Do you know anyone with this approach to performance management?
Actually, it doesn’t work.
Have a go at the challenge below. In each case, select answer ‘a’ or answer ’b’ in response to the question, “Which is better?”
a) “Can I have a cup of tea please?”
b) “Can I have 61% of a cup of tea please?”
a) “Make sure you do your homework”.
b) “Make sure you do your homework 80% of the time”.
a) “I insist my water bill is accurate”.
b) “I insist my water bill is 79% accurate”.
a) “Catch burglars”.
b) “Catch burglars in 18% of cases”.
a) “Get to emergencies as quickly and safely as possible”.
b) “Faster than 15 minutes is good; slower than 15 minutes is bad”.
a) “Provide the best possible service”.
b) “Aim for 75% of customers to be satisfied”.
‘Analysis’ of results
If you answered:
Mainly ‘a’ – Nice one. Not difficult though, was it?
Mainly ‘b’ – Why? No, seriously, why?
Okay, so that little quiz was pretty silly. Joking apart, that’s because the answer ‘b’ position is silly. There is a serious point though, and it’s this:
‘Why would anyone believe aiming to achieve a fraction of a worthwhile objective is better than aiming to achieve the overall objective?’
This is yet another reason why numerical targets are a big fat #FAIL
You might attain 100%; you might not. In many cases there will be external factors that prevent the attainment of perfection. Nevertheless, it is still better to aim for 100% and use the right measures in the right way to understand and improve the system, than it is aim for an arbitrary numerical target that defines ‘success’ in terms of an answer ‘b’.
(Note: If you got mainly ‘b’s, you might find reading this blog therapeutic. If that’s unsuccessful, then perhaps repeating ‘numerical targets do work’ to yourself over and over again might help. Mind you, don’t complain when your water bill is wrong or your kids refuse to do their homework…)
There is a technique which some people seem to think is capable of winning any argument – even when faced with a compelling and well-evidenced line of reasoning. To fully appreciate the unparalleled awesomeness of this tactic, you have to see it in action; therefore I’ve chosen a pretty defensible statement (i.e. ‘Pigs can’t fly’) to demonstrate how it works.
Let the fun begin…
Powerful tactic, isn’t it? Why waste time relying upon actual evidence to build an argument, when you can just finish a debate by stuffing your fists in your ears, or closing your eyes until the horrible monster has gone away?
Having experienced a few of these types of interactions of late whilst debating the effect of numerical targets, I thought it would be worth laying out a few key points about my stance, and invite debate (unless you’re considering reverting to Stick Person Mode, as above).
I say: no numerical target is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour.
I don’t say: everyone who has ever been subject to numerical targets is guaranteed to engage in dysfunctional behaviour.
There is a difference. I’ve been subject to targets but I’ve always ignored them and just gotten on with my job. The figures tend to look after themselves if you do the right thing, anyway. Pointing out that not everyone who jumps in front of a bus necessarily dies doesn’t mean it becomes a good idea to jump in front of a bus.
Okay, so let’s labour the use of the word ’cause’. Does, ‘is known to act as a catalyst’ help if I use that instead? The fact is that there’s stacks of evidence which indicates numerical targets cause / initiate / trigger / act as a catalyst for / are found at the root of… DYSFUNCTIONAL BEHAVIOUR. Okay?
“It’s not the targets’ fault – it’s the way they’re applied”.
(Or, ‘they were the wrong sort of targets’ / ‘there were too many’ / ‘too few’).
That old chestnut. So, how do you apply a performance management feature that has a proven track record of causing dysfunctional behaviour, without it causing dysfunctional behaviour?
People insist numerical targets aren’t the cause of the dysfunctional behaviour we have seen time and time again in hospitals, schools and elsewhere; that the targets are neutral and it is bad people simply choosing to engage in deviant behaviour. Sure, everyone has a choice (see 1st point), but are our public institutions stuffed full of bad, dishonest people, intent on lying and cheating because they derive a greater sense of satisfaction from attaining some arbitrary number at the expense of society? I find that hard to believe.
Targets are far from neutral. Whether you agree with them or not, they are expressly designed and intended to change behaviour.
Scandals involving dysfunctional behaviour associated with numerical targets are regularly in the news, yet when leaping to the defence of targets, people use excuses such as:
“It wasn’t the targets – it’s ‘X’ that’s to blame! (e.g. lack of leadership / toxic organisational culture / bullying / delete as applicable).
