Target and the Targeteers

This blog appeared on the Royal Statistical Society website Statslife on 29 May 2014

DartboardJohn Pullinger, newly appointed head of the UK Statistics Authority, has given a trenchant warning about the “unsophisticated” use of targets. As reported in The Times (London) (“Targets could be skewing the truth, statistics chief warns”, 26 May 2014 – paywall) he cautions:

Anywhere we have had targets, there is a danger that they become an end in themselves and people lose sight of what they’re trying to achieve. We have numbers everywhere but haven’t been well enough schooled on how to use them and that’s where problems occur.

He goes on.

The whole point of all these things is to change behaviour. The trick is to have a sophisticated understanding of what will happen when you put these things out.

Pullinger makes it clear that he is no opponent of targets, but that in the hands of the unskilled they can create perverse incentives, encouraging behaviour that distorts the system they sought to control and frustrating the very improvement they were implemented to achieve.

For example, two train companies are being assessed by the regulator for punctuality. A train is defined as “on-time” if it arrives within 5 minutes of schedule. The target is 95% punctuality.
Evidently, simple management by target fails to reveal that Company 1 is doing better than Company 2 in offering a punctual service to its passengers. A simple statement of “95% punctuality (punctuality defined as arriving within 5 minutes of timetable)” discards much of the information in the data.

Further, when presented with a train that has slipped outside the 5 minute tolerance, a manager held solely to the target of 95% has no incentive to stop the late train from slipping even further behind. Certainly, if it puts further trains at risk of lateness, there will always be a temptation to strip it of all priority. Here, the target is not only a barrier to effective measurement and improvement, it is a threat to the proper operation of the railway. That is the point that Pullinger was seeking to make about the behaviour induced by the target.

And again, targets often provide only a “snapshot” rather than the “video” that discloses the information in the data that can be used for planning and managing an enterprise.

I am glad that Pullinger was not hesitant to remind users that proper deployment of system measurement requires an appreciation of psychology. Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman warns of the inherent human trait of thinking that What you see is all there is (WYSIATI). On their own, targets do little to guard against such bounded rationality.

In support of a corporate programme of improvement and integrated in a culture of rigorous data criticism, targets have manifest benefits. They communicate improvement priorities. They build confidence between interfacing processes. They provide constraints and parameters that prevent the system causing harm. Harm to others or harm to itself. What is important is that the targets do not become a shield to weak managers who wish to hide their lack of understanding of their own processes behind the defence that “all targets were met”.

However, all that requires some sophistication in approach. I think the following points provide a basis for auditing how an organisation is using targets.

Risk assessment

Targets should be risk assessed, anticipating realistic psychology and envisaging the range of behaviours the targets are likely to catalyse.

Customer focus

Anyone tasked with operating to a target should be periodically challenged with a review of the Voice of the Customer and how their own role contributes to the organisational system. The target is only an aid to the continual improvement of the alignment between the Voice of the Process and the Voice of the Customer. That is the only game in town.

Borrowed validation

Any organisation of any size will usually have independent data of sufficient borrowing strength to support mutual validation. There was a very good recent example of this in the UK where falling crime statistics, about which the public were rightly cynical and incredulous, were effectively validated by data collection from hospital emergency departments (Violent crime in England and Wales falls again, A&E data shows).


Mechanisms must be in place to deter over-adjustment, what W Edwards Deming called “tampering”, where naïve pursuit of a target adds variation and degrades performance.


Employees must be left in no doubt that lack of care in maintaining the integrity of the organisational system and pursuing customer excellence will not be excused by mere adherence to a target, no matter how heroic.

Targets are for the guidance of the wise. To regard them as anything else is to ask them to do too much.


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