Q & A: Getting Started with Performance Measurement – Breaking Down Resistance

Q: In recent postings you wrote about getting the right people on the bus (November 23, 2005) and about creating the right attitude (December 4, 2005). But how do you handle those in the court who are not at all convinced by Peter Drucker’s admonition, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”? They are smart and thoughtful people who are philosophically resistant to performance measurement. “We don't work on an assembly line making widgets,” they might say. “We don’t work with machines. We deal with unique cases involving human beings who have complex problems that require individual attention. You can’t just send in the bean counters and number crunchers and crank out a bunch of performance indicators to capture what we do on a spreadsheet.”

A: You describe a common attitude throughout government, not just in the courts. Underlying this negative attitude toward performance measurement -- what Bob Behn, a lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, calls the “direct assault on the spread-sheet guys” – are some strong beliefs, assumptions and generalization. Among them are: (1) a fear of exposure to criticism from comparative performance measurement that may point out that a particular court does not measure up or "stack up" to other courts (Why hand over to anyone such potent ammunition?); (2) the conviction that no two jurisdictions are alike and thus our court is incomparable; (3) a concern that performance data can be misused; (4) worry that performance measurement takes too much time, effort and money; and (5) the belief that performance trend data, by themselves, do not tell us why things are different, only that they are different.

Peter M. Senge, a prominent management theorist and proponent of learning organizations, defines these mental models as the deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, and even images that shape how we understand the world and take actions. Differences in mental models explain why two people can observe the same phenomenon and describe it quite differently. The classic story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is less about ignorant people, he writes, as it is about people bound by powerful images of the emperor’s dignity that prevented them from seeing him as naked.

Changing the negative mental model of performance measurement and overcoming the resistance to performance measurement of court leaders and managers is perhaps the greatest challenge in starting a performance management intitiative. Mental models of what can or cannot be done may deeply entrenched. Many of the best ideas -- in particular our reliance on performance measurement for management decisions -- fail to get put into practice in courts and court systems because they conflict with powerful, tacit mental models. Because they are often below the level of awareness, mental models often remain unexamined and untested.

For many, the word "performance" conjures up beliefs and fears about tests and races, about zero-sum games, about “beating” others or “beating” a standard. All but one is a “winner” in these games, the rest are “losers” or “sub-standard.” It's not something most of us like to contemplate.

So how do we change the negative model of court performance measurement? Applied to court performance measurement, the “discipline” of mental models -- an essential program of study and practice of learning organizations -- requires not only recognizing but continually clarifying, and improving the picture of court performance measurement, and seeing how it shapes important decisions and actions. This should start as early as possible in initiating a performance measurement initiative.

We ignore the negative model of performance measurement at our peril. It is not enough to proclaim the advantages of performance measurement and expect its effective implementation, or even to launch design and development. We must first acknowledge and address the negative mental models that impede getting started with perfromance measurement. The fear that measures of case disposition times or disposition (clearance) rates, for example, will put a court, or even an individual judge, in an unfavorable light is not necessarily unfounded.

Court performance measurement inevitably suggests impending change that must be managed effectively. Powerful mental models may impede this change. Courts and court systems, as learning organizations, must continually clarify and improve the mental model of court performance measurement to ensure its success in court improvement. For some courts or court systems, it may be as easy as striking the word “performance” from discussions and speaking instead of “indicators of service quality" or "adherence to mission,” or some phrase that moves the focus from personal to organizational responsibility and accountability. For other courts, it may take much more than language to alter powerful mental models inconsistent with performance measurement. In any event, it is best to acknowledge the limitations of comparative performance measurement, strive to minimize them in specific ways, and demonstrate in specific terms that the benefits outweigh the real risks that these limitations may pose for individuals and courts.

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