It is not a secret that I am not too fond of targets. I think they harm flexibility and hence service.
Targets are fun if you reach them: most of the time they are rewarded as a financial bonus. But if you really need to push trying to reach certain targets, they are counterproductive.
I have a workweek of 40 hours. This is to maintain a good balance between work and private life. To perform at my job I need some regular rest and working 40 hours makes it easier to enjoy my job. I could easily work 50 or 60 hours a week, but I guess I would be less enthusiastic and less concentrated, so it might harm my work.
If I was given a target, which couldn’t be made in 40 hours, and I would be given a proper incentive, I probably will try to do it. I would even try to cut some corners to reach my target and letting non-targeted objectives slide.
Not too long ago I was traveling home by train and an accident happened. The Dutch Railways advised us to take a detour. However, at the next stop the accident seemed much smaller and we were told that we could still change trains and follow our original route.
The next couple of minutes were a bit hectic, as a group of people – the size of a fairly large train – tried to reach the proper platform. A train came, but did not stop. The train would have been big enough to fit us all. The next train, also a large one, did not stop either. The next train, a very small one, stopped as scheduled at our station, but not all fitted in. I certainly did not get in. I finally was able to take the next one and so my journey took me over two hours. A journey I normally make in less than half an hour.
This is ‘our’ own fault: In the Netherlands we wanted the trains to follow their schedule more strictly. And so the government gave them a target. They did not get a target for client service. I am sure that evening they scored an all-time low on service. But they probably met their target for driving according to the schedule, by leaving all of us standing at a platform on a small and windy station.
Perhaps the Dutch Railway Ride-On-Schedule Target should have been SMARTer. But eventually every target is some sort of compromise: it tells you where to put your attention and gives you some kind of reward if you improve on it, to get you motivated. But every target is a choice and every choice has a loser. Consensus is the measuring unit of the mediocre.
SMART tells you that it needs to be Appropriate and Realistic. So not too ambitious and not too difficult. You should be able to make it, to keep it as an incentive. And that is a pity, as most people are already afraid to stick out their neck. But if we are given a neck, why not put it to use and stick it out? Isn’t failing always better than not trying at all? Aren’t we taught that making mistakes is the best teacher?
SMART also tells us that it needs to be Specific and Measurable, so a lot of soft skills are no longer candidates for targets. How can you specify service or measure entrepreneurship? And making targets Times only keeps us running in the vicious circle of making new targets.
SMART in itself is not a bad idea. It is the area of the target and the definition of the finish line which tells us when we have made it. Setting targets makes mangers evade their responsibilities by elevating the means to the goal. A good manager facilitates, coaches and leads the way. A good one doesn’t need targets to convince his people to follow his example. A manager who doesn’t have time for all of that, should start to learn to delegate some of his work.
Couldn’t we turn that into a target?