How Woolly Words can poison your KPIs

A poorly defined KPI makes the KPI worthless, or worse. In this quick piece Bernie describes what a ‘woolly word’ is, the impact they have when used with a KPI and advice on how to avoid them.

Woolly words are words which sound great, but are hard to pin down. They often have no clear meaning, and may make a phrase harder to understand and break down. They pop up all over the place, but are particularly common in mission statements, corporate brochures and advertisements. Woolly words are words and phrases like…

  • Excellence
  • Aspire
  • Fantastic
  • Best in breed
  • World class
  • Boost
  • Great
  • Support

I once ran a workshop with one organisation which had the word ‘brilliant service’ in their strategic statement. We were using that statement as the start point for building their KPIs. After an hour of debating what ‘brilliant service’ actually meant, we were still no closer to an agreed answer. It sounded good, but was impossible to conclusively nail down without some more detailed supporting information.

How would you know if you have achieved ‘it’? For example, how do you know when you are ‘best in breed’, ‘world class’ or ‘bleeding edge’?

If it’s not clear, then you should substitute the woolly word or phrase with something more precise - often the answers to the question we just used as our ‘Woolly words test’. Instead of ‘world class’, you might have several specific statements, such as ‘Have a customer retention rate in the top 25% of our sector’, for example.

Woolly words sound great, but if you want to get in the fast-lane to an aligned team and great KPIs, weed them out and use plainer, more specific language.


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