Lawn Activities, Yard Outcomes

July 19, 2009

Performance management continuously invades my personal life, whether it’s on airplanes, during mentoring, or at Thanksgiving dinner. Here’s another example:

Not long after I moved into my previous house, a friendly neighbor came over to welcome me to the block. Amidst advice on local stores and restaurants, he pointed out that my front lawn wasn’t up to the neighborhood standards – in fact, it was mostly brown and barren. I needed green grass.

Wanting to keep up with the Jones’, I hired a landscaper who produced incredibly detailed designs, brought in a wide variety of equipment, and kept my front yard in shambles for three weeks. When he was done, I had lawn, hedges, flowers and a bill much higher than I had expected. But I had a yard to make the neighbors proud.

Unfortunately, this extreme makeover took place in the CA summer heat and, despite daily watering, within two months my front was well on the way to becoming brown and barren again. I summoned the landscaper who discovered that some of the sprinklers had very little water pressure. He proceeded to blame 1” PVC tubing, long runs of pipe with sediment buildup, and an aggressive ground hog. I didn’t understand or care. I just wanted green grass.

The landscaper tore up my lawn again, replaced some pipes, and installed a trap. Water pressure was restored but the lawn didn’t recover. Another return trip, another diagnostic, and another detailed explanation of the acidic clay in my soil. Apparently my yard wasn’t the ideal environment for fescue grass. I still didn’t care.

Frustrated and with more money out of pocket than I care to admit, I called a lawn specialist recommended by a co-worker. While it’s been too long to remember the exact conversation, my interview with Mr. Yamagushi went something like this:

Me: Can you install a lawn that will last longer than 6 months?
Yamagushi: Why?
Me: Because the last one keeps dying.
Yamagushi: No, why do you want a lawn?
Me: Because my neighbors are embarrassed by my front yard.
Yamagushi: OK, I’ll give you non-embarrassing yard.

At which point he wrote up an estimate that said “Yard to be proud of” with a price much lower than the original landscaper. I tried to get him to explain what that meant but he kept saying that he would worry about the details. If I wasn’t happy, I didn’t have to pay.

The next day I got home from work to find my lawn ripped out, replaced by a Zen rock garden, some drought resistant flowers, and a few areas filled with bark mulch. It was beautiful. And it lasted with very little maintenance for the remaining three years I lived in that house.

So what does this story have to do with performance management? The original landscaper peppered his stakeholder (me) with activity metrics that described largely meaningless activities. Mr. Yamagushi instead emphasized an outcome KPI with an easily articulated impact (lack of embarrassment).

We should all examine the dashboards and scorecards that we publish to our stakeholders. Are they filled with activity metrics that showcase our hard work but that are potentially uninteresting to our stakeholders? Or do they contain a small number of outcome KPIs that clearly show impact?