Eliminate targets


Share on LinkedIn

“Systems thinkers know a number of counter-intuitive truths.” John Seddon

One of these counter-intuitive truths is that “when you manage costs, your costs go up. When you learn to manage value, your costs come down.” There is the business case for systems thinking, if one was needed.

Thanks go to David Wilson through his fitforrandomness blog for bringing a presentation by Seddon to my attention. Makes great watching and listening. There is so much to learn from this talk on so many levels, but when I was watching the video, I kept making the link to management, leadership and new thinking. New thinking to me means a new set of assumptions about organisations and how they get things done.

I think Seddon accurately describes quite a lot of what happens in organisations today; doing the wrong things righter. We have managers who set targets for activity, who then focus people on meeting activity targets. Managers approach their work as target setters, people inspectors, people managers; when targets aren’t met, the managers try to manage individual performance. As he says, modern managers are trained (if at all) to do one-to-one, which he calls a therapy model. I would say he’s not far off the mark. If we are teaching people to be good people managers, we are training their gaze to the 5%, rather than the 95%. This is not to say there is no place for more empathy, respect and humanity in the workplace, far from it. However, in terms of getting things done, in terms of being more effective, treating people well is not the answer on its own. If the system is still set up for people to meet targets rather than work towards achieving purpose, we may just have a lot of lovely workplaces where people are still meaninglessly ticking boxes and shuffling bits of paper. If the system is still command-and-control, commanding and controlling with a smile will not make much difference to organisational effectiveness and betterment. Command-and-control with a smile is like putting a cherry on a turd. Yes, we still need control in organisations, but not as we have understood it up till now. Not managers controlling people, but, as Seddon says, people having control over their work. We need management that focuses on systems, not the people.

Loathe as I am to isolate just three of Deming’s 14 points (because he meant for all 14 to be taken on board together, not as a pick-n-choose menu), when he said:

Eliminate work standards (quotas). Substitute leadership.

Eliminate management by objective. Substitute leadership.

Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

…… I believe he means substitute. Put something in place of another. Put leadership in place of targets, quotas and numerical goals, individual performance management, inspection and supervision of people. I understand it to mean that we stop doing targets, individual performance management and all that other stuff that aims to control what people do. As Deming also says, management by objective ensures mediocrity and stifles innovation. There you go, another counter-intuitive truth that Seddon speaks of, and a modern-day heresy. I think it’s important to really consider what kind of management would actually serve organisations better, and we need to get clearer on what leadership means, too. I will add that I don’t think it’s making it a semantic exercise, calling managers “leaders” and getting them to keep doing the same old stuff. The picture I have is that managers start doing management differently AND they start doing leadership as well.


My understanding is that when people like Deming and Seddon advocate for the elimination of targets and performance appraisals, they are not suggesting that we eliminate management. It can be confusing sometimes because so much is written about management and leadership and, as John Kotter and others have already observed, the two terms are often used interchangeably when they mean different things. For example, when Deming says in his 14 points, “substitute leadership”, one could easily misinterpret that to mean he is pooh-poohing management. He is not; he is pooh-poohing management by numbers. Organisations still require management. Deming himself said, “A system must be managed. It will not manage itself.” In our current paradigm, however, we misconstrue management to mean managing people: getting people to work to targets, inspecting them and chastising them when they miss a target. Old-style management focuses mostly on the people, Deming’s 5%. The 95% is the system; I’ve seen managers who manage the system and it’s far more effective at making the work work for everyone. I see management as the set of tools and processes that people apply in their work that allow them to provide the services or make the products that the market is asking for. Every organisation will have these tools and processes, but I think the point that Seddon and other systems thinkers try to impress upon people is that, by and large, those tools and approaches to managing are oriented to managing the wrong things. I see this in my work, too. So trying to integrate Seddon’s talk and Deming’s work and my own experiences, I would say that we do away with old-style management practice and replace it with the kind of management that works on the system….AND institute leadership. Management and leadership, different things. Both necessary. Complementary. Both/and, not either/or.

So what would a manager’s work look like if they were doing system-y management things, rather than control-y, target-y management things? How would someone in a senior management role occupy themselves, then, if they didn’t have all those “HR issues” to deal with? I feel privileged to say I used to work in a place many years ago, where the senior managers did this system-y stuff, rather than the controlling stuff. I say privileged because it’s more than just a lovely thought experiment for me, and at the same time, I still need to sit and think about how to approach the work I do. I want to be careful that I don’t come across to clients that I’m inferring they should drop the “management” ball and focus solely on developing their leadership.

Interestingly, when the two senior managers of my old workplace moved on, they were replaced with people who didn’t get systems thinking. Even more interestingly, the reputation of this organisation has gone downhill, they are struggling to survive, they are struggling to attract contracts, they are seriously struggling to retain good staff. The place has turned into a paper-shuffling nightmare with little room for autonomy, innovation or real learning. People feel stifled and it’s not a nice place to be anymore. Still….as far as the new managers are concerned, it’s working MUCH better than before; after all, they have everything under control, they have the people under control (…if they only knew) and everything that can be counted is being counted.

