Judgment vs. Measurement

Hat tip to Eric Fetterolf for passing along a thought-provoking blog post from Tom Davenport, a writer and thinker for whom I have great respect.

He’s posing the question why judgment is so ignored in organizations, and posits it’s because it can’t be measured. Amen to that.

Judgment is subjective and it seems to scare professional firm leaders to death. They rather be precisely wrong rather than approximately right.

Our stance on this is clear: In a knowledge environment, judgment always and everywhere trumps measurement. In fact, it’s true in all businesses, and certainly in our daily lives as humans.

The comments to the post are very telling. Ed Kless points out that Davenport misquotes Peter Drucker, who never wrote “what you can measure you can manage.”

The closest I have been able to come for the origin of this quote is the McKinsey Maxim, implying perhaps the founder of McKinsey said or wrote it.

It doesn’t matter to me, because it’s not true. We can’t change our weight by measuring ourselves more frequently.

But beyond that, there’s a materialist fallacy to this type of thinking, which I wrote in a comment on the blog:

Isn’t is obvious to everyone here that the materialist fallacy is wrong? The belief that everything can be measured, that you can achieve optimal results—production efficiencies, etc.—simply by running the numbers, much better than those slow and messy humans. The communists tried it, and it failed miserably.

Life is subjective and full of judgment. So is business. Measurements are the illusion of control and knowledge. New innovations can’t be measured, nor Black Swans. To think you can measure everything is to live in perpetual poverty—see the USSR, East Germany, Cuba, North Korea, etc.

We live in a knowledge economy where judgment trumps measurement everywhere. If this wasn’t so, economies could be run by computers and we wouldn’t need human beings. But creativity always comes as a surprise to us, and I defy anyone to measure something that doesn’t yet exist.

The old axiom, “What can be measured can be managed” is specious. You don’t change your weight by weighing yourself more frequently.

And can someone show me where the effectiveness of management has ever been measured? It’s a judgment, is it not?

To Rob Clark who can compute the ROI of children when given a comparison—good luck. You’ll end up with something precisely wrong.

Judgment at least gives you the opportunity to be approximately right. Measurements may feed into our judgment, but judgment is the senior partner.

I wouldn’t want to live in a world—or work in a business—where this wasn’t so. It would be tyranny.

Rob, how would you measure the Declaration of Independence’s goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I think this debate is far more controversial than the billable hour vs. Value Pricing because it relates directly to efficiency vs. effectiveness. The former is ALWAYS a measurement, while the latter is ALWAYS a judgment.

And a judgment ALWAYS trumps a measurement.

I’ll be writing on this theme more in the months to come since we believe it’s critical to understand this difference if firms truly want to become Firms of the Future.

As always, we are interested in your thinking on this topic.


  1. Eric Fetterolf says:

    Tom quotes Drucker as saying “What gets measured gets managed.”

    I wonder: that sentence has a subtle, I don’t know, flavor I guess of “look at what you are measuring, for that is what your team will attempt to manage. Once you look at what your team is measuring, judge the measurment by the following question: is what you are measuring really what you want your team to manage?” kind of question rather than a “you must measure something in order to manage it” definitive statement.

    Did the quote get yanked out of context and twisted into ?what you can measure you can manage? to justify the measurment circus?

    Intrepretating the quote as a self-reflective judgement falls in line with what I understand Drucker to articulate: challenge everything and only focus on what will bring success to the firm.

    I found in my readings another style of warning similar to the above. In his book Understanding Variation, Donald Wheeler credits Brian Joiner with a list he uses very poignantly:

    “When people are pressured to meet a target value there are three ways to proceed:
    1. They can work to improve the system.
    2. They can distort the system.
    3. Or they can distort the data.” – page 20.

    Aren’t the original quote attributed to Drucker and the Wheeler/Joiner list really issuing a warning against measuring for simple measurment sake?

  2. Ron Baker says:

    Hi Eric,

    It’s a good question, and something I’ve thought a lot about, which is why I wrote Measure What Matters to Customers.

    I like the Joiner points, as I’ve learned that ANY measurement can be gamed because humans are the ultimate scamps. What we measure we change as well, or maybe distort is a better word.

