Importance of Metric Clarity: The Great Tampon Caper

Okay, I’m going to preface this article by saying that some ladies and gentlemen may not wish to read further. The example I’m about to use to demonstrate my point surrounds a topic many polite people don’t like to discuss.

That being said, I was on my local drug store’s website this weekend to see if they rented post office boxes on the hopes I could find one nearby for my business. (For my non-Canadian readers, Canada Post and Shoppers’ Drug Mart, a local chain, have a partnership arrangement, so it’s not as random as it sounds).

When I visited their website, I saw in giant letters, the following text:

O.B. TAMPONS (18’s – 20’s),
CAREFREE, STAYFREE MAXIPADS (14’s – 24’s)
or PANTILINERS (49’s – 60’s)

I almost clicked away, but suddenly I realized I didn’t understand what the numbers meant. At first, I thought perhaps it was different box sizes…for example, one container of O.B. Tampons might be packaged with 18 in a box, and another size with 20 in a box. But the numbers seemed all over the place. Why buy 18 when you can get 20? And isn’t 49 a strange number to sell in one container?

I was online at the time, so I opened my MSN and asked a bunch of friends who happened to be online as well. They were all guys, and none of them knew either. This launched an investigation that lasted several hours through some websites I’d really rather permanently unsee trying to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Among some of the ideas this question raised:

  • The numbers could represent their length
  • The numbers could represent absorbency
  • The numbers could represent fit

What we collectively realized was, these devices are so far outside of our experience they may as well be appliances used to operate the Large Hadron Collider. So I wrote a lady friend and asked her. Her genteel response was:

Dude. WTF is wrong with you. Two different box sizes for each item, with different quantities in each box. Pantiliners are little. More fit in the box.

I remained thoroughly unconvinced, and since I was going there anyway, I drove to the drug store to check.

Now ladies, you may be reading this article thinking to yourself, “wow Geoff, you must be galactically stupid and an obsessive freakshow”. I won’t discourage that thought, but I will point out to you that I’m not a regular consumer of these items, and as such have no experience with these measurements. As to why investigating these numbers was suddenly so critically important, well, it was better than working on a Saturday.

Storming into the drug store with steely purpose, I found the “Feminine Paper” aisle and started down. I quickly lost my nerve as I realized a lady was shopping there and might openly judge me. So I kept right on going and stopped at the end of the aisle to stand and pretend to be looking at “not feminine paper” until she left. After a few moments I realized I was absently staring at condoms and lubricant which was worse, so I went to another aisle to absently stare at candy.

Returning to the feminine paper aisle after seeing the lady move on, I stopped to actually look at the mysterious world I’d previously ignored. The first thing I realized was, wow, there’s a lot of different kinds of feminine paper. My first thought was, “what kind of extra-dimensional criteria do women have to choose with”, but decided that was a question for another time.

Tampon Metrics

Focusing on the task at hand, I looked at individual packages and it turns out my lady friend was correct: the numbers represent the different quantities in each box. As you can see from the photos I took, you can, in fact get 49 pantiliners in one container (which still seems random to me). I also concluded that the “20” in “O.B. TAMPONS (18’s – 20’s)” was a typo in the advertisement, as I found lots of 18s, and lots of 40s, but no 20s.

Hard hitting investigative journalism, to be sure. I’m expecting my Pulitzer nomination any day.

Okay, so why are tampon numbers relevant?

The numbers in the advertisement failed to communicate to me as a reader. Potential typographical errors notwithstanding, I had to do a lot of digging to understand what the numbers meant. Judging from my lady friend’s response, the answer was obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to me, and it wasn’t obvious to any of the guy friends I asked.

Granted, I’m not the intended audience for such products, but the advertisement was in a publication to which I had access, from an establishment with which I did business.

Project managers report on a lot of numbers to our stakeholders. In addition to things like earned value and position against budget, we collect and report many other metrics that are relevant to the particular project we’re working on. But do our stakeholders understand them? People may often say to me, “geez, Geoff, whaddya stoopid?” I’m personally fine with that, but I’m not sure that’s an appropriate question for a paying client. Remember that our (very busy) stakeholders will base decisions on the information we provide them. If they don’t understand, or believe our information to represent something other than what it does, their decisions will be invalid and potentially harmful.

If a stakeholder doesn’t understand the measurements we present, will they ask questions until they understand? Will they go digging until they get to the bottom of it? Or will they make an invalid assumption that their belief is accurate, without digging further?

And whose responsibility is it to ensure the stakeholders’ understanding of the metrics we communicate are accurate?

