One of the most difficult challenges business owners and managers face is processing conflicting information. Some business metrics simultaneously show that a company is doing well while others raise red flags. These diverging signals could be caused by faulty metrics, poor tracking, unclear goals or perhaps all of the above. But how is an executive supposed to know where the problem lies? Kevin Peters had to deal with precisely this problem last year when he was promoted to the position of President, North America at Office Depot.
Office Depot is a global supplier of office products and services with over 40,000 employees generating in excess of $11 billion in sales annually. Like many office supply companies, Office Depot generates razor-thin margins which require near-perfect execution to turn a profit. Over the past three years the company has generated over $2 billion in losses. (Only in the most recent quarters has the company moved back towards profitability.)
Figuring out what’s wrong the old fashioned way
When Peters took charge of the company’s largest division overseeing retail stores in North America, he needed to turn this situation around. One of the first issues he addressed was the conflicting messages generated by the company’s various metrics. Sales and profitability were declining—a sign that something was wrong—but at the same time the in-store metrics the company developed to assess performance indicated customer satisfaction was high. Happy customers tend to buy more, not less, so Peters decided to investigate to determine what was really happening. Part of the investigation included personally visiting 70 stores across the country, incognito. The conclusion was sobering: the elaborate metrics the company was using to evaluate store performance had little to do with generating sales; in effect they were measuring the wrong things.
Righting the wrongs in metrics
As Peters puts it, Office Depot was evaluating store performance on issues like bathroom cleanliness and whether or not store shelves were fully stocked when the store was open—neither of which will help drive sales. In the case of a restaurant, bathroom cleanliness can be a key issue and stocked shelves are important to supermarkets, but to an office supply store targeting small business owners, these are largely irrelevant.
What the metrics failed to identify were important issues such as whether or not employees were helping customers find what they wanted; the user-friendliness of stores’ layouts; product mixes relevant to small business; and the sale of services that customers wanted in addition to products. This revelation led to an overhaul of the company’s metrics and subsequently led to important operational changes which are improving sales and profitability.
Learning from the Office Depot experience
If this type of mismatch can take place at a company with nearly one billion dollars in monthly sales, it can certainly happen at your company. If the data being collected by your performance measurement system is irrelevant for the goals you wish to accomplish, you are on a path to business failure.
Consider taking the following steps to ensure that your metrics are correct.
Articulate your business goals
Put your metrics aside for a moment and revisit the main goals you are trying to achieve for your business. Go beyond “more sales and more profits” to develop specific goals related to revenues, revenue mix, production schedules, operational efficiency and customer service quality.
Use industry best practices
Take a close look at successful companies in your industry and identify the metrics that they use to measure success. Talk to executives from these companies at industry conferences, join organizations that cater to your sector and invest in research to have an accurate picture of the metrics used.
Rebuild your metrics
Once you have the goals and industry best practices articulated, compare them to your current metrics and make adjustments as needed.
Don’t expect this process to happen overnight; it could easily take several months to accomplish the research needed to do a good job. Depending on how far off your metrics are from where they should be, this process could lead to significant changes in your company’s culture. If so, embrace it and reap the rewards that will follow.