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Deep Thoughts on Management

Illustration: The Thinker Sculpture

Since I am writing a series of posts about managing Rich Internet Applications, and working on a post about the difficulties of measuring them, I thought I should begin with the popular management aphorism that you can't manage what you can't measure. Well, was that ever a diversion! Everyone is familiar with this saying, but interestingly, despite a ton of digging on the Web, the precise origin of this saying remains obscure (at least, to me).

Perhaps because of my training in statistics, I had always assumed it was just a simplification of a famous statement by Lord Kelvin, often cited by statisticians:

When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind. It may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely advanced to the stage of science.

The candidates

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a lot of support for my assumption. Instead, my Web searches have revealed that the statement 'you can't manage what you can't measure' is most often attributed either to the pioneer of quality control, W. Edwards Deming, or to 'the father of modern management', Peter Drucker. Moreover, neither of these popular attributions seems to be correct.

In Deming's case, one of his most well-known statements is almost the exact opposite, namely that management must take account of many things that cannot be measured, and that running a company on visible figures alone was one of the seven deadly diseases of management. All the same, I'm sure Deming, given his interest in quality control, would have also agreed that things which can be measured should be measured. And all SLM processes are based on measurements.

Attribution to Peter Drucker also seems to be a misconception, since it does not appear either in the wikiquote list of quotes from Drucker, or in other extensive lists of his well-known sayings.

But ...

... doing this research reminded me of the many insightful statements Drucker actually did make, including:

  • Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.
  • There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
  • A manager's task is to make the strengths of people effective and their weakness irrelevant--and that applies fully as much to the manager's boss as it applies to the manager's subordinates.
  • Management is so much more than exercising rank and privilege, ... it is much more than "making deals." Management affects people and their lives.
  • Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.
  • Executives owe it to the organization and to their fellow workers not to tolerate nonperforming individuals in important jobs.
  • Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.
  • The most efficient way to produce anything is to bring together under one management as many as possible of the activities needed to turn out the product.
  • Increasingly, politics is not about "who gets what, when, how" but about values, each of them considered to be absolute. Politics is about "the right to life"...It is about the environment. It is about gaining equality for groups alleged to be oppressed...None of these issues is economic. All are fundamentally moral.
  • What's absolutely unforgivable is the financial benefit top management people get for laying off people. There is no excuse for it. No justification. This is morally and socially unforgivable, and we will pay a heavy price for it.
  • Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes... but no plans.
  • The best way to predict the future is to create it.

This post is an example of what happens when I do research on the Web -- I find a lot of interesting information I was not even looking for. So this post became a diversion about the management insights of Edward Deming and Peter Drucker, and in my next one I will get back to the subject of measuring RIAs.

Update: I revisited the question of who coined the saying "you can't manage what you can't (or don't) measure," in two later posts:

[This post was first published on Blogger on March 14, 2006, and updated in May 2007.]
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