Hitting the target missing the point

How many times have you heard the phrase 'We're hitting the target but missing the point'? It's one I've heard several times in the last week in relation to a number of different types of quantitative measurement. Thinking about it I realized that I'm personally rather skewed towards quantitative measurement. I set myself targets like doing one 10k running race a month for a year (eleven done and one to go) and I have to stop myself wanting to be as competitive in my age group as I once was as I have no time to practice. This is because my target of have 'Inbox Zero' is completely unattainable so I'm on a constant treadmill – but not one that contributes to actual running prowess – of keeping up. My other self-imposed targets include: a set number of steps per day on Fitbit (but see this warning), posting 3 tweets a day and writing a blog a week.

The targets I set myself have a point: I understand their purpose, they're in a specific context that if that changes I adjust the target (or not worry about it) and they are self-imposed. Not making the numbers is not a big deal.

Many people – think call centre agents, hospital A & E staff, sales people – have targets that are set for them and they have no control over and they become a big deal if they are not met. In his book The Whitehall Effect. John Seddon paints a picture of people who fearing some form of retribution if they do not make the numbers 'willy-nilly channel ingenuity into falsifying outputs, hiding work and fudging reports'. Additionally he notes that activity targets prevent positive innovation and thinking about the work and how to do it better/more effectively.

Reading Seddon on targets I remembered back to my TQM days and dug out Deming's 14 principles. (First published in 1982 in his book Out of the Crisis). Two of the principles are striking about targets

Principle 10: Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

  • Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
  • Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

Principle 11: Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.

Deming (to over-simplify) was clear that any targets and measures should be part of a participative and involving effort of continuous improvement with managers and workforce working together aiming for everybody to win. Unfortunately as Seddon and others point out targets are often set for people not by and with people and thus frequently miss the point.

A Cranfield research project on the design of targets notes that 'Target setting is part art and part science. It is a difficult process and the risk of getting something wrong is high … few management teams seem to recognise the complexity inherent in any well-designed system and the care needed in setting and applying individual and team performance targets … the consequences of setting poor targets will adversely affect the performance of individuals and the business'.

What's your experience on hitting the target but missing the point? Let me know.