John Bittleston, succeed@mediacorp.com.sg

MEASUREMENT is good. Evaluating assets, abilities and behaviour needs clearly defined standards. Good rules require good measurements and clear definitions. Up to a point ...

British Members of Parliament claiming excessive expenses illustrates the dilemma. A 72-page guide tells MPs what they may charge the taxpayer. The language is easily understood, and the document tries to define the rules for everything. A special Parliament office advises MPs whether a claim is valid. There are appeal systems for the dissatisfied.

Such a system must surely be foolproof? Why, then, are so many British MPs and Ministers having to repay money, with several resigning from Parliament, sometimes under threat from their party leaders?

Seventy-two pages were not too few to tell an MP how he was expected to behave - they were too many. Any rule book incites us to find a way around those rules we do not like. We "interpret" rules. Every MP so far accused has said: "I have done no wrong. It was within the rules." And that is the whole point. "Within the letter of the rules" maybe; "within the spirit" - clearly not. A citizen is entitled to expect his legislators to understand trust and example.

To make measurement work for us - as opposed to us working for it - requires that we know what measures are relevant. Increasingly, it seems we do not.

A frightening example is of an overseas hospital that met its key performance indicators (KPIs) consistently for several years but was found, on investigation, to have allowed a large number of patients to die unnecessarily, in dirty and disgraceful conditions. The hospital's KPIs did not include saving life or making patients tolerably comfortable or clean.

But surely that is the purpose of a hospital? Presumably, managers assumed that hospital administrators and staff knew these objectives and so it was unnecessary to include them as KPIs.

As soon as you draw up rules, everyone looks for what is missing as well as what is there. So the hospital met its "un-crowded wards" KPI by leaving patients to die on trolleys in corridors without attention, water, food or hygiene. Many other administrative conveniences were fully met, too. Hence the excellent KPI record - and the total failure of the hospital.

The existence of rules or KPIs in both these cases worked against the good of those they were supposed to serve. Not all rules are bad; many are essential. The highway would become a battlefield if the rules of the road were not strictly observed. But no amount of highway codes can replace careful driving. No books of rules can substitute for a commonsense view of how we should behave.

The 10 Commandments were infinitely better rules than the more than 900 sins now published as desirably avoided. That is because the 10 Commandments made the individual responsible for a commonsense interpretation of them. Only by such self-control can a society exist and flourish.

That is why trust is so important. How can we police that trust? Without the hand of correction, trust will simply be flouted by some at the expense of those who observe it.

Defining the line too clearly between honoured and broken trust is not the way to go. Let each person find the line for himself or herself, and let the courts decide if someone has stepped over it. Then let the penalty for a Breach of Trust be of such deterrence that we all keep well behind the line.

Standards are not only accepted by individuals, they are set by individuals. We cannot correct overnight the poor standards that have become widely accepted. But we can begin.

John Bittleston mentors people in business, career and their personal lives at http://www.terrificmentors.com/.

From TODAY, Business –Monday, 15-Jun-2009



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