Sunday, May 21, 2006

Forget about targets - and decide what really matters

Simon Caulkin sets his sights on targets in his Observer column today. Basically setting simplistic targets for complex systems is a recipe for disaster.

"Well, I was right about targets and foreign criminals. According to a Panorama special aired last week, the reason so many villains with exotic accents have vanished unhindered into the countryside at the end of their prison sentences is that, until last month, officials at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate weren't answering prison officers' phone calls asking what to do with them - they were too busy working out how to fulfil the Prime Minister's party conference pledge to deport more failed asylum seekers than were applying to stay...

Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result was a definition of insanity. That's what the obsession with targets is. Whether in business or public service, misuse of targets is the single most important reason for public cynicism, rock-bottom employee morale and failed improvement efforts. Targets wreck systems, driving up costs and making things worse...

Some targets do work- and that's one of their biggest problems. Because they are products of one world view applied to another - reductive mechanical measures applied to non-mechanical systems - targets have unpredictable and quickly ramifying consequences. To cut waiting lists hospitals do easier, rather than more urgent, operations; to meet exam pass rates schools exclude difficult students or encourage them into easier subjects; and to hit City earnings targets companies overstate profits or cut advertising or R&D budgets. Enron was the most target-driven company on earth, and to meet its targets it tore itself apart. The reply to ministers' repeated refrain that 'the private sector has targets' is: look at Enron."

Read the whole thing.

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