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March 18, 2009
Obsession with targets
Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7948162.stm
When will organizations and (especially) governments learn that the use of arbitrary targets is a fundamentally flawed practice? There is much condemnation at present of the tragic loss of life at Stafford Hospital and no doubt someone will be found to blame and appropriate action taken. Job done. Problem solved. Or is it? I suggest that a scapegoat or scapegoats will be deemed to be the cause of a badly run organization and the underlying root cause will continue to remain unexamined, far less eliminated.
The outcome at Stafford Hospital is an extreme case of what happens when organizations or individuals foist arbitrary targets on other organizations or individuals. When failure to meet these targets is likely to be career limiting or have other undesirable effects on one's employability, they become the focus of daily life rather than the purpose of the organization.
An organization is a system and a system should have an aim. To achieve that aim processes are developed. Processes have an inherent capability arising from their design. Their actual capability is dependent on the quality of materials, equipment and people that are used to create and run the process. All of these processes should work together to achieve the aim of the system. If the system is not achieving its aim it is necessary to understand the root causes of under performance and take corrective action that improves its capability. The changes implemented should be monitored for efficacy and further improvement action taken as required until the system is achieving its aim.
Now let us imagine an organization that is not achieving the required level of performance, or is costing too much to run. Let us apply targets to focus the people in the organization and get them to perform better! How to reduce the cost of running the organization? Well, let's not recruit to replace staff who have left; cut back on training; don't replace aging equipment; reduce maintenance effort; outsource to a lowest cost bidder. I am sure that with a little imagination we could find myriad ways of reducing the cost of running an organization. And don't forget that these cost savings are not usually done in one fell swoop. No, this is death by 1000 cuts. No single action to delay recruitment, purchase equipment and so on causes catastrophe, but collectively over time the capability of the organization degrades until it is operating so far from its design capability that it fails to meet its primary aims.
So, instead of introducing arbitrary targets, institute leadership. Put in place leaders who understand the nature of a system; who understand that the output of all processes is subject to variation; who understand that working hard without knowledge can never lead to improved performance; who understand that to get the most out of a process, the people in the process have to feel valued and enabled to contribute to the improved performance of their process.
To setters of arbitrary targets I recommend that you get out of the library or preferably purchase copies of a couple of books which, if you spend sufficient time to understand, will help you to realize that setting arbitrary targets is a poor substitute for leadership. When you understand that you will start to know what is really required to help organizations and individuals to improve their performance.