Thursday, 10 March 2011

Hitting the target

Target-setting, at both a corporate and a personal level, is a fact of life in most organisations.  It’s a way of setting out priorities and enabling the measurement of progress towards key objectives.  It can become something of a blunt instrument, though, when it is applied blindly.  People will naturally manage to meet the targets, particularly if their annual salary or bonus is based thereon.
Sadly, targets set by government often end up being applied in that blind fashion.  A year or two ago, I heard the Chief Executive of one local authority telling his members that they had already exceeded one government-set target significantly, so there was an opportunity to cut that particular service area, and reduce the level of service to meet the target.
That highlights one of the major issues with simplistic targets – telling people that they must achieve 90% of whatever also says that a 10% fail rate is acceptable, even if that 10% could be eliminated with little or no extra effort.  And when the targets relate to health, say, or education, how willing are we to declare up front that an x% fail rate is acceptable?
I’m reminded of the (almost certainly apocryphal) story about the UK computer manufacturer who ordered 100,000 electronic chips from a company in Japan, specifying that 99.95% must have zero defects.  When the order arrived, 50 of the chips were packed in a separate envelope with a note from the Japanese company which read something like “We don’t understand why you want 50 defective chips, but we’ve packed them separately for you”.
From their point of view, they had designed their systems to eliminate failure from the outset, not to allow for a tolerated level of failure.
I suspect that, over the next two months, we’ll hear a lot of talk from all the parties about the targets they are going to be setting for the next Assembly term (although probably rather less about how they intend to achieve them).  Like the Japanese micro-chip company, perhaps our response to each should be to ask why a (100-x)% failure rate is acceptable.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

I have a very simple rule – nobody should set targets for people or organisations unless they have targets and periodic appraisal’s to cover their own performance and can get deselected if they continually fail.