The KPI race: Aiming for Mars, fuelled by the stars


Over thousands of years, mankind has been enlivened, enthralled and subjugated by the celestial bodies, universally called Stars. I guess there was not much to do after sunset, other than staring at the stars. With stars in their eyes, the wise devised the science of Astrology, making stars more important than ever before. Stars also made a flamboyant entry to the lexicon…star-studded night, star-spangled, starring, star-performer, super star (secret or otherwise) et al. In one of the rituals of a Hindu marriage, priest shows the groom Dhruva (the Pole star) and asks him to be as unmoving in his love. And the groom shows the bride the double stars of Vashista and Arundhati that rotate in synchrony with each-other, symbolic of a devoted couple who are always seen together. It is a different matter that some brides also secretly vow “I will also make him see stars”.

In our corporate world, this ritual is akin to entering an agreement…star gazing together is like SLA (expectation) setting. Each partner telling the other “These are the KPIs I will measure (y)our success on.” Talking of the guiding star, Pole star…it could denote ONE unwavering focused KPI, superseding all other performance measures. I call for you to pause and reflect the times when you had ONE focused KPI only. How did it help you succeed and did you realize it failed you when you broke loose from its hypnosis to be able to see beyond? Not every performance measure gets the coveted designation of being a Key Performance Indicator. KPI is the ‘boss’ of all other performance measures. However, a lone KPI does tend to become the end-in-itself, rather than being a measure of wholesome progress. Such a situation unfortunately leads to diversion of precious resources and management attention to bettering the score of the One KPI.

I invite you to advance from ‘ONE Star Focus’ to ‘5 Star Gaze’! For a scorecard, we need a constellation of KPIs and not a lone star. Depending on number of KPIs in the scorecard you may call yourself 5star or 7star at the outset itself. This certainly is music to ears and twinkle in eyes, and would give an instant hundred basis points increase in team motivation and engagement scores. Word of caution: Departments should not be allowed to fall in love with its own Zodiac Constellation of KPIs (aka scorecards). Bizarre conflict (war) would mar possible 5-star results.

For the whole organization success, we need a balanced scorecard, tying in all functions together and structurally dissuading silo working. With the stars aligned, organizations are poised to achieve: • Alignment across functions, Collaborative environment • Shared accountability (Leverage technology) • Appropriate resources deployment to selected schemes • Progress review rhythm, Regular checkpoints to progress • Timely recognition, celebrate small wins too team motivation, delightful engagement scores

At this stage it is crucial to probe amongst your team “What emotions do our KPIs churn …Fear of failure or confidence to conquer or sheer indifference?” This leads one to wonder what a good (set) of KPI should look like. I propose the M-STAR approach. Measurable, Specific, Time-bound, Achievable and Relevant. Managers often burn the midnight oil to make their KPIs energizing and visionary. Sky-high may be very visionary but is not measurable…instead star-high is measurable, but not necessarily achievable.

Star is ambiguous but defining the goal (say planet Mars) is specific. Reaching Mars in a hundred years would not be inspiring; making it time-bound would drive action and appropriate resource allocation. End goal should be broken into what is achievable in the regular review time-buckets…Steady progress in a time-bound fashion is desirable. Strive for Mars, at least you will reach moon…. once you reach moon, you may be in geo-stationary orbit for long… with no coming back and no going forward. Thus, arises the need to have a different (read higher) target and/or a new refined KPI.

With the ever-changing customer needs and external factors, we need to fine tune the KPIs regularly to keep them relevant. Example: the list of scrips in the BSE Sensex is changed regularly along with their weightages. “Reach for the stars and you will not end-up with a handful of dust.” This famous adage glorifies the HOW aspect of performance…and not the WHAT you achieved. Alas, in many cases, the “what” pivots the promotion, bonus, next career move… it is too beguiling to lead one astray from the HOW. Mature organizations lay equal emphasis on both the HOW and WHAT aspects of progress made by functions and individuals.

At the culmination of each annual review cycle, we get the performance rating. 5-Star performance, 5-star rating has ever been attributed to the best in class. Enormous value is associated with being rated 5-star. What does it mean to you…what does it mean to the one who strives for it and what does it mean for the one who’s already got it?

This article by Shammi Dua, Lead – Supply Chain CSL, Distribution at Unilever originally appeared in the SCM Spotlight segment for the March 2021 issue of Logistics Insider magazine. All views expressed in the article are his own and do not represent those of any entity he was, is or will be associated with.

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