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Three is a Magic Number – The Power of Tension Metrics

So, there was a brief Twitter exchange a few weeks back, in which one IT Service Management professional was calling another ITSM professional out on the claim that, “If you improve 1st call resolution, I guarantee you'll improve customer satisfaction.”

While that may often be the case, focusing on a single myopic measure is rarely effective and, more often than not, detrimental.

I couldn’t help but jump in, of course. I replied: “Many problems with this. Calling is rarely a customer's 1st stop. What's the reopen rate? If #FCR is high, likely #LZS too... Focus on #CX!”

This led to me finally writing this blog that has been rambling around in my brain for about a decade, but I’ve never landed on the right way to convey the idea. It’s one of those things that just makes sense to me at such a base level, it’s difficult to put into words. Hopefully I have found the right words to show why I think three is a magic number…

How many times have you seen some flavor of this play out?

Senior Management: “Our First Contact Resolution numbers are in the crapper! We need to do something about this!”
Middle Management dusts off the trusty old carrot and/or stick…
A bit of time passes…
Middle Management: “Look at our superb FCR rates… We’re well ahead of projections!”
Senior Management: “Our CSAT scores have tanked and our Reopen Rates have spiked! We need to do something about this!”

I was hired to rebuild and manage a stagnating Knowledge Management practice a few years back. During my initial assessment of the state and maturity of the process, I saw that the knowledge link rates on incidents spiked in one month from a fairly steady few thousand links per month to well over thirty thousand in a single month – and climbed from there for three straight months. Following the three month skyrocket, the link rate dropped precipitously to barely over a thousand the next month.

“What happened here?”
“Oh. We had a big push to attach knowledge to every incident that wasn’t captured as a knowledge article.”
“Really? How’d that work out for you?”
“They attached garbage to every incident and exceeded the performance numbers in their contract.”

Of course they did.

Few people really seem to really get Tension Metrics. Of those who do, few can design effective ones. I’m hoping this will help.

The point of Tension Metrics is to measure multiple aspects of something in a way that reflects the holistic state of what you’re trying to measure. The way they do that is by measuring things that exert pressure on the other things you’re measuring – in other words, design in an internal tension.

An easily-relatable example is probably better than that cumbersome paragraph I just wrote. Most people, even those who have never worked in a project management role, can intuit the relationship of the classic “Triple Constraint” of Project Management. Time, Resources and Quality. If you want something done in less time, you need to either throw more resources at it, or reduce your quality expectations (or a bit of both). If you want higher quality, you’ll need to spend more time and/or resources. If your time and resources are constrained, your quality will necessarily suffer. These three measures provide an organic tension between them. None of them can be considered in a vacuum. Such is the case with well-designed tension metrics.

People sometimes argue that tension metrics simply need to reflect multiple perspectives that have that internal tension. FCR vs. Reopen Rate, they might say, is a good example of a tension metric. After all, if your Service Desk is closing incidents that weren’t truly resolved, they’d be reopened. While that may be superficially correct, it’s far too narrow-sighted. Above all, Tension Metrics should ensure – ideally, enforce – balance.

A metric is made up of one or more measures. Obviously, we can’t build a tension metric with only one measure, so it must be more than one. With two, it’s a simple dynamic of ‘If one goes up, the other must go down.” Again… superficially correct, but that’s not balance, nor it is it tension – it’s a see-saw. One may balloon and the other will be impacted but, most importantly, it will NOT self-correct.

When you move from two to three measures, you develop a cyclical balance between three complementary opposing forces. Each one directly impacts each other one.
Picture it as a triangle. Pull or push any one corner, and the dynamics of the entire triangle change, to compensate. While shooting for an equilateral triangle may seem to make intuitive sense, that’s not always the case.
Going back to the Triple Constraint: If you want the highest quality and you and have an inflexible timeline, you can pour resources into it to strike that balance – in fact, you HAVE to. Likewise, if you have limited resources, but some flexibility on launch date, you can spend more time getting the quality where you need it to be. That exact dynamic can be seen in well-designed Tension Metrics.

When you move to a square (or beyond) that’s no longer true. Pull one corner of a square, and you can still have one unfazed right angle with two sides that remain the same length. Worse, if two opposing angles are drawn toward each other with enough force, the whole damned thing collapses.