    Drucker is very clear about effectiveness and efficiency as well as measurement vs. judgment, as is Stephen Covey. Neither believe in measure for measures sake, but I can’t tell you the number of people who repeat that McKinsey Maxim to me and believe it to be Gospel, and these are MBAs/CPAs and PhDs, not dumb people.

    This is why I think it’s broader than just measurement, but relates to the materialist fallacy–that is, only those things that we can measure matter. Atheists tend to believe this, as do Marxists, communists and socialists.

  3. In the last two weeks, I have stumbled across a maxim of my own to describe this – “Measurements are actually judgments in disguise.”

    As I stand motionless in front of the room, I ask a participant at a session I am delivering to tell me, “how fast I am moving?” The usual reply is 0 mph.

    I then ask if anyone differs in their assessment. To which someone will always bring up the rotation of the Earth – 1,000 mph. I then talk about the revolution of the Earth around the sun (16,000 mph) and the revolution of the solar system around the galaxy (160,000 mph).

    It is clear from this that how fast I am moving is a judgment, not a measurement.

    In this same way measuring hours (or anything for that matter, pun intended) is also a judgment. Is an hour on a time sheet a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is it depends.

  4. Eric Fetterolf says:

    Re-reading your response, Ron, I’ve had a FOTO moment.

    Flash Of The Obvious for those keeping track of such things.

    The FOTO moment hinged entirely upon the meaning of the word CAN.

    Can speaks to ability only. It does not speak to obligation or requirement. It does not speak to should. And it certainly does not speak to can’t.

    Just because I can accomplish A by doing B does not me that I am require to do A to accomplish B. It does not mean I should do A to get to B. And it certainly does not state that I cannot get to B unless I first do A.

    In terms of logic debates and arguemnts, can is sufficient. It is not necessary.

    The FOTO moment:

    Regardless of whether Drucker stated “What gets measured gets managed” or ?what you can measure you can manage? or nothing at all on the subject of management and measurment, there is a massive leap of logic that is going on here that is completely wrong.

    The statement ?what you can measure you can manage? is true. The statement speaks to ABILITY only. It states that if you have the ABILITY to measure X you have the ABILITY to manage X. And, let’s face it, if you can measure something, you can determine behaviors that correspond to the measurment and adjust those behaviors. So long as no one distorts the system or the data. That part is absolutely critical. Distortion alone makes any measurment unusable, unreliable and a flat out lie.

    The quote does not speak at all to REQUIREMENT.

    The quote does NOT state in any way that you MUST measure A in order to have the ABILITY to manage A. It speaks nothing of the value, the effectiveness of the measurement. It speaks not a word to whether you SHOULD manage A.

    Believing that simply because you CAN do A means you MUST do A is a completely unjustified fallacy. It’s utter execrement.

    Flip the question back to anyone that uses the McKinsey Maxim: is the ONLY to manage A involve measuring A? If not, what other ways to manage A exist? Which way is best? How do you tell which way is best?

    Is the answer to that last question a measurement or a judgment?

  5. Hi Ron,

    Long time reader first time commenter here.

    Of course you’re right, “You don?t change your weight by weighing yourself more frequently” but that doesn’t align with ?what you can measure you can manage? as directly as you have stated. By measuring your weight, you certainly can manage it. You can change your diet or change your exercise regimen based on what the scale is telling you. The act of measuring is not what causes the change but what we do with the measurements, which is where judgment may come into play.

    How do you teach good judgment? Aren’t we given a range of measurements by which to judge the effectiveness of management.

    I agree that it is more than just measurement, but in a world where there is pressure to deliver a return to the shareholders, the tangible and measurable activities that can be written up in the annual report are what come first.

  6. Hi Damien,

    Thank you for your readership and your comment.

    Your last sentence in your first paragraph is my point. All measurements, in the end, are judgments. What should be measured? That’s a judgment, since there are so many things that can be measured.

    Plus, there are moral hazards when we measure (see my latest post on this), so measurement has to be leavened with judgment.

    We teach good judgment the same way we teach history, philosophy, etc., through education. Measurements alone do not tell us if management is effective. Exhibit A is Enron.

    And I couldn’t disagree more about the annual report being what comes first. Those come last–they are lagging indicators. Leading indicators come first, and leading indicators, by definition, don’t show up on accounting reports.

    This is all better explained in my book, Measure What Matters to Customers.



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