Yeah, that’ll do it too of course! I’m not saying that those other things can’t cause serious harm, am I? Take the Francis Inquiry for example – you can tick them all off the list. But targets were explicitly listed in his report as a contributory factor. So why deny it? You don’t hear people defending the other common causes of dysfunctional behaviour and catastrophic organisational failings, do you? Imagine it: ‘Leave our bullying practices alone – it’s the way the bullying was implemented that caused the problem, not the actual bullying!”
“In God we trust – all others bring data”.
This quote is attributed to W. Edwards Deming (although others lay claim to it and I can’t find the definitive source – help!) You wouldn’t come to a gun fight armed with a knife, so why do some people pontificate about targets not being responsible for causing dysfunctional behaviour when they have no evidence to support that position, particularly in the face of overwhelming evidence that they do cause it - lots of it - time and time again?
For good measure, here’s some evidence that numerical targets are responsible for loads of dysfunctional behaviour…
Go on – don’t pretend it isn’t there. Look at it! LOOOOKKKK AT IIITTTTT!!!!!
So… again. If anyone knows of a numerical target that isn’t arbitrary and is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour, bring out some evidence to support a counter argument.
Don’t be like this guy:
I’ve just got back from America, and because I don’t have the ability to switch off the systems thinking part of my brain, I kept noticing ‘systemsy’ stuff whilst I was there, so I thought I’d share a few observations with you. Enjoy.
Border Control and Customs
Suggestion – One guy to process 240 passengers is not a good example of designing the front end of the system to handle predictable demand. Whilst it was good to see the baggage-handling system was so effective we could watch our bags going round and round the carousel on the other side of the empty border control kiosks, there is no point optimising that part of the overall system when passengers trickle through the bottleneck to collect their bags an age later.
And why there has to be another solitary customs guy on another desk who asks you the same questions and checks your passport again once you have collected your luggage (within sight of the first guy), I’ll never know.
Mind you, at the UK end on the way back we whizzed through border checks, then spent just short of an hour waiting for bags…
This is a Walmart carrier bag. As you can see, their bags are so flimsy that if you do anything stupid (like put your groceries in them), they tend to split. The staff know this, so they double bag everything. Result? Walmart probably think they’re saving money by using cheap carrier bags; in actual fact, they’re having to use twice as many.
*False economy alert!*
If they spent just a fraction of a decimal of a cent extra producing slightly stronger bags, they’d have bags that are fit for purpose and customers would only need to use one bag per bagful of shopping, instead of two. This would save you money, Walmart.
One thing I thought was cool was that the Americans have a rule where you can turn right at a junction even if the lights are on red. (Don’t try this in the UK folks - a) because there’s no provision under road traffic laws to do so, and b) because turning right in a country where we drive on the left would mean crossing a lane of traffic).
I think it’s a great idea because essentially you get to treat the red light as a ‘give way’ junction (or ‘yield’ as they say in the States), and can continue with your journey if there is no traffic approaching from the left. It’s great because it removes an unnecessary delay – the system can absorb demand more effectively whilst reducing unnecessary queuing, i.e. waste. How annoying is it to sit at a red light when there’s nothing coming? Mind you, this method relies on trusting the driver intending to turn right to exercise a bit of personal responsibility, and not everyone I know could live with that.
One trick I learnt about managing funds is not to break down the overall budget to a daily average then worry about if it goes slightly over sometimes. (E.g. “Oh no, I’ve spent $115 dollars today; that means I only have $85 for tomorrow!”) As long as you keep an eye on the total amount available over the whole time period, unless you totally lose control and buy too many souvenirs, it tends to balance out. Variation, of course.
This principle works away from the holiday setting too. Strict monthly, quarterly, or yearly budget cycles cause problems of going ‘overspent’ at the end of a given period (even though you weren’t frivolous), resulting in the temptation to hold back part of the budget ‘just in case’. This causes untold worry, gaming and bumps in resource allocation, and is why your organisation buys lots of new furniture in March. Read the economic literature – it’s fascinating! Zzzzz…
Food for Thought
One night I experienced the rare combination of great food / great beer / great system whilst eating here. Being a complete systems saddo I was fascinated by how efficient and seamless their system was, as I sat stuffing my face.
Purpose – remember? Well, I guess the purpose (from the customers’ perspective) here is to have a great dining experience. This would include:
Well that works for me, anyway, and I have to say this place ticked all the boxes.
Another evening, I went to this very cool place:
Again, excellent food, drink and service. I asked about whether the staff had any targets and was pleased to be told a definite ‘no’. Instead, what they worked towards were non-numerical objectives clearly linked to purpose, such as:
There were no incentives to rush customers through the system and no incentives to push particular products either. I like that.
