On writing good performance measures: Who cares?

Sometimes, when I’m working with staff to document their program’s performance measures, I notice that they come up with some very specific descriptions of what it takes to run a quality program. For example, ideal staffing or indicators of an efficient process. I’ll call these kinds of metrics process indicators. They are checklist items, or indicators that internal processes are being followed.  In this blog post, I’m going to explain why these are not good performance measures for strategic management and suggest some stronger alternatives.

Process indicators usually measure the extent to which staff are complying with a procedure. But that procedure is not end goal – it’s part of a plan to provide a quality service, keep costs down, or maintain safety. While monitoring those steps matters, your performance management system is not the right place to track them; they should be posted somewhere much more immediate where staff will see them hourly or daily. Here’s why.

Reason 1: They are not meaningful to your stakeholders. The staff might know why this step is important, but a funder, board member, or community member would not understand it. If it is only meaningful to a very specific audience, it’s not a useful measure.

Reason 2: They’re not performance measures. They don’t measure program output, quality, or impact. If your organization has standards for operating, what is their purpose? To ensure safety? Or efficiency? Those are the quality standards that you should be tracking in your performance management system.

Reason 3: They’re not useful for strategic planning. Process indicators let you know that you’re following the steps, but they don’t help you keep your eye on the big picture. You may want to track overall indicators (days that we had no accidents, for example) as an opportunity to dig into opportunities to do better, but recording the processes that you’ve already chosen will only inhibit making bold changes to how your organization operates. Worse, tracking the processes instead of the outcomes might trick you into maintaining processes that are not serving your organization well.

Reason 4: Process indicators can be used and improved much faster than performance measures can. Didn’t have enough staff on today? You can correct that as early as tomorrow! Performance management systems are designed to implement thoughtful change on a quarterly or annual timeline, and by nature they look at historic data. Process measures can be addressed in real time and usually should.

Reason 5: The clients don’t care. Users of your service, the clients or community members, don’t care how you ensure a high-quality service, only that you do. So, record indicators of their well-being or satisfaction. Did the participants feel safe? Were they able to receive the service they needed in a reasonable amount of time? These are indicators that are meaningful to your stakeholders and these are the ones to track in a performance management system.


How to get from these process indicators to useful performance measures? Try asking “why” a few times. Asking why can uncover the goal of the process, or indicate that one measure is looking at several important concepts that should be examined separately. It can illuminate assumptions that were not openly discussed and that are worth understanding, examining, and questioning.

So, here are some examples.

First try


Better performance measure

Number of days that 2 staff were scheduled

This is about having enough staff available to ensure that every client can be seen within a reasonable amount of time. We want to ensure that people don’t have to wait more than 15 minutes.

Monthly average client wait time.

# and % of clients who were satisfied with their wait time

# of participants who complete all exercises

We want to know that participants are learning all the relevant content from the program. Also, it tells us that they’ve continued attending throughout the program. And we think that completing all the modules will improve their confidence with the material.

# of participants enrolled

# and % of participants who complete all modules

Median modules completed

# and % of participants whose confidence with target skill increased

# and % of participants who report applying learnings from the program


Want more help integrating performance measures into your logic model? Check out this blog post. And if I can help, please be in touch.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.