‘Tis Not The Season…

***Warning – if you are a small child do not read all the way to the end of this post***

Chocolate Christmas abominationsWell 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>>>

Christmas board

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.

Father Christmas

About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
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7 Responses to ‘Tis Not The Season…

  1. Pingback: What happens when targets die? | thinkpurpose

  2. patently says:

    (I should copyright that phrase!)

    I’d be delighted to offer you some free intellectual property advice on that point, but sadly (for reasons of efficiency) I only accept pro-bono queries in groups of fourteen or more.

  3. dictadicit says:

    Have you considered the following:
    Maybe “christmas booking” means something more organized than a casual get together with reservations (which happen all year round, I’d suppose). It could mean setting up a menue, decorations, special music, and so on. So, the pub owner has to make sure that there is a return on investment for this kind of effort – and he may well have learned from experience that he will only make profit if the group is larger then 14 (and he will loose money if the group is smaller, and get swamped in lots and lots of different extra efforts).
    What I’m saying is: this might not be an arbitrary numerical target, even if it looks like it.

    An additional thought: I friend of mine once told me that the first Christmas star he sees all year is the one on a banner from his church saying “Christmas starts in December”. Go figure…

    • Hi. Yes these are fair considerations, but not applicable to this particular establishment. They will put up decorations throughout the pub anyway, but won’t be laying on any music or special events, or anything that would add extra cost.


  4. Just came across your blog today, excellent work. I share your concern about performance, especially in your line of work. I have a similar phrase- “Arbitrary performance targets cause arbitrary performance”.

    Incidentally, I wince a little bit at the idea that “all numerical targets are arbitrary”. Preparations of Anderson Shelters for an emergency would require a target number of shelters to be erected. But I’m guess you’re talking specifically about performance targets rather than an actual physical requirement.

    • Hi Mike,

      Glad you like the blog. I guess that if 50,000 people needed to be protected by Anderson shelters then to build the requisite number of shelters is far from being an arbitrary numerical target – rather it is aiming for nominal value, i.e. perfection, or 100%. If the production line aimed for 90% of the shelters to be constructed within 7 days, or with 93% satisfactory build, then those are arbitrary numerical targets.

      After six years of looking I still can’t find a numerical target (short of aiming for perfection,or 100%) that isn’t arbitrary or likely to cause dysfunctional behaviour.

      Hope this makes sense!


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