Think Before You Measure

I like Target. That probably has as much to do with a lack of alternatives as it does their appeal. Normally I’d go to Wal-mart. However, there are no Wal-mart stores in Northern Virginia. I think there’s one, but it’s rather sketchy. Coming from the south where Walmart is a local hangout, it’s strange not to see one for miles. Not that I’d ever ‘hang out’ in one. But it happens, or so I’m told.

It is, as they say, what it is. I’m not really sure *what* it is though.

Back to the matter at hand.

Target uses a system of measurement to ensure that the cashier is speedily checking customers through the line.  This measuring device uses one criteria to measure a cashier’s worth: How long it takes them to check a person out. From red-bar-of-doom to red-bar-of-doom.  there are two options “R” (for “Red” i guess), and “G” (which probably means “Green”, which is a good thing. I think.) it looks like this:


What this says is that the employee has received ‘88%’ green scores for his shift, and in the past ten transactions, has had two ‘R’ (Red, or “Bad”) transactions. 

It says nothing about the accuracy of his work.

My fiancee and I were shopping at Target one evening and a cashier inadvertently gave us an item without ringing it up. It could have been because I was chatting with the cashier or it could have been because he was tired and just ready to go home and spend an hour figuring out Lost. Who knows. 

What good did Target’s (probably expensive) measuring system do them? None.

That’s the problem with measuring in general.  If you measure something, you incentivise it. Target measured the speed at which customers are checked out. That causes the cashiers to pay attention to how quickly it takes them to check customers out, which means they go faster. Pretty soon Target is starting to miss a non-trivial amount of merchandise that is neither caused by internal loss or by shoplifting. 

You’re reading this post right now, and at least one of you is saying, “That’s great, but I can’t change that. I’m just a programmer.” Bull. You aren’t just a programmer, you create substance out of thin air.

 Business people know business — but they don’t have a monopoly on common sense. We deal with common sense every minute of the day (or lack thereof, depending upon our neighbor’s code).  That’s part of our value as programmers. Without that, we’re just glorified code monkeys.


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