Take The Targets Test!

question mark

Quiz time!

Have a go at the challenge below. In each case, select answer ‘a’ or answer ’b’ in response to the question, “Which is better?”

Question 1

a) “Can I have a cup of tea please?”

b) “Can I have 61% of a cup of tea please?”

Question 2

a) “Make sure you do your homework”.

b) “Make sure you do your homework 80% of the time”.

Question 3

a) “I insist my water bill is accurate”.

b) “I insist my water bill is 79% accurate”.

Question 4

a) “Catch burglars”.

b) “Catch burglars in 18% of cases”.

Question 5

a) “Get to emergencies as quickly and safely as possible”.

b) “Faster than 15 minutes is good; slower than 15 minutes is bad”.

Question 6

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


  • Always aim for perfection; i.e. 100% of your objective.
  • Measure progress over time.
  • Identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Adjust system conditions to enable improvement.

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…)

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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14 Responses to Take The Targets Test!

  1. Catherine Guest says:

    🙂 I don’t know the in’s & outs of how the Police run their business so excuse any ignorance! I’d assumed that the objective would be to drive for excellence but threshold for national performance would be set at a level to take into account variation and what is determined achievable. Should the target be the KPI and behaviours driven in the way you describe? How would you measure success?

    The point I was making re: behaviours is the approach around delivery. Much of what I read is around “pressure to meet targets” rather than national KPI/regional KPI & understanding root causes of variation. I was wondering how the Govt pitch this as a measure?

    Does that make sense?

  2. Hi Catherine and thanks for your comments.

    I guess the first point is to agree that the objective should be to drive for excellence. In respect of the question ‘should the target be the KPI..?’ my view is that there should be no numerical targets, not least because they are all completely arbitrary, but also because they are likely to drive dysfunctional behaviour. Furthermore, targets ignore variation and do not provide a method or capacity for achieving the overall objective.

    Finally, there is nothing incompatible about ditching targets yet maintaining effective measurement systems capable of demonstrating success. Part of it is a ‘use of language’ issue, where the words ‘targets’, ‘measures’ and ‘priorities’ are erroneously used interchangably. For more see this>> https://inspguilfoyle.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/spot-the-difference/

    Hope this helps!

  3. Simon… At your invitation… Some comments. Note these are just views of poster not everyone in ACIA!

    General view is that police performance is increasingly complex and difficult or even impossible to describe with single numerical indicators let alone with incentivisation around those indicators. For example, burglary “performance” is often cited by crime numbers and detection rates. The former is a measure largely out of police control (unless they change recording practices) and the latter says nothing of the solvability of the individual crimes.

    And that’s a simple, traditional crime category. Take some of the emerging areas of business particularly those where police are trying to increase recording (domestic abuse, human trafficking etc) and where either detection is not always the “best” outcome or the investigations can be long and complex affairs requiring a range of specialist skills. A simple detection rate measure is entirely inadequate as a way of measuring such work.

    However, as you know, forces do have targets in these areas and that does (probably) stimulate perverse practices. At strategic level (PCCs and media in particular) targets are big business and careers benefit from achieving them.

    Mostly, policing needs a holistic and often complex approach to performance measurement. That doesn’t always fit with the systems available, the desire of the executive or the service’s ability to convey its performance Ito the media or public. And so we are where we are.

    I do think the wheel is turning though and we won’t be here forever.

  4. Catherine Guest says:

    2nd time lucky!

    Ok, I completely get the driving of wrong behaviours but I think the issue is around dissemination of an overall target into local/personal deliverables to contribute to achieving improvement rather than the target per se. Performance measures need to take into account variability in the process and environment. You mention SPC in the attached which has a target with variable indicators….

    I suppose it’s easier in say manufacturing than other areas because the root causes of variation can be simpler but I have seen some organisations set a target but measure this same target in a number of areas rather than allowing areas to break down into contributors to performance and be more holistic. (So every man & his dog is fixed on “the figure” rather than what contributes to it). I have also seen targets used as a weapon to beat people over the head with rather than an aid to focus on root cause analysis, common modes of failure, process improvement etc.

    And forgive my lack of knowledge of crime or policing but to put this into context.this would mean….

    The overall “crime reduction target is x” (based on what departments think is achievable from current knowledge of drivers)

    Component parts of the “driver of crime” and measures around this and departments/individuals decide how they contribute to this target. (Ie. social services, NHS, Police, etc etc)

    Departments/individuals measure performance and impact on figures. Understand root causes for any gaps (processes, budget, environment, capability, resources etc etc) and action plan gaps for next steps.

    The focus being solution based to drive performance by removing blockers or accepting risks….

    So the target is still the target but the approach/culture/behaviours around striving are understood/agreed.

    Without an overall target how would you measure excellence in dealing with crime?

  5. Hi Catherine,

    I must admit I was baffled by the line “You mention SPC in the attached which has a target with variable indicators….” There aren’t any targets in SPC (or at least there shouldn’t be!) What do you mean?

    There’s a problem with setting numerical targets in any context (i.e. there’s no science- the usual method is to just aggregate data from previous years then pick a percentage adjustment out of thin air). If the idea is to choose what we think is achievable, why aren’t we achieving it now? Also, if we think it’s achievable where’s the incentive to improve? Conversely, if we choose a ‘stretch’ target that’s beyond the capabilities of the process, it won’t be achieved. As I mentioned before, targets don’t provide a method. Deming always asked ‘By what method?’

