Who said, “What gets measured gets managed”?

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

I love the proverb, “What gets measure gets managed.”

This principle often gets applied to business situations. It can mean that simply examining an activity changes the activity by forcing you to pay attention to it. It can also mean that producing measurements about the activity gives you a handle on it, a way to improve it. If you start adding up your sales volume every month, it gives you a basis for saying, I’m not generating enough revenue, I need to do more selling.

But I’m interested in knowing the source of that quotation. It often gets attributed to management expert Peter Drucker, but I’ve never seen an actual reference that proves he said it.

This blog post will serve as an ongoing investigation of this quotation and might be updated from time to time as new information comes to light.

Here are some popular forms of the quotation:

“What gets measured gets managed.”

“What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed.”

“What gets measured gets done.”

“To measure is to know.”

However, I haven’t been able to find any reliable reference that traces any of these forms to Peter Drucker or any other original source. It’s possible that these are nothing more than memes that have caught on and keep getting passed around.

So far, the most likely source of this idea, if not in any of these popular forms, is William Thomson, the Scottish physicist also known as Lord Kelvin. According to the Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety, by Jeanne Mager Stellman (page 1992), Kelvin said in his May 3, 1883, lecture on “Electrical Units of Measurement” (Popular Lectures, Vol. 1, page 73):

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

That might be the best we can do in tracking down the source of this bit of management wisdom.

Some people probably think it doesn’t matter whether we get these kinds of things right or not. But in his story about researching this same Lord Kelvin quote, James Heywood of patientslikeme makes some good points about the value of checking primary sources.

ARB — 2 Dec. 2012

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5 thoughts on “Who said, “What gets measured gets managed”?

  1. Pingback: Visualizing Data Goals with Chart.js | Bettina Shzu

  2. Chad Vogel

    In their book Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector (1992), Osborne & Gaebler subtitle a portion of chapter 5, “What Gets Measured Gets Done” and quotes former director of Massachusetts’ welfare department, John Pratt, in 1979 as saying, “All you have to do is measure something and people will respond” (p. 146).

  3. trish

    BUT it is obviously easier to manage what can be measured, and what gets measured is only what is measurable. So it is quite possibly more accurate to say “What matters can’t be measured, and what does get measured doesn’t matter”. This is the predicament of, and damage done by, corporatisation of everything that shouldn’t be (like education, the courts …) (ASIDE — it is amusing that there is a strapline above about “challenging assumptions” and “cogitating” — not much challenging going on here as yet, so I thought I should have a go, in the spirit of the site — beyond uncritical praise of an empty mantra.

    And l’d add, for the anti-metrically inclined: Descartes didn’t say “Cogito, ergo SUMS”. (That is what the mantra suggests: “I think, therefore I have faith in sums.”)

  4. What gets measured gets attention. I’m not so sure that it can be said what matters can’t be measured. The statement itself is just too subjective and even having said that there may be reflective indicators that can be measured.

  5. Mike Hillwig

    Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines used it in his 1998 book “From Worst to First.”

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