Book Review – The Tyranny of Metrics

Guest post by Michael Godfried: planner and policy analyst in Washington State and Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute

Jerry Z. Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics (2018) is a book that I believe Dr. Deming would have surely appreciated. This well-researched book gives an ever timely overview of the history and drivers behind the misuse of metrics that dominate organizational life in America and around the world. The bulk of Muller’s research is devoted to case studies in colleges, elementary schools, health care systems, policing, the military, business, finance, philanthropy and foreign aid. Muller concludes with a chapter on his proposed proper use of metrics. The Tyranny of Metrics is a wise, concise book that can be read enjoyably in a few sittings.

Muller is a history professor who has written books on Adam Smith and Capitalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. As a history professor he provides fascinating context for the rise of metrics. As early at 1862, the English Parliament was proposing a ‘payment for results’ education reform. In America, the use of metrics can be tracked from Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management (1911), the New Public Administration of the 1980s and the 2001 No Child Left Behind program and beyond. The loss of public trust in institutions in the 1960s and 70s was a driver in the heavier reliance on seemingly ‘objective’ metrics.

Muller talks about what he has experienced first hand. As head of a university department, he saw the impacts of the metrics arms race. He saw increasing time and resources channeled to generating and managing metrics and drained away from more worthwhile efforts such as course development and mentoring. Administration costs for many institutions have ballooned due to tracking and generating metrics.

Among the many startling examples from various fields, the one relating to the Vietnam War is perhaps the most chilling. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara chose ‘body count’ as the primary index of American military success. This abstract metric was not supported by Generals in the field. They recognized other factors, within a larger strategic view, mattered much more. Under McNamara, the armed forces sought to meet productivity targets of bombing sorties, shells fired and body counts. As Muller comments: “What could be precisely measured tended to overshadow what was really important.”

Few people understood measurement as well as Dr. Deming. But he was also fond of saying that the most important information ‘is unknown and unknowable.’ He saw the terrible waste that occurred in organizations due to the misuse of measurement. Dr. Deming cared most about how measurement was appropriately used to better understand and improve the overall system. In The New Economics (TNE), Deming describes one misuse of metrics in the form of numerical goals:

“A numerical goal leads to distortion and faking, especially when the system is not capable of meeting the goal. Anybody will meet the quota (goal) allotted to him. He is not responsible for the losses so generated.” (TNE p31)

The following quote from Muller is a perfect complement to Dr. Deming’s quote:

“…(Charles) Goodhart’s Law, which states, “Any measure used for control is unreliable.” To put it another way, anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed.”

Muller does not mention Dr. Deming is his book but does cite Deming disciple Don Berwick and Deming collaborator Alfie Kohn. Common Deming themes of pay for performance, ranking and ratings and intrinsic motivation are also discussed in the book. A sense of a larger system is always present for Muller although not as directly stated as in Dr. Deming’s philosophy on management.

This slim book is surprisingly rich in insight and example. It may well become a classic. Certainly, The Tyranny of Metrics is worthy to be read as a companion to The New Economics and Out of the Crisis.

For those interested, please see Jerry Z. Muller’s book interview on C-SPAN:


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