Let’s say, for example, you’re measuring Time To Value, Cost, Waste and Revenue…
If you want to reduce TTV, you can increase Cost – which should result in increased Revenue. While it’s great to reduce Waste, it can skyrocket and still have minimal impact on the other three. Sure, there’s a correlation between Cost and Waste, but if you’re Cost increases result in Revenue increases, the Waste can be disguised as simply increased operating Cost to justify the shortened TTV.
All four are undeniably related, but they don’t all intrinsically directly impact one another. Each individual relationship is unique and developing a tension measurement matrix with more than three measures becomes unnecessarily complicated. With each new point of measurement you add, the complexity grows exponentially – and management of that rat’s nest of relationships becomes untenable.

Three is the right number to provide the ideal Tension Metric. Three is a magic number.

Three measures make a metric. Three metrics make a KPI (Key Performance Indicator). Three KPI’s make a CSF (Critical Success Factor). Three CSF’s make a goal. Three goals should underscore the one vision. (And, by the way, in an ideal scenario, each of those levels from the goals-on-down should have the same internal tension we will design into the metrics.)

Continuing on with our Service Desk example: When deciding what to measure, you need to first ask what you really want your Customer Advocates to focus on. Start with outcomes in mind, and work your way down…

Understand the vision at the enterprise level.
Collaborate with executive leadership to develop shared goals at the business level.
Work with senior leadership to build CSF's at the business unit level.
Prescribe KPI’s at the organizational level.
Define metrics at the discipline level.
Craft measures at the team/individual level.

As you ascend that ladder, each rung should be further abstracted from the rung below. The only directly measurable points are the three deep, operational measures at the base of the ladder. Let’s assume (for a simple, though certainly not prescriptive, example) you’re measuring FCR, LZS and Reopen Rate – and define it as a Customer Experience (CX) Tension Metric… What would that metric really be reflecting? It’s not a directly-measurable quantity – rather an amalgamated roll-up of measures, represented as an abstracted value.
The further you go up the ladder the more abstract it gets. It doesn’t matter if you have a CX score of 92% that doesn’t directly reflect any one, tangible thing. The only thing that really matters is the Delta – provided you are consistent with how you measure. At the Executive level, the CSF’s that are being reported have been abstracted from many points of measurement that lead up to a simple, consumable, holistic view that can be drilled directly down to the individual measures it is built from.

So… What is the ITSM Tension Metric equivalent of Time, Resources and Quality? I, personally, try to use what I’ve referred to as the three E’s of ITSM. Efficiency, Effectiveness and Experience. All three of these have internal and external facets. A few examples: Customer Experience vs. User Experience… Operational Efficiency and Efficiency gains your customers will realize by using your service… Support Channel Effectiveness is both internal and external…

(I tried SO HARD to make it Efficiency, Effectiveness and Effort! ‘The Effortless Experience’ does make a truly compelling case for using customer effort as the key indicator of experience. More importantly, though, the total dork in me REALLY wanted to call it “The Three Eff’s of ITSM” but Effort is just too narrow a focus to fully reflect Experience.)

Efficiency and Effectiveness are fairly straight forward and relatively easy to measure. Crafting the right Tension Metrics to faithfully represent them while providing that critical, self-correcting internal tension can be a bit tricky, but it’s nothing compared to measuring Experience.

In 2004 I was shopping for my first new car. I spent years getting myself completely debt-free and clearing my sketchy credit history. This was to be my first step toward actually building my credit. It took me several months of rigorous research comparing features, quality, price, test drives and many other factors to narrow my choice down to six options. A few of the six finalists were Fords, and my then-brother-in-law worked for Ford. So, I flew out to Missouri to spend a few days with my sister’s family and talk to Tommy about getting extended test drives (and find out what discounts were available to me through their family purchasing discount program).
I was sitting on my sister’s couch, watching TV, and saw a commercial for the new Dodge Magnum. I immediately threw all of that intense preparation out the window and made up my mind on-the-spot. I bought a 2005 Dodge Magnum RT the very same day I flew back home to New Jersey.

Effort IS a critical indicator of Customer Experience – but it’s not the only one.

Customer Experience is an insanely tricky beast to harness, and I distrust anyone who offers a prescriptive, canned response on how to measure it. What it really comes down to is knowing your customer and what they value.

As I said on June 7th, “Focus on CX!”

June 22, 2017, 08:41:57 am

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