Don’t aim at the target

1st January 2010
Simon Baker

Without numerical measures we wouldn’t know what to do. The problem is, when numerical measures are used as targets they cause people to think their sole purpose is to achieve them, usually to the detriment of everything else. When managers own the targets and use them to force performance they bring out the wrong behaviors. People cut corners to meet the targets. And targets are everywhere. We blinker ourselves to everything except our targets and forget about the real needs of users. In pursuit of our targets we make
local optimizations that are suboptimal for the throughput of the whole system, the wider organization.

Measures should reflect the true purpose of the people doing the work, which is to improve service and quality and satisfy users, and should therefore measure the improvements directly experienced by users. These people are in the best position to decide how to improve quality and performance and they should own the measures and use them to understand their work as a system. As part of a plan-do-check-act cycle, they should study the actual results of changes aimed at improvement, comparing them to expectations, analyzing the differences to determine cause, and then identify further opportunities to improve the system.

Managers shouldn’t use their measures as targets to control our performance. Instead, we should use our measures to continuously improve how we work so that our system performs better.

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