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The Trouble With Targets – People Will Meet Them!

A while ago, I had to go to the A & E Department in my local hospital. Nothing too serious, I had a very painful knee and my doctor was concerned that it might be infected so he sent me along to have it checked out.

Unfortunately, my wife and I have had a lot of experience with A & E Departments in recent years so we weren’t looking forward to it. We expected a long wait – and we got one.

To cut a very long story short, I was there for 4 hours, until midnight in fact. Then a nurse came over to me and said, “Can you come with me, we need to admit you.”

In other words, I was going to have to stay the night in hospital.

I asked why this was, since no-one had actually seen me, so no-one could have decided that it was serious enough to justify staying in hospital.

She said, “It’s what we have to do now. There’s a limit of 4 hours for anyone waiting in A & E and, if you haven’t been seen in that time, we have to admit you.”

Apparently, one of the targets that hospitals had been set to determine whether they were providing a good service was that no-one should wait in A & E for more than 4 hours. So it seems that this hospital’s answer was to admit people once the 4 hours were up. That way, no-one could have a longer wait.

The result was that I had to go onto a ward and find a spare bed. Around 1.30am a consultant came and looked at my knee and took some blood. Half an hour later, he came back, said it wasn’t infected and told me I could go home in the morning with some painkillers.

So I took up a hospital bed I didn’t need, endured a sleepless night on the ward and left the hospital at about 6.00 the next morning.

This is a good example of what happens when people are given targets which they have to meet, especially if the consequences of not meeting them are serious. They will find a way to meet the target, even if that means doing things which don’t seem to make any sense.

The same thing happens in workplaces. When I was a Tax Consultant, I had to account for every minute of my time and allocate it either to a client number or to “non-billable” time. We were given targets of non-billable time, a maximum we were allowed, and we were in trouble if we didn’t meet them.

The result, in some cases, was that people were very tempted to exaggerate the time it took to carry out certain tasks so that their timesheets looked better and they reached their target for billable hours.

This is the problem – if you set someone a target and their pay, their promotion, or even their job depends on meeting that target, they’ll find a way to meet it. Because that will be their priority. But that may mean ignoring other important areas or distorting their behaviour just to meet the target.

There’s an obsession with targets in some areas, particularly public services – hospitals, schools, the Civil Service – but also in the private sector. It’s part of the flawed idea that “what can be measured can be managed”. The thinking is that, if you can’t measure something by statistics, you can’t be sure it’s happening and you can’t control it.

So things like patient care, quality of teaching and customer service are reduced to a numerical level so that targets can be set and performance measured. Hospitals and schools, for example, can be compared through league tables based on these results, how they perform against the targets set.

There may also be some idea that targets are motivating, they give people something to aim for. What is sometimes behind this is a view that, if you don’t set targets for people, they won’t try. They won’t do something for its own sake, or because they have a commitment to quality, they’ll only do it because someone is measuring their performance on a scale of some sort.

As you may have gathered, I’m not a great fan of these sort of targets. I think they often backfire and organisations need to be very careful about assuming that meeting a target is the same as providing a high quality of service.

In my experience, if a group of people are meeting a target, you need to look around and see what else is happening – what areas are being neglected to allow them to meet it? You need to look at the bigger picture, to consider their performance as a whole and not just the specific areas where the targets have been set.

Bear this in mind if you’re a manager and you set targets for your team, or if they have targets set for them and you are expected to monitor and manage their performance.

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