More Binary Comparisons than Yesterday
The weather reports struck me because they were littered with binary comparisons. Weather presenters became excited when the temperature was due to be above average, and totally despondent when it was about to dip below average. Oddly enough, each occurred about half the time whilst I was there. Who’d have thought? Funniest of all was the daily screen that compared today’s temperature with yesterday’s…
Oh no! A fluctuation of 1 degree Fahrenheit in Kissimmee!
“Wait your turn”.
Simple, isn’t it? Well, you’d think so, and not just because the Brits are apparently avid believers in queuing for things. It just seems right and fair.
Now, I’m not saying for a minute this is an American problem by any stretch of the imagination; just that during the last couple of weeks I’ve witnessed some pretty selfish, rude and arrogant behaviour. For example:
This is a food court. Notice anything unusual about it?
Answer: Not many people have got food.
No, they’re doing this. Hogging empty tables whilst their family members queue for food (although they’ve probably pushed in as well). It winds me up so much.
Yes, YOU in the yellow T-shirt! Be ashamed. You can’t hide your face from the TRUTH!
One afternoon I found this shop:
Mind you, their carrier bags are much sturdier than Walmart’s. They achieve their purpose of not splitting apart the moment an ounce of strain is placed upon them, which has to be good news for my beer.
Oh, and they sell some pretty cool ingredients for my Mexican cooking exploits. So there’s one target that doesn’t necessarily cause dysfunctional behaviour…
…is a phrase I often use when talking about measuring stuff in performance systems. Although I deride arbitrary numerical targets at every turn, I genuinely believe it’s essential to measure things, as long as they are the right things. So, first of all, that begs the question, “What are the ‘right things’?”
Fair question, sometimes followed by, “…and how do you measure them ‘right’?” (Okay, so that should say ‘properly’, not ‘right’ – sorry Grammar Police, I just think it’s catchier). Anyway, another fair question.
So let me try and answer.
First of all, the right measures are the ones derived from purpose. Purpose is what the system is there to achieve.
For instance, here’s some dials in a cockpit. I’ve marked what a few of them tell the pilot. You can see that it’s pretty useful stuff – how fast the plane is flying, what direction it’s heading, how the oil pressure is doing, and so on. All linked to purpose – in this case to fly passengers safely to their destination. The method by which the information is relayed to the pilot is useful too – the dials are capable of indicating change in real time, enabling our pilot to respond accordingly and make adjustments if necessary.
Right measures, measured right.
Therefore, the right measures, presented in a meaningful and readable format, enable the user to understand how the system is performing, as well as identify what needs to be done to attain purpose successfully.
Now, what about if you use the wrong measures?
Well here’s the same set of dials, this time configured to measure the wrong things. Ok so it’s a pretty daft example, but it makes the point. Using the wrong measures means it’s impossible to establish if you’re achieving purpose. There’s no point counting the wrong things, just because they’re easy to count. Furthermore, if you’re using the wrong measures, don’t expect them to encourage the right behaviours.
Next, what about if you measure the right things, but in the wrong way? Well, this happens:
Here’s the ‘binary comparison’ version of the cockpit dials. All the same measures as in the original configuration, but presented in a way that can’t tell you anything useful. For more on binary comparisons click here, or just talk to me for more than five minutes.
Finally, for the benefit of those people who interpret my ‘no targets’ message as ‘no performance management’, have a read of this blog which explains the distinction between targets, measures and priorities. Relax – I’m not some anti-measurement anarchist.
This is what would happen if we didn’t measure anything:
I wouldn’t want to be a passenger on that plane.
There’s nothing pink and fluffy about doing measurement properly. It’s just better use of information. Much better than trying to guess whether something’s going up or down because you’ve compared it to last month. And taking the targets out means that people can focus on purpose, rather than the targets.
Enjoy the flight.
***Warning – if you are a small child do not read all the way to the end of this post***
Well it must be that festive time of year again as all things Christmassy are starting to appear everywhere around me. Yes, it’s September. Hideous chocolate abominations festooning the shelves of the local supermarket, impenetrable and disturbing perfume adverts on TV, and this sort of thing in the pub>>>
Apart from my irritation with this premature obsession with something that’s still months away (let’s face it, Easter eggs will probably be on the shelves sometime around New Year’s Eve as well), there’s also one of those ‘hidden’ systems messages that jumps out at me from this sign.
In an apparent effort to maximise sales in the run-up to the big day, this pub has inadvertently shot itself in the foot by introducing an arbitrary numerical target of 14 into the equation.
I reckon the place could seat about 45-50 people, so that’s three groups of 14 per night with a few extra seats in case of larger groups. Do you reckon they’ll get nice, neat groups of 14 slotting neatly into the schedule throughout the 23 days that this policy runs for? I’ll stand to be proven wrong, but I doubt it. No, what will happen will be that potential customers who can only organise groups of 13 or less will go elsewhere. D’Oh!
