The Incompleteness Theorem of Service Quality Measurement

In 1931 Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel formulated his famous ‘incompleteness theorem’, almost paradoxically proving that any system of mathematics can never be sufficiently established. The mathematical intricacies of this theorem are beyond contemplation for mere mortals, so I will leave them be.

The incompleteness theorem does, however, not only hold for complex mathematical constructs and can also be applied to service quality measurement. The thus derived incompleteness theorem of service quality measurement states that:1

Any effectively generated system capable of measuring service quality cannot be both consistent and complete.

Businesses often focus on their reporting on measurable performance indicators to report on service quality. The incompleteness theorem of performance management implies that in the delivery of a service, quality can never be measured thoroughly. Services are provided by and for people and every moment of the provision of services, every moment of truth, the situation is different due to the complexity of human behaviour which can not be captured in quantitative measures. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated a formal system of service quality measurement, some activities contribute to service quality but are not measured.

The Incompleteness Theorem of Service Quality

The immediate reaction from supporters of the KPI movement and adherents of SMART targets is that one must simply identify the right measures and enough of them to ensure the whole service is covered. However, the theorem holds that an enormous amount of KPIs are required to measure all aspects of a service. And if a service is measured completely, some KPIs will contradict each other as a system can not be complete and consistent at the same time. Thus, in line with Gödel’s original work, a second theorem can be formulated:

The more aspects of a service are measured, the less efficient a service will be delivered.

This condition will arise when customers are bombarded with feedback mechanisms. Staff spend a great deal of their time entering data and managers spend their days analysing numbers.

Don’t get me wrong. Measurement is essential in business management. But we should not have the illusion that any data set can ever replace the intricate complexity of reality. Managers should never relinquish their critical thinking skills and move beyond the confines of rational data analysis. Service quality has an internal human dimension that goes beyond electronic dashboards and graphs.

Embracing the qualitative nature of the provision of services and cultivate an understanding of interaction with customers is an essential ingredient to managing performance. This information might not be easily summarised and reported to boards, but the incompleteness theorem prevents us from doing much more. The incompleteness theorem of service quality aims to inspire managers to embrace the qualitative side of management.


  1. An enhanced version of this idea will be presented at the World Business Capability Conference in Auckland (December 2012).

3 thoughts on “The Incompleteness Theorem of Service Quality Measurement

    1. It is certainly true that loyalty is what every organisation wants to achieve. But what if most customers say “no” when asked whether they want to repurchase? How does a business determine what to change in order to change consumer behaviour?

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