What Makes a Good Measure?

Dec 18, 2011

I travel a lot on United Airlines and since their merger with Continental, the new CEO, Jeff Smisek proudly states at the opening of the safety video that he and thousands of his colleagues are "creating the world's leading airline." Now, more recently, Etihad Airways has been advertising that they are building the worlds leading airline. What? Two leading airlines?? Now we have a fight on our hands!

But what does "leading" really mean? The first time I heard the phrase my immediate reaction was: Huh? That sounds terrible. Are they not going to strive to be the best airline? Aren't they trying to be #1 like most would assume is the goal of a merger? But by what measure? Size? Revenue? Fleet age? Service and satisfaction? Destinations served? Complaints? Lost bags? Cost management?

For an industry with dozens of closely watched measures of performance, creating a public marketing message to be "leading" is vague and pointless to me. It's also a bit risky. After all, vague or non-existent goals will always make you successful, but maybe not in the way you intended. It is a safe way to go, though, if you are not sure what you're doing or how things might go. Maybe the new United will be able to say by the end of next year, "We're leading with the worst ontime performance of any airline!" That's nice.

We've all heard the phrase "for good measure." Hey, throw in some extra salt for good measure! Maybe you do it just in case what you're cooking tastes terrible. It seems rather arbitrary. Why not taste it first? So, a more thoughtful approach to planning and success may be in order. I have worked with plenty of clients who do not understand how to make a good measure. Their five year plans are a wealth of vague, uncertain and impossible to measure goals, usually in an attempt to placate many differing views.

Think about this as you are setting goals for the new year for yourself or your organization. Are the measures meaningful? Can they really be measured? Is the necessary data collected? How will you know you have achieved the goal? Is it actually a good measure people will recognize as success?

After all, if you are "leading" the airline industry that still has a terrible overall reputation for service, you haven't really set a good measure or accomplished much.