The difference between process indicators and performance measures

Many organizations struggle with writing their own performance measures. The goal is to create performance measures that describe the program’s impact well and are useful for strategic management. 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. These are internal indicators that processes are being followed.

In this blog post, I’m going to explain the difference between these and good performance measures for strategic management and give you a simple method for developing more useful measures. 


Internal 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 performance measure. Ask yourself if you would want to report this measure on your organization’s website or whether it would be meaningful in your annual report.

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. Your performance management system should track the results not the steps — how many days without a negative incident? How many clients served?

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 focusing on 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: Internal 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. Internal process measures can be addressed in real time and usually should.

Reason 5: The clients don’t care. Users of your service 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? By asking “why” a few times. Why do we do this? Why is this important? why are we measuring this? 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.

Here are some examples.

First try: Number of days that 2 staff were scheduled

Why: 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.

Better performance measures: Monthly average client wait time, # and % of clients who were satisfied with their wait time.

First try: # of participants who complete all exercises

Why: 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.

Better performance measures: # 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

Notice that in the second example, I created multiple performance measures. This might allow us to test some of the assumptions we had been making and see how different performance measures are connected to each other. Our goal, when creating performance measures, is to develop measures that are concrete enough to be measured consistently, are meaningful, and allow us to really understand and communicate how our organization is meeting its mission.

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.

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