It was W. Edwards Deming that first spoke of “arbitrary numerical goals” and the damage they can do to organizations.  His famous question was, “By what method?”

Anyone that understands Walter Shewhart’s control charts understands that a system operating predictably between the upper and lower control limits cannot be improved without a statistically significant change of method.

They can, however, be changed by manipulation of the system or the numbers.   This is the bad news of targets, especially when rewards or penalties are tied to achieving them.  Managers and workers are caught attempting to reach targets in bad systems . . . manipulation is often the only alternative.  It becomes what John Seddon calls their “defacto purpose.”

Over and over organizations that set targets get a false sense of security.  SLAs (Service Level Agreements), KPIs, budgets are set with targets and seemingly achieved, but customers don’t feel the 95% target in the service provisioned to them.  There is good reason for this, the truth is hidden in the details.  Projects and cases are closed and reopened, customers get hung up on, operational definitions are changed, money shifted and the list goes on in the creativeness to hit the numbers.

None of this is real improvement.

The design of our service systems gets to the heart of Dr. Deming’s method question.  When the design of the work is consistently poor (and it is), the result is predictable . . . bad service hidden by faux measures.

It doesn’t end there.

Unfortunately, service organizations turn to information technology to automate the poor design.  Here, we enter the realm of scripts, IVRs, best practices, analytics and standardization – a short list.  Management has a love for technology that is assumptive in nature and puzzling to customers.  Management and technology are like moths to light.  Why have paper when we can have technology?  For that matter, why have people?

A fool’s gold.

Service organizations have spent billions on technology and the outcome has been project delays, cost overruns, and entrapped workers have contributed to the great money pit called information technology.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Our greatest opportunity for improvement lies in the design and management of work.  This involves not just redesign, but also how our thinking got us to the poor design in the first place.

Much of this thinking problem is rooted in costs and budgets with the corresponding targets associated with these.  Others are rooted in the problem of the functional separation of work, how we think about workers (see the Quality Digest article The Droids We Build), assumptions about motivation.

Coming to grips with the thinking that prevents good service is an important part of developing good service.  Addressing the system conditions (targets, technology, standardization, etc.) that constrain our service systems can only be done with knowledge.  And knowledge is gained by studying our service systems outside-in from a customer’s perspective.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Read his articles at Quality Digest and his column for  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at LinkedIn at