Work Performance Indicators: A Modern Way to Make Decisions

Swimming in the ocean

“You can have data without information, but you cannot have information without data,” says Daniel Keys Moran, a computer programmer and science fiction writer.

In our digital world, we all see data as the future—as the essential building blocks of our knowledge economy. And we’ve gotten really good at collecting data. In fact, we’re swimming in a sea of it while simultaneously drowning from a lack of intelligence.

According to Workfront’s 2019 State of Work report, only 27% of knowledge workers “have a good handle on the data we collect and what we do with it.” And a mere 4% want more data. The vast majority of respondents are either not collecting the right data, struggling to make the right decisions with the data they have, or feeling overwhelmed by too much data.

On top of the information overload, the world around us is also changing dramatically. Our culture is increasingly global, diverse, dispersed, and digitally driven. And I believe that to be prepared for a new world of work, we need to change the way we think about and measure work. And the way to do that is through work performance indicators (WPIs).

5 WPIs for Measuring Work

WPIs are a modern way of measuring work, helping executives understand how the business is operating at a high level, so they know where to direct their time and attention. A modern work management solution like Workfront will even collect and display these WPIs in a real-time dashboard that offers a visual overview of how their teams are performing in a variety of key areas.

1. Mix

This WPI tells us what we’re working on—how much of our efforts are spent running the organization vs. changing the organization or creating something new.

“The team’s time and energy must be devoted to productive and positive activity that will take the organization closer to its goals,” writes Workfront CEO Alex Shootman in his book, Done Right. “You want to measure the proportion of work allocated to run versus change/create. This will show you how much effort is being allocated to what matters. If you’re pushing to change the business, you should expect to see an increased proportion of work in the change bucket.”

The mix WPI will help you understand, at an organizational level, if the strategies and goals you care most about are actually being carried out in the day-to-day work that’s being produced within your organization.

2. Velocity

This WPI measures your total work cycle time, indicating how long it takes to complete a piece of work, as well as how frequently work gets done in the time originally committed.

It’s important to note that velocity is not purely a measure of speed; it’s also about the integrity of the speed of work. Did it get done on time and properly within the established parameters and processes?

When a space shuttle takes off, there’s certainly a velocity component to getting out of the earth’s atmosphere. But it’s not the only thing that matters. If something breaks on your way into space—that then compromises your ability to get back home—you will have sacrificed way too much for the sake of speed.

“Ultimately, this metric is about the speed of fulfillment. The market today values choice and immediacy,” Alex writes in his book. “We live in an ‘I want what I want when I want it’ culture. … We’re becoming accustomed to being impatient.” But notice that we have to hit two expectations: both what our customers want as well as when they want it. We can’t focus on the second at the expense of the first.

3. Engagement

The best way to discover whether our people are feeling pride in the work they’re doing is through the engagement WPI.

As Alex writes, “The engine of modern work is a human being, and the fuel of that engine is motivation. You would never think of operating a vehicle without a gauge to tell you when fuel is running low. The Engagement WPI flags when commitment and belief in the task, project, team, or organization is waning—and you need to act to revive that belief and commitment.”

I believe that no one comes to work to do a crappy job. Everyone wants to be passionate about and engaged in the work they’re doing each day. But they can’t be unless they know three fundamental things: they have to know what their role is, believe that it matters, and feel proud of the work they do.

A lot of companies measure this through surveys and NPS scores, but all that tells you is whether someone understands company vision. It doesn’t tell you that people believe their work matters, or that they know their work is hitting the bottom line. Sure, you might have high morale because there’s a ping-pong table in the break room and ice cream bars in the freezer. But morale means nothing without engagement. And the biggest measure of engagement is, “I am proud of my work.”

4. Quality

This indicator measures the perception of work quality within an organization. Most of the time when we think about quality, we think about it in customer-centric terms. Is this product good enough to be put in front of customers? But it’s equally important to ask whether the people who commissioned and created the work are satisfied with the quality.

Now, the work doesn’t have to be perfect. More and more organizations are embracing the “minimum viable product” concept, and not just in tech circles, because aiming for perfection right out of the gate tends to compromise your other WPIs—particularly velocity and engagement. Nothing hurts morale more than unachievable perfectionism.

In his book, Alex suggests a simple one-to-five scale or bubble rating trended over time that asks, “To what degree did the work match your original expectations?” It doesn’t have to be perfect to get five stars. It just has to meet expectations.

5. Capacity

The final WPI helps us understand if the work can get done with the resources we have—and whether we have the capacity to take on more. Separate studies by both McKinsey and Workfront have found that modern knowledge workers spend just 40% of their time on the work they were hired to do.

This dismal number suggests that every individual and team does have additional capacity, as long as we can implement effective work management systems and processes to help eliminate the “shadow work,” the unnecessary meetings, the overreliance on email, and the administrative overhead that tend to eat up the majority of everyone’s day.

Track the Data that Matters

The modern enterprise is collecting truly unfathomable amounts of data—about customer demographics, customer behaviors, web metrics, open rates, conversions, and the list goes on. We have so much data that we don’t know what to do with it, and yet we’re still quite often missing the bigger picture.

Companies that can also pay attention to mix, velocity, engagement, quality, and capacity will gain a competitive edge in a rapidly changing world. As we all know, modern work is not stamped out by machines. The engine of modern work is the knowledge worker, and you need to track how engaged they are, whether they’re engaged in the activities that matter most, how they feel about the work they’re doing, and how much bandwidth they truly have.

“Our five WPIs are most valuable when combined,” Alex writes. “One simple dashboard with up and down arrows on the five WPIs can tell you most anything you need to know to steer your organization.” He suggests thinking of these WPIs as a means of pulling you out of the engine room and up onto the bridge of a battleship—where you can clearly see where you’re going and more easily identify what actions to take when it’s time to change course.