Find The Treasure

“It’s just the starting point for asking questions”.

Binary comparison table

That’s what I often hear people say about this sort of thing. (Look at all the pretty colours).

Well, it’s not. And the questions are usually the wrong questions, asked of the wrong people, leading to the wrong answers about the wrong things, causing us to look in the wrong places for stuff that isn’t there, whilst missing the right things.

It’s a bit like this – let’s say Stick Child goes on a treasure hunt. He has the choice of three maps. Here’s the first one…

Stick Child map 1

This blank map is the equivalent of having no performance data at all.

The next map looks like this…

Stick Child map 2

This looks more like it doesn’t it? Well…no. Fortunately Stick Child is a bright little button and he knows the map was constructed by looking at last year’s map then guessing where the treasure is buried. This is pretty much the same as the binary comparison table.

Not wanting to waste his time digging in the wrong places, Stick Child opts for Map 3, which has been drawn using accurate information and presented in a format that will help him track down the treasure with ease. Here it is…

Stick Child map 3

So there you go. Right measures, measured right, once again. If you’re wondering why binary comparisons keep getting slapped down, refresh your memory with this and other previous blogs. It’s a similar message to the last one with the guns, but I had to keep Stick Child away from them, otherwise something like this would have happened…

Stick Child cowboy

(Artwork by my Dad).

He’s off to do some target shooting of course. ;-)





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The Real Thing

Have a look at these three handguns… (Glock 17s to be precise):


  • One is real.
  • One fires plastic balls.
  • One fires blanks.

Which is which though? Can you tell which is the real one?

Even upon handling them in real life, it would take someone who knows what they’re doing to establish which is which. But then imagine if you had any of the above pointed at you in a dark street. It’s practically impossible to make a snap judgment about which is real in the heat of the moment. I wouldn’t wish that decision on anybody.

That’s because all of these Glocks have the appearance of being the real thing. The same applies to performance management tools. Binary comparisons, league tables and numerical targets look and feel like the real thing, but they’re not. They’re the imitation firearms of the performance world.

Unlike the Glocks however, when someone points a binary comparison at you it’s unlikely that you need to react immediately. Look closer to see if it really is what it appears to be – a credible piece of performance information – and once you’ve identified it fires blanks, simply disregard it in favour of the real thing. (You should know what that is by now!)

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

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Stick Child’s Kitchen Nightmares

One evening Stick Child was awake a bit later than usual and saw part of a programme about a TV chef who goes into failing restaurants and helps them get back on track. Being as Stick Child is only 9 years old, his Daddy quickly changed channels as the TV chef launched into a tirade consisting of language so colourful it would have made Stick Caligula blush.

Anyway, that night Stick Child had a dream that went a bit like this….

Stick Child chef 1

Stick Chef began to take a look around…

Stick child chef 2

He didn’t like what he saw.

And it got worse…

Stick child chef 3

A violent rage began to erupt from within his stick body…

Stick child chef 4

Stick Chef’s meltdown continued…

Stick child chef 5

Then he had a moment of calm…

Stick child chef 6

The other guy thought this sounded vaguely familiar, but listened anyway. Then things got even better…

Stick child chef 7

The dysfunctional practices were no more and Stick Chef’s work was done.

Stick child chef 8

Then Stick Child woke up and smiled.

Stick child chef 9


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Method in the Madness?

Deming was fond of saying, “By what method?”

In other words, if you want to see performance improvements you need to have an actual method for achieving them. This means understanding the system and improving system conditions to help the workers deliver excellent performance. As we saw in the previous blog, no amount of inspirational leadership (or sheer hard work) can achieve this if system conditions constrain the workforce.

Taking the example of response times for the emergency services, let’s see how this concept works. In my experience, people who drive vehicles with blue lights and sirens usually already want to get to emergencies quickly; I’ve never known police response drivers deliberately drive slowly to a burglary in progress. Having a workforce that’s naturally aligned to organisational purpose means there’s one less hurdle to overcome when seeking performance improvements.

Stick police car

Next, you have to understand which systems conditions affect response times. There will be some that you can influence (e.g. amount of resources available, location of deployment bases, number of trained drivers) and some you can’t (e.g. road network, traffic conditions, weather). You would use this information in conjunction with data about the type and frequency of demand, then consider data relating to current response times, in order to establish the range of predictable performance and identify where opportunities for improvement lie.

Therefore, unless we assume frontline workers are bad and lazy, it should be obvious that the way to improve response times is to use our data / information about current performance to inform evidence-based decisions about how to improve the system. Actual methods could include boosting resources in a particular location in response to predictable demand, deploying differently, creating capacity by ‘switching off’ inappropriate demand, or something else. But you always need an actual method.

Which brings us to response time targets. Putting aside the arguments that numerical targets are arbitrary and prone to causing dysfunctional behaviour, a critical further point is that targets do not provide a method. Neither do they provide additional capacity for achieving the improvements sought. Therefore, setting an arbitrary numerical target for response times (or anything else), simply does not change anything about those systems conditions that dictate predictable levels of performance. The system will produce what it’s capable of producing, whether the target is there or not.

Stick people skittles target

The pro-targets assumption seems to be that if response drivers just worked a bit harder then we’d see improved response times. Well put yourself in their position – you’re driving to the incident with blue lights and sirens blaring – does the presence of a target change the distance you have to travel, the road conditions, the weather, your driving ability, the availability of suitable vehicles, the amount of resources on duty, the fact that there’s long term roadworks on one of the main thoroughfares this week?

