Targets: The Simple and Ineffective way to Improve Performance

There is a line of thought that there are three types of target:

1.  Fact of life targets

If you don’t meet these targets you simply don’t qualify:

  • To be a world-class 100 meter sprinter you have to run sub 10 seconds
  • If you want to stay in business you have to sell enough to cover your costs
  • To ride a roller coaster you must be at least five feet tall

They are simply the facts of life; the target lets you know where you stand.

2.  Design targets

Targets that help you specify a goal:

  • The new rail service should get commuters into London by 8:30am
  • A ready meal must microwave in under 3 minutes
  • A new engine needs to achieve 40 miles per gallon

These targets constrain your options and so help shape your work.

3.  Arbitrary targets

Targets that are handed down from on high

These are JFDI targets; you don’t get much choice about these.

OK there are nuances

Not all targets are a straight fit into a single category, the world is colourful, not black and white.  It is just a line of thought, but it makes me think that…

Some targets are good

Particularly if they:

  • Give you a scope
  • Let you know what is achievable (Usain Bolt can rest easy in my case at least)
  • Help you forecast and plan

But if you are using a target to beat people around the head

If you are busy:

Well then you deserve everything you get

The only problems that have simple solutions are simple problems.  The only managers with simple problems are those with simple minds ~ Russ Ackoff

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Fact of Life target

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Comments

  1. Hello James

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your nuanced post. I find myself in total agreement with your conclusion. And it occurs to me that good measures/target/progress indicator require genuine throughout. Poor ones don’t – which is probably why there are lots of poor ones.

    Taling about JFDI, came across a project like that – was to do with installing a management information system. JFDI commands meant that MIS was put in place in 9 months instead of original estimate of 18 months. Then another 18 months were spent fixing it!

    All the best
    maz

  2. Loved it, James. Makes perfect sense to me. Great job summarizing it… I think you hit the nail on the head there. Setting targets is great, but if you haven’t thought about what it takes to get there or coached people or given them the right tools to achieve the targets, then forget about it.

    Annette :-)

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your comment Annette, I think that the problem with management is that to do it well it is hard work.

      James

  3. Hi James,
    Which category would Dave Brailsford’s “twenty areas where we can find a 1% improvement” fall into?

    Adrian

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