In addition to this, my guess is that the place will be largely empty between 1st and 23rd December because those customers who like to go in there in pairs or in small family groups will be temporarily excluded. What a #fail.
You see, the introduction of the arbitrary numerical target creates an invisible and artificial boundary between what is and isn’t acceptable. By designating a cut-off point without due regard to unintended consequences, this is like trying to tessellate a Tetris matrix with really big and unusually-shaped tiles.
The most effective way of populating a space equipped to handle 45-50 hypothetical units is to break down restrictions, not introduce them. You might still get three groups of 14 on any given night – that’s great – but on other nights you might get one group of 14 plus several groups of twos and threes. Surely that’s better than just the group of 14 and a bunch of empty tables.
In this type of case, I believe that deregulation is the way forward as it enables the system to absorb variety much more effectively. It also allows for the system to be more responsive to demand and reduces the likelihood of unintended consequences (i.e. loss of customers and revenue). Furthermore it reduces waste, as those empty tables (or blank white squares) are easy to fill by allowing smaller groups (or tiles).
Anyway, that’s just me.
On a separate note, but sticking with the Christmas theme because we’re already two whole days out of summer, I’ve noticed that when I tell some people all numerical targets are arbitrary and no numerical target is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour, (I should copyright that phrase!) sometimes I observe reactions not dissimilar to that which would be expected if I were to go and tell a bunch of very young children that Father Christmas does not exist:
So, if you spread the word about the targets problem, be prepared for that person who sticks their fingers in their ears, goes ”La la la, I’m not listening!”, and desperately continues to believe in what they cling to, despite all the evidence. They probably aren’t a bad person – you’ve just exposed them to something which rocked them to the core.
Hopefully, they’ll get over it. Maybe even Father Christmas might bring them a copy of Intelligent Policing this year to help them do so.
These imposing monolithic structures, silhouetted against the moody twilight sky, are silos. Actual silos. Not theoretical silos in a book about organisational structures or systems design, but vast, towering, dirty, functional, tangible silos, silently displacing thousands upon thousands of cubic metres of air, somewhere out in the middle of the Staffordshire countryside last night.
But as we stand amidst their darkening shadows in the still evening, we need to listen carefully. These soundless giants have a message for us about their cousins – those other silos we sometimes read about in management textbooks. It’s a really simple message about a really simple concept.
Imagine that 100 people are working hard inside the left hand silo, completing the first stage of a product or service. It doesn’t matter what it is. Stage One takes two hours.
Now imagine that another 100 people are inside the right hand silo, working hard on Stage Two of the same product or service. This stage also takes two hours.
Of course, the people in the right hand silo can only start to work on their part of the process once they receive partially-completed units from the left hand silo. In order to ensure their work is of a high standard, the workers in the left hand silo conduct quality checks and complete paperwork which describes what they have done so far.
Representatives from the right hand silo receive the partially-completed units and inspect them, along with the paperwork. They have been working in the right hand silo for so long that they aren’t too familiar with what happens during Stage One; therefore this paperwork is essential, as it gives them an idea about what has occurred so far. The people from the left hand silo aren’t totally conversant with what happens during Stage Two either, so they sometimes leave out important pieces of information that would have been useful to the people in the right hand silo. This causes additional rework and delays.
In any case, on a good day when there are no defects, the handover process takes an hour, meaning the total end-to-end time for the completion of one unit of product or service is five hours. This means that it takes 200 people five hours to produce 100 units – One unit per person, per 10 hours. Not bad.
But imagine if that handover period could be removed, and instead of two totally separate silos, the 200 people simply worked on the product or service from start to finish.
You do the math:
Stage One: 2 hours
Stage Two: 2 hours
Total end-to-end time: 4 hours
200 people producing 200 units in four hours instead of five hours produces twice as many units, and saves 100 hours per 100 units per cycle. Or, one unit per person per 4 hours, instead of 10! That translates into significantly reduced costs, faster service, and the removal of the rework and delays associated with errors and deficiencies that occur during the handover process. An instant minimum efficiency gain of 60% on a single run, or 20% on a continuous cycle. What’s not to like?
So, those dark, hulking beasts standing like silent weather-beaten sentries out there in the dusk have given up their secret. The simple lesson is that if the people in those silos are capable of handling both stages of the process, then the system design should encourage them to do so. Silos, artificial boundaries and unnecessary functional specialisms work against the system, rather than with it.
No silos were harmed during the making of this blog.