    Re targets for crime rates, see Matthew Bland’s comment above – he makes the point about so many of the factors affecting crime being out of the control of the police (e.g. economic cycles, social deprivation, substance abuse, birth rate etc etc) Crime is a measure of criminal activity rather than policing activity – I often muse over why it’s used as an indicator of performance, rather than a source of information to inform operational decision making.

    Re your last question about how would you measure excellence without a target, you would do it as described in the Quiz blog – aim for 100%, then use data from measures (in SPC charts) to understand how the system is performing and drive continuous improvement. If the data is heading in the right direction on the charts then you have the best possible means of demonstrating excellence.

    No targets required!

  6. Catherine Guest says:

    Thanks Simon,

    I was getting at the target value described here, with +/- tolerance.

    I wasn’t suggesting using previous years data I was suggesting real time against 100% but to measure progress towards then blockers/gaps to achieving that and appetite to reduce/remove against risk of not (ie extra resource, capital etc).

    There are far more dynamics in an area such as crime/policing, I accept that, but i’m not sure that eliminates targets for all . I did illustrate the point that Mathew made in my previous post saying that crime rates should be a govt target with feeds from Police, NHS, Social Services etc (sector target). So crime would not then be a police target alone. (When I am talking targets it’s not just referring to Police).

    If there are no targets at all. How do we know what we are working towards and use to motivate? You gave the example of 100% and working towards… How does the individual measure and assimilate this? They may never achieve 100%?

    For me the problem isn’t the number, it’s how you determine and use. Used in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with the wrong people it can be counterproductive. As a blanket “one size fits all” it can be counterproductive, but it can and is beneficial as an indicator in many areas.

    • Hi again Catherine,

      I’m afraid I don’t agree with the ‘it’s not the targets – it’s how they’re implemented’ argument you put forward in your last paragraph. (See point 3 in this blog>> https://inspguilfoyle.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/how-to-win-any-argument/ ) We know that numerical targets cause unintended consequences even when applied in good faith, so why take the risk?

      Also, I really want to emphasise the distinction between ‘targets’ and ‘measures’. I totally endorse the use of performance measurement (as long as it’s done properly!), and some of your concerns seem to revolve around the requirement for understanding progress towards objectives and demonstrating effective performance – I’m with you on that 100%, but it’s measures that help achieve this, not targets.

      The ‘target value’ referred to in the example given on that SPC link is equivalent to nominal value, i.e. perfection, and I take no issue with that. Again it’s a language thing. (Look up the Taguchi Loss Function for more explanation on the concept of incremental waste, if you aren’t already familiar with it). Essentially, the further the output strays from nominal value, the greater loss there is. This is totally different from specifications which place artificial good/bad lines somewhere each side of nominal value – exactly what numerical targets do.

      Finally, I return to the question, “Why is aiming for 18% better than aiming for perfection?”

  7. Catherine Guest says:

    Hi Simon,

    I think we are going to have differing views on this area and that’s fine, we have both seen approaches work in seperate environments. I’m not a 100% target driven bod but I do use in the right areas and it works for me and my team. (I also combine with areas discussed around RCA, CI, Culture/performance)

    Essentially perfection is a target and I would never “aim for 18%” but for incremental improvement from current towards 100%. Incremental improvement towards the aim.

    Comparing to life….

    A person needs to lose 5 stone in weight to get down to healthy BMI.

    Target is 10 st say

    Inputs –
    target calorie intake 1200 per day (target)
    Excercise target 4 sessions per week
    Sleep 8 hours
    Water etc etc etc

    Target month 1 = 1/2 stone
    Achieved y/n
    If N – what are root causes, what can we change?

    Make changes
    New target

    If you were to say to that person, you need to be 10st, crack on…. Where is the incremental achievement to keep them on track and motivated?

    Many people want and need to achieve and celebrate sucesses along the way.

    • Hi Catherine,

      Oddly enough I’ve blogged about weight loss too! >> https://inspguilfoyle.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/how-to-lose-weight-with-systems-thinking/

      I think it’s important to recognise that there is plenty of dysfunctional (and even harmful) behaviour associated with weight loss targets. Also, how do you know the person could safely lose 5 stone, and especially at the rate of 1/2 stone a month? It’s completely arbitrary! If they lose 4 stone and 13 pounds why is that a failure?

      Again we return to the distinction between ‘targets’ and ‘measures’. You take the necessary action to lose weight, i.e. dieting and exercise, then track progress as you go along. If something doesn’t work, you make changes like you said and continue to monitor your weight. If the programme is successful, measures will enable you to see incremental achievement as you go along. It’s the measures that tell you what’s happening and provide evidence of progress, not the target!

  8. Reblogged this on Ponderings and commented:
    Love this test

  9. Andrew Wright says:

    It’s easy to criticise targets and to associate them with dysfunctional behaviour…. because a lot of target setting deserves criticism and quite often (but not always) people react to targets in a negative way. But my only concern is this, and I’ll use question 6 as an example. “Provide the best possible service” is impossible to quantify or qualify without some sort of measure. It’s also impossible to reduce variation without some sort of standardised best practice. It’s also impossible to carry out continuous imrpovement without being able to establish a baseline and then a regular means of measuring improvement against that baseline. I’m not saying all these measures need to be targets, but they are needed.

  10. Pingback: Avoidable Harm | InspGuilfoyle

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