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Does Your Balanced Scorecard Need Surgery?

From time to time I get a call from a business leader who has been using the balanced scorecard in their organization but is underwhelmed with what it is doing for the company. In most of these situations, when I dig deeper into the problem, I quickly discover that, instead of a trim and focused set of indicators, the balanced scorecard in question is an unwieldy report containing 50+ indicators of all description that aren’t clearly linked to the business strategy.

A balanced scorecard that is weighed down by too many indicators is one of the leading problems organizations have with their scorecards today. The problem with these types of balanced scorecards is that they are very difficult to manage and use. They require a small army of people to populate the data and produce the results reports, making the balanced scorecard process an extra, rather than integral, part of doing business. More importantly, instead of providing business leaders with a quick snapshot of what is going on in the business strategically and facilitating evidence-based decision making, these balanced scorecards become just another huge report that is difficult to wade through and gain insights from.

A great balanced scorecard is a focused tool that lives up to its defined purpose – whether it’s to provide business leaders with the insights they for internal strategy management, to demonstrate compliance with external standards or regulations, or to help assess the contribution of employees in relation to the business strategy. Ideally, regardless of its purpose, a balanced scorecard should include 16 to 36 indicators with a good guideline being 1 or 2 indicators for each of the strategic objectives on your strategy map. While achieving this goal can be a challenge, it can be done with focus and an attention to what really matters for business success.

When a balanced scorecard has too many indicators it needs surgery – it’s as simple as that. However, the key to making the surgery easier is to identify and solve the root cause problem(s) driving indicator proliferation before the cutting starts. In my experience, there are four primary root cause problems that can, alone or in combination with the other problems, drive an overpopulated balanced scorecard. These include: (1) too many strategic objectives on the strategy map; (2) a lack of focus on one primary purpose for balanced scorecard use in the organization; (3) a failure to remember that the balanced scorecard is not meant to be a diagnostic tool; and (4) a lack of, or unclear, strategic objective definitions.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these problems and explore how to solve them.

1. Too many strategic objectives on the strategy map

A good balanced scorecard must be built on your strategy map. And while it is possible to create a balanced scorecard from a traditional strategic plan, it is far easier, and you reliably get a better product, when you leverage your strategy map to create your balanced scorecard indicator set. Ideally, your strategy map should include 4 to 6 objectives per strategy map perspective. Assuming that you are using the four traditional strategy map perspectives, this translates into 16 to 24 strategic objectives TOTAL on your strategy map. And, I would even say that 24 strategic objectives are too many for most organizations. Ideally, I try to help my clients keep the total number in the neighborhood of 18.

You see, the problem is that unless you can ruthlessly select just 1 indicator for each strategic objective on your strategy map, a high number of strategic objectives will quickly translate into an even higher number of balanced scorecard indicators. The key to controlling the number of strategic objectives on your strategy map is to following the guidelines provided in my last blog post: “Walking the Simplicity-Complexity Tightrope in Strategy Mapping” (click here to read).

Tip to make balanced scorecard surgery easy: Removing excess strategic objectives from your strategy map will naturally translate into the removal of the associated indicators from your balanced scorecard.  

2. A lack of focus on one primary purpose for balanced scorecard use in your organization

Did you realize that there are actually many different ways of using the balanced scorecard? The traditional way is to use the results to assist with internal strategy management, however, balanced scorecard indicator sets are also used for external reporting to shareholders, external stakeholders, accreditors, and external regulators. Balanced scorecard results can also be used to provide the basis of employee compensation and bonusing schemes and payouts. If you look closely at the profiles of the indicator sets used for these various purposes, you’ll notice that they are different. For example, scorecards used for internal strategy management will usually have the most diversity in indicators – a combination of outcome and process and qualitative and quantitative indicators. On the other hand, external reporting scorecards will generally be focused on outcome indicators. Indicators used for compensation are almost always objective and quantitative in nature (rather than subjective and qualitative) – making payout decisions more sound and defensible.

Problems start arising when you try to create your balanced scorecard with multiple purposes in mind. In these situations it is often necessary to include multiple indicators per objective on the same scorecard to accommodate to the different indicator profile requirements. In my experience, the resulting balanced scorecard doesn’t do a good job at serving any of the various purposes it was designed to fill – primarily due to lack of focus and measurement clarity.

The best advice is to build your balanced scorecard with one purpose in mind. This will make it easier to select a small number of indicators that are really relevant to your strategic objectives. Over time, and as your organization’s balanced scorecard capabilities grow, you may be able to create a streamlined, multi-purpose balanced scorecard if required. However, achieving this goal usually remains challenging.

Tip to make balanced scorecard surgery easy: Determine the primary purpose of your balanced scorecard and then eliminate extra indicators that may have been selected to support an alternate purpose for balanced scorecard utilization.