So, it’s not about getting rid of management in favour of leadership; organisations need both. The role of someone in a management position, however, is to provide the kind of support that people need in order to do their jobs well, not to keep tabs on them while they do it. Taking away targets does not mean living in lovely fluffy, cloud-land. It doesn’t mean, for example, that people stop having fierce conversations with one another. It’s just that they stop being fierce about which numerical targets people haven’t reached yet and which behaviours they need to stop and, instead, are fierce about quality. Quality freakery, not control freakery.

roundaboutIf we get managers to take up that system-y support role (making sure everyone has what they need blah blah blah), we can get rid of the target-y stuff. I like the roundabout/traffic light analogy. If the traffic people build a roundabout, they are implying, “We trust that drivers have all the information, experience and training they need to make the right decisions about who goes next.” The role of the traffic mangers, then, is to ensure that the system is built and maintained that promotes good flow and that people have learnt what they need to about responsible driving etiquette. Their job is not to keep tabs on individual drivers. Traffic lights, however, infer that drivers don’t need to do anything but what they’re told. Red means stop, green means go and amber means speed up or else you’ll have to wait for the next green. They then set up cameras to inspect whether or not people are breaking the rules and if they do, they get a fine in the post.

So management is about making sure people have all the knowledge, information, learning, resources and relationships necessary to get the job done and that the system is designed to make the stuff or provide the services that the market actually wants. If you haven’t yet, watch that Seddon video to hear some good examples of what shouldn’t be happening and what is starting to happen differently, illustrating how costs come down as the work gets done better for the benefit of the “market”.


So what is the leadership stuff? In my old workplace, the senior managers managed like systems thinkers (working on the system, not on the people) and they also role modelled leadership stuff. Leadership is often associated with providing a vision. Once again, the assumption is often that the few people “at the top” will craft that vision and then apply a bunch of management techniques (individual performance management, targets, standards) to get people to do stuff. I believe there is a disconnect. Why should the senior managers have the joy of working to achieve a grander purpose while all the workers get to see is their activity targets? Even if those “at the top” put together a vision, it will not necessarily come to fruition just because we tell people, “This is what you have to do.” I believe it comes to fruition when everyone in the business is a part of it, when everyone connects with it, when everyone is enlisted into it. I will do something really well if my will is engaged in it, not just because I have to. Best way of engaging my will? Include me in something bigger and bolder than a numerical target. In any case, if I’m a good boy, I may just try to meet my target and go no further or I may try to find creative ways to play with the numbers so it looks like I’ve met my targets.

To get leadership, I believe we need to emphasise purpose: what are we here to achieve for our “market”? Depending on the organisation,the market is someone buying our products and services or a social housing tenant who needs repairs done or a patient who needs good treatment. If targets are set, then, as Seddon suggests, the people work as if their purpose is to meet the targets. I believe organisations have other, more useful things as their purpose. I’ve used the example before of grave-diggers. The activity they engage in is digging and tending graves. However, I believe they are part of a wider system whose purpose is to assist families through bereavement. It is not just semantics; it makes a difference to how they carry out their work. It also makes a difference if they are connected to that purpose because rather than have to be carrotted or sticked to do their jobs well, they can see how they add value to the purpose, how they add value to those they are there to serve. The purpose, then, is not about meeting targets for how many graves they have to dig or tend. They already know how to do that well and don’t need beaten to make it happen. If the managers spend their time working on the system to make sure the grave-diggers have everything they need to do their jobs and the processes are clear, they can let them get on with it, and if there is leadership, everyone will be connected to purpose: making a difference to families in distress.

As Gregory Gull says, leadership must transcend self-interest. That, to me, seems self-evident. If someone is “doing leadership”, they are cognisant of those around them and the wider system. Operating purely out of self-interest is self-defeating in the long run. Good leadership is about seeing possibility; having the vision of how things could be. It’s about making a difference to others; having a deeper sense of why everyone really comes to work. Gull also says that leadership is related to one’s personhood, not one’s position. I believe the same. Good leadership development is good personal development.

I agree with John Kotter, that there are very very few organisations that have sufficient leadership. They may have managers who have re-styled themselves as “leaders” because it’s just what you call yourself these days. Without a shift in thinking, however, what we end up with a bunch of “leaders” still applying old management tools and looking for the people to blame when things don’t get any better.

Am I adding anything to the wider conversation? Not sure, but pondering and reflecting on all these things has helped me to get clearer in myself. As I’ve said before, I primarily write for myself; to help me integrate and seek to be of some use to clients. I do, however, welcome comments that build on this conversation and which may give me pause for further thought.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here