The target is irrelevant, because it does not provide a method.

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Leadership is Not Enough

Much is made of the importance of leadership, and I don’t disagree. However, what’s often overlooked is the importance of system conditions. Deming talked about this when he pointed out most troubles and possibilities for improvement come from the system. Think about it like this…

Imagine yourself as the world’s most inspirational leader. Here you are (in stick person form), trying to carry out your task of standing these skittles upright.

Stick man skittles

Unfortunately, they keep tipping over. This is nothing to do with your leadership ability, but simply because the floor surface is slightly convex. No matter how hard you try, they tip over and you spend your time flitting between them, rebalancing them one-by-one as they fall. The uneven floor is a system problem folks – and Deming says management have the responsibility of addressing system problems. Leadership is not enough.

Stick man boat

Here’s another example. You’re the captain of a ship. Sadly, the ship they put you in charge of has big holes in the hull which keep letting in water. You spend all your time and energy bailing out the water. Your crew work hard for you and you do your best to lead them, but you have no means of repairing the holes. Another system problem. Leadership is not enough.

Stick plantLast one. This plant wants to  reach its full potential, but its roots are restricted by the plant pot, which it has outgrown. You’re expected to tend to it but aren’t allowed to re-pot it. Frustrating huh? Well, that’s another system condition no amount of your outstanding leadership can fix. Your management have the responsibility of improving the system conditions (i.e. providing you with a bigger plant pot) so that you can demonstrate what a great gardener you are. Leadership is not enough.

Of course, this applies at every level and goes all the way to the top. You can lead within the parameters set for you; those further up the food chain can do the same. But until dysfunctional system conditions are addressed by those at the top of the pile:

Leadership is not enough.

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A Better Way

One day during the school holidays, Stick Child’s daddy took him to an outdoor adventure park, where people climb through the trees using various ropes, nets, rickety bridges, zip wires and other things. Stick Child’s daddy thought he’d be pretty good at it, as he’d been on similar obstacle courses when he was much younger…

Stick child better way 1

It soon became apparent, however, that he was a lot slower than his boy, moving with all the grace and finesse of a large land mammal, tangling himself up in his safety ropes and wobbling precariously as he crossed from one platform to the next. Also, the higher they went, the wobblier he became, hugging the tree trunks desperately and avoiding eye contact with the ground.

Stick child better way 2

Stick Child thought this was quite funny and was tempted to laugh at his daddy, who had been acting all big and tough when they were on the ground. Instead, he decided to help him, as he had learnt some good techniques for tackling these sorts of obstacles on a recent school trip.

At first, Stick Child’s daddy still thought he knew best (“I’ve been doing it this way for years, son”), but Stick Child showed him some simple techniques that enabled him to traverse the obstacles a lot more quickly and surefootedly. Some of the techniques were a bit counter-intuitive to Stick Child’s daddy and he was quite nervous at times, as his natural reaction was to grab onto obstacles when Stick Child told him that going across ‘hands free’ would give him better balance and speed.

It was scary at first, but Stick Child’s daddy trusted his son, and found the alternative approaches worked much better. Father and son had a great afternoon and the elder of the two learnt a lot as well.

Stick child better way zip

So, this happy tale is likely to have a badly-hidden moral or two, isn’t it?

1. If you’ve been using targets, league tables and binary comparisons to manage performance, then it’s natural to want to keep doing what you’ve always done (or what others do) – it’s also natural to be nervous about alternative approaches, because that means you’re going to have to jump off the platform and fly down that zip wire. Just do it!

2. If you’re one of those people who already knows about Stick Child’s techniques, then its better to share the knowledge with those ungainly (but probably well-intentioned) folk who struggle to move deftly through the trees, rather than just point and laugh at them. They might react with denial, annoyance, embarrassment or even jealousy at first, but hopefully they’ll eventually see for themselves that there’s a better way of achieving the things they’ve always been trying to achieve.

Stick child better way 3

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If you use this…

“Total recorded crime this month (2,325 offences) shows an increase of 64 offences compared to last month (+2.8%), and an increase of 97 offences compared to the same period last year (+4.4%). The year-to-date figure is 113 offences higher than the previous year’s year-to-date figure (+1.3%), equating to an average of +0.9 additional offences per day. Performance is currently missing the reduction target of -5% by 6.3%. This area is currently ranked 5th of 6 in the league table”.

You might as well use this…

“Total galloobious this pobble (2,325 Quangle-Wangles) shows an increase of Ring-Bo-Ree compared to the last clangle-wangle, and an increase of 97 Tropical Turnspits compared to shuttledore (+4.4 plum puddings). The Torrible Zone is 113 mumbians higher than the previous Gromboolian, equating to an average of +0.9 runcible spoons per Tiggory-tree. Performance is currently missing the Chankly-Bore target by 6.3%. This Gramblamble is currently ranked Willeby-Wat in the bikky wikky tikky mee”.

(With apologies to Edward Lear).

Lear edit

Confused? Try these…

Why Binary Comparisons are Really Silly

Weak Excuses for Using Binary Comparisons

How to Spoil a Perfectly Good Car

Why ‘Year-to-Date’ is Rubbish






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