3. A failure to remember that the balanced scorecard is not meant to be a diagnostic tool

A good balanced scorecard provides an organization with a view of the progress of the business strategy and the impact of strategy management efforts on strategy execution success. To do this, a balanced scorecard must include representative indicators that will register change, allowing the scorecard to play its role as an early warning/alert system when performance in key strategic areas is below expectations.

It is important to realize that a good balanced scorecard is not a diagnostic tool. That is, it is not meant to alert business leaders to problems AND provide data on the root cause drivers of those problems. A tool designed to play both of these roles would clearly require a very large measure set. Ideally, a balanced scorecard is composed of indicators that are sensitive to change and when they register a change, the organization goes to various other data sources to complete an analysis to identify the root cause(s) of the problem.

Many organizations don’t realize, or forget, that the balanced scorecard is not meant to be a diagnostic tool and, as a result, they turn their balanced scorecard into a comprehensive measure set. By limiting the balanced scorecard to its real purpose, it becomes easier to keep the indicator set focused.

Tip to make balanced scorecard surgery easy: Look for diagnostic operational measures on your balanced scorecard and remove them. Limit your scorecard to indicators of the performance of your strategic objectives (i.e. ones that will effectively alert you to trouble spots) and be satisfied with going to other data sources for performance analysis information when required.

4. A lack of, or unclear, strategic objective definitions

Balanced scorecard indicators are meant to be representative of the strategic objectives on your strategy map. To select a focused set of indicators, it is critical to have a clear understanding of what is intended by each strategic objective. This is why strategic objective definitions, outlining what is, and isn’t, included under the strategic objective, are critical – they support strategy execution success and provide the key to making informed balanced scorecard indicator choices. Without these definitions there is little basis for indicator selection decisions usually resulting in an unfocused collection of indicators for each strategic objective.

Ideally, clear strategic objective definitions guide the balanced scorecard indicator selection process. As candidate indicators are developed, the final decisions can be made based on their relevance in relation to each strategic objective definition. A well written strategic objective definition is critical in the process of selecting the one or two best indicators to represent that strategic objective.

Tip to make balanced scorecard surgery easy: Do each of the strategic objectives on your have definitions? If not, take the time to create them. Once they are in place, take the list of indicators for each strategic objective and test them against the definitions. Select the one or two indicators that are the most representative of each strategic objective. Discard the rest from your current balanced scorecard and/or save them for future consideration.

Doesyour balanced scorecard include too many indicators? If so, it’s time to trim. However, rather than jumping in with the cutting shears, the best approach is to first determine which of the four typical root cause problems for indicator proliferation you are facing and then take steps to eliminate them. This will usually lead to obvious and easy indicator cutting decisions – resulting in a lean and focused balanced scorecard that is easy to manage and use, and more than lives up to its value as a strategy management tool.

8 Comments

  1. domena
    Dec 30, 2011

    Great information here, thanks for sharing this valuable information!

  2. Ramiro Sanz
    May 18, 2012

    if you authorize it, I´ll publishes this article in
    http://www.tablero-decomando.com/blog
    citing this url as the source seems very didactic
    Ing. Ramiro Sanz
    http://www.tablero-decomando.com/

  3. Frances
    Jun 8, 2012

    It sure helps to give balanced scorecards a check from time to time to make sure they remain in balance.

  4. Kathleen
    Aug 15, 2012

    good info you got there. really helpful. thanks for sharing.

  5. Sandy Richardson
    Aug 15, 2012

    Thank you Kathleen – glad you found it helpful! Sandy

  6. Edneal
    Aug 18, 2012

    I agree. Change is a huge factor that can affect the effectiveness of even the most established balanced scorecards made. This is why it is important to get them evaluated from time to time.

  7. Mihai Ionescu
    Apr 10, 2015

    Great article!

    One observation: Your objectives require a balanced set of KPI Measures between the lag & lead categories. It’s important for your capability to take mid-course corrective actions and have the status of the objectives reflect not just the current result, but a combination of current result – the lag KPI(s) – and anticipated result – the lead KPI(s).

    That’s why you should have at least 2 KPI Measures for each Objective, but – ideally – not more than 4. So the recommendable range would be 2-4, depending on how many facets does the Objective’s accomplishment have.

    Regarding the number of Objectives on the Strategy Map / Scorecard. An even more decisive range would be 15-20 Objectives. That’s valid at the top/organizational level, because at divisional or departmental level it should be 10-15, ending-up at individual level with only 3-5 Objectives on the individual scorecard.

  8. Louis Roussin
    Sep 14, 2015

    Thanks for sharing Sandy. Great ready and learning article. You are a leader in strategic planning .Louis