One of the stunning results of psychological research of the second half of the 20th century is that goals and feedback raise performance dramatically.
Depending on our starting point, we can raise our performance between 10% and several hundred percent by focusing on a fixed target and getting timely feedback about how close we are to our goal.
Target & box-ticking culture in the UK
In Britain, goals and feedback have been adopted widely and are known here as targets and box-ticking. Some people intuitively grasp there is something wrong with the system. Others believe that we are somehow able to control doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers and GET MORE DONE.
What is wrong with targets & box-ticking?
You have to look no further than the work of British psychologist, John Seddon, to understand what has gone wrong.
Why do goals and feedback dramatically increase our performance?
A goal gives us a fixed point to aim at and an environment where we learn what makes a difference. Feedback about our progress to our goals, preferably built into the task itself, helps us work out what works and what doesn’t.
Why do targets and box-ticking dramatically fail to raise our performance?
Targets (and box ticking) are not a system of goals and feedback. They are a plain old fashioned assembly line in which we perform simple movements at a set pace.
An assembly line was innovative in 1910 but it was overtaken by Toyota in the 50’s when they realised they could work much more effectively by throwing out the set pace “do it like this” methods and charging each person with investigating for themselves what works and what doesn’t.
University students routinely play the the “beer game” (and its descendants) to learn an important fact about assembly lines. Fixed ways of doing things don’t fit the natural variety of life. Too often what we do does not fit what is required. Fixed ways of doing things generates errors. Fixing errors is expensive. Before long, we have a mess and our budgets are way out of control.
Would I try to drive from London to Edinburgh at a fixed speed?
Let’s take a simple example. If I decide to drive from London to Edinburgh at a fixed speed, I quickly run into frustration I am much better off responding to variations in traffic conditions as I go.
Having a person plan my trip from an office in Cardiff, for example, might look good on paper but it doesn’t work. It is far better to give me good maps, a sat nav, and breaking news about traffic conditions.
I can take a break earlier than intended to escape a tail back, for example. I can take a detour along back roads and drive further faster. And other days, my trip will go smoothly along the full length of the M1, and I will arrive early.
That’s life. And it is cheaper, more enjoyable, and much more efficient that excessive planning.
Turning our GP’s and kindergartens in to assembly lines is so 1910
The attempt to turn every feature of Britain from GP’s offices to the kindergarten into an assembly line is very simply 100 years out of date. It is time to supply the person doing the job with the information they need to do it. They still need training, yes. They will value coaching; of course. They could use data to explore their own effectiveness.
The job of a manager is to provide the information they need in a timely way. The job of management is to provide data that tells us about coordination. Where is the tail back? Where is traffic heavy and about to cause another tail back? Managers have (or should have) the overview that the person on the job, or driving the single car, does not have, and cannot have because they are busy driving.
Managers are responsible for the outcome of our collective decisions. They are responsible for tail backs. They cannot make decisions for each of us though. They cannot. It is not practical. And it does not work because the only way to tell us all what to do, is to tell us all to do the same thing. And then our collective behaviour is not sufficiently flexible and adaptive and we get the very tailback that we were trying to avoid.
The way to avoid tailbacks is to keep each of us making our own decisions on the basis of relevant up-to-date information.
It’s harsh to say it, but if a manager does not understand that standardisation causes chaos, they should never have been appointed. This is MGMT101. It is taught in first year in university. We learn it in the boy scouts. We learn it when we organize a sleep-over.
A GP, for example, needs information on the state of health of their entire patient group. Then they can allocate resources sensibly. Discretion to spend half-an-hour with a patient might lead to a well thought health programme that resolves dozens of problems. Equally a frequent user might be distracted from unnecessary visits by non-medical interventions, such as family meeting.
A GP is highly motivated to work flexibly precisely because it helps them eliminate the queues. No system thought out elsewhere will achieve that. Instead, it creates dissatisfied patients who are not getting their issues dealt with and who then return to the system for more attention.
A goal of keeping these 2000 patients in good health is very different from a target of seeing 30 or so patients a day. Feedback about the health of 2000 patients is very different from filling in forms about whom one has seen.
If GPS’s get everything done and every one healthy and go home early, is that wrong? Emergency calls can still be routed to them at home.
It really is time to demand some “evidence based management”. If a government department wants targets, then let it set up properly conducted trials to compare their method with methods recommended by psychologists. Not just Seddon. All psychologists. It is time.