. Unfortunately, most motorists/vehicles aren’t capable of safely driving 200kmph, so governments cater for the LCD.
    Calories, cigarettes etc are only dangerous in sheer numbers. Two people smoking a pack-a-day doesn’t reduce the risk of cancer to either.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/davidjcmorris David Morris

    It’s not the metric that is at fault, but trying to direct from it. For example, the idea of velocity is useful as a rough guide when planning sprints and releases, but not to say whether we’re good or bad.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Indeed, I’m not blaming the metric (speed). I blame its use (target).

  • http://iljapreuss.de Ilja Preuß

    As Mark already said, my first thought was about what a speed limit does in terms of flow, and how that affects safety.
    Also, at least in Germany, the speed limit is also supposed to have ecological reasons: both in terms of fuel usage and noise level. I guess the former might be better achieved through higher prices for gas, but that would be political harakiri….

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