Frankly, I think it’s ours.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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  • steelray

    well, i finally got around to this today and it was very entertaining, as expected!!! great point at the end too πŸ™‚

  • HAHA glad you liked it Laura! πŸ˜€ I hope you got “maxi” value from the message!

  • steelray

    I did! I wondered where you were going at first πŸ™‚ but when it became clear I could not WAIT to see how you'd connect the dots!!!

  • Christine Hulbert

    Thanks for that! I found it an interesting read and as a female, not as awkward as some might find it! It was also a timely reminder for me as a first time project manager. I have found that it’s not just metrics that it is my responsibility to ensure are understood. I’ve had some interesting discussions with managers and project team where I finally realised that what I thought I had communicated was not what had been received/understood by the other party! “Interesting” and somewhat “challenging”! Now where possible, I endeavour to write communcations in emails and wait before sending them. This allows me to re-read the information and ensure that the tone and content conveys what was intended!

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  • Only just seen this Geoff, hahaha, would LOVED to have seen you trying to take the photos!
    Sure I got the message at the end (I’m seeing you Maury style) but the fascinating thing here is that you probably know more than most women do about the “feminine papers” (which incidently made me howl with laughter) because most would just buy what they always buy and move on quickly to the interesting shopping aisle – like the wine πŸ™‚

  • Lindsay Scott

    Only just seen this Geoff, hahaha, would LOVED to have seen you trying to take the photos!
    Sure I got the message at the end (I’m seeing you Maury style) but the fascinating thing here is that you probably know more than most women do about the “feminine papers” (which incidently made me howl with laughter) because most would just buy what they always buy and move on quickly to the interesting shopping aisle – like the wine πŸ™‚

  • HAHA I’m glad you liked it, Lindsay! To date this is still one of my favorite posts and I had huge fun doing it. Before this article I had never ever ever stopped to look. I feel so…enlightened. LOL

  • I also just stumbled across this via a retweet. Brilliantly funny. How is it that you have escaped all these years without being asked by a female friend to pick up a box of “feminine papers”– that must be a Canadian term and it’s quite awesome! LOL. Here in the U.S. we call them “sanitary protection”, which sounds quite industrial.

    Great point and tie-in to the importance of clarity in measurements. You’ve got me wondering now about the 49 pantiliners thing… my educated guess (not being a pantiliner consumer) is that it’s a multiple of a 7-day week. But I’m just shootin ‘ in the dark there.

    As for “super” vs. “regular”, well… eh hem… that would fall under “absorbancy metrics.”

    Turnabout being fair play, I browsed a few websites selling athletic supporters. These are a total mystery to me. Apart from the many features such as “X-back”, “steel cup”, “flex cup”, and “butt enhancer”, which seemed fairly obvious from the photos, there are also unlabeled numbers associated with the different models. There’s 28-32, 32-38, 40-44, and 46-50. I guessed that these were inches for the waist size until I saw a model listed as “one size fits all.” And what happens to the man who is a 39 or a 45 of whatever is being measured? Seems he is out of luck.

    πŸ™‚ Thanks for the fun! I love your posts.

    Pam Stanton

  • HAHA I am permanently and forever exempt from buying “girl things” after I once picked a lady up a pair of pantyhose from the store that was the exact measurements she asked for. I didn’t notice the package said “Queen Size” and didn’t even know what that meant. At least, not until I got home to face “queen size?! QUEEN SIZE?!”

    So I’m forever off scot free.

    And omg I bet you’re totally right about the pantiliners thing! All this time I’ve been like, “who bundles 49 of anything together” but your explanation totally makes sense! πŸ™‚

    Being a video gaming couch potato I’m not really a consumer of athletic supporters so I would share your sense of mystery at those numbers as well. I’d only add that “butt enhancer” sounds like a product I should investigate for myself. (Do they make a “butt miniaturizer”?)

  • Oh wow. I don’t know how I haven’t stumbled upon this post until now, but can I just say… I’ve been laughing out loud in my cubicle so hard that my coworkers are asking me what the heck is going on! Also, I’ve decided that you are probably the only professional who can really get away with writing about things like this.

    P.S. Have you tamed your mane yet?

  • HAHAHA This remains one of my most favourite articles that I’ve ever written. Hitting the feminine paper aisle with my camera phone and trying to surreptitiously take pictures so old ladies wouldn’t think I was a pervert was really hilarious! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! πŸ™‚

    Yes, I did tame my mane, and I’m expecting some video footage of the event tomorrow. LOL I will totally share! πŸ˜€

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