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March 24, 2015

How Targets Damage Process Improvement

We’re all familiar with the anecdote about people leaving their brains on the peg by the door when they arrive at work. For me is particularly true of many managers who seem determined to adopt a nineteenth century attitude at work when, outside, they wouldn’t dream of being so ridiculous.

Thus, in the workplace, managers in all sectors and businesses act as if their “workers” are inherently lazy and must be micro-managed to achieve “targets” set by management, using procedures designed by managers who have little real experience of what the work actually involves. The consequence of this mind-set is a plethora of “productivity”, “efficiency” and other performance measures whose function is to control people (disciplining them in some way if they fail to meet “target”), rather than encouraging them to work together as a team to release creativity and improve the whole work process.

We all know that people do not make good automatons, so focussing on “productivity” to try to force workers to constantly grind out production goes against everything we know about people. Work must have some intrinsic value in it for the individual for performance to be sustainable in the long term. External targets, carrots and sticks all lose their currency very quickly and are not effective motivators in any environment. It can hardly be surprising that pressing down on people about their productivity numbers will result in negative consequences – absenteeism, staff turnover, quality problems and even sabotage. And yet, managers slavishly continue to enforce such measures in many businesses. That is not management: that is a form of slavery that cannot possibly deliver effective results.

Another important problem with enforcing “productivity” and “efficiency” targets right across the business is that they divert attention from the real issues. Not every part of the operation can be a “hotspot” or bottleneck, and having productivity targets at every step in the business will lead to panicky kneejerk reactions in parts of the process where, actually, a more relaxed pace doesn’t matter and may even be beneficial to ease pressure on the bottlenecks. Constant rushing about to address productivity “problems” in non-critical parts of the operation simply diverts energy from working to improve the real problem areas in the business.

The throughput of the entire business process will be governed by the bottlenecks. Production can only flow at the pace of the slowest link in the chain. Having productivity targets and measures anywhere else other than those bottlenecks serves no purpose, and only distracts attention from the real issues, creating needless over-reaction.

So roll-up those targets and measures you have across the business and focus them on the bottlenecks and constraints in the process. Work to remove, or at least reduce, the bottleneck, and that will improve the throughput of the entire process. Stop the stress and nonsense of bearing down on everyone with targets that do nothing to benefit the operation, and start to address the real issues – the parts of the process that are not fit for purpose!