From the archive: A system fit for heroes [how targets affect public services]

Simon Guilfoyle /   March 3, 2013 at 8:33 PM 2,115 views

When I was 10, my favourite TV series was ‘Cover Up’. Recently I even found the title sequence on Youtube, with its soundtrack of Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero. Class! (I actually remember buying the 7″ single with my pocket money). I wanted to be that dude with the M16, outwitting the baddies and doing heroic stuff all the time.

Staying with the ‘hero’ theme, one of my readers recently used the phrase that later became the title of this post, and I liked it so much that I nicked it. The original version, of course, is former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s 1918 proclamation (made in good old Wolverhampton!) that the UK should be ’a country fit for heroes’ – in this case, the ‘heroes’ he referred to were British soldiers returning from the First World War. The social reforms that followed brought improvements in housing, welfare, education and pensions.

These reforms certainly instigated improvements to the wider social system, but being a bit of an occasional dabbler in aspects of military history I got to thinking about how systems conditions specifically affect the behaviour of the sorts of ‘heroes’ that Lloyd George talked about. I immediately remembered getting on my soapbox once during a lecture at university and ranting on about how the use of dysfunctional performance metrics is so widespread that it has even cost lives during warfare.

The example I gave came from the Vietnam War. Unlike the First and Second World Wars, military success could not be measured in terms of land captured or where frontiers were positioned on maps. In a similar fashion to what our soldiers are facing in Afghanistan today, the enemy (in this case the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army) mainly adopted guerilla tactics. Rather than conventional warfare involving large land battles and geographic objectives, the Vietnam war was fought with ambushes, booby traps and sudden bloody skirmishes – the VC or NVA would attack American soldiers and melt away into the jungle. Furthermore, US tactics often involved enduring bitter fighting to capture a particular hill, only to abandon it as being strategically worthless, days (or even hours) later, such was the fluid nature of combat.

This presented a problem to the hierarchy – “how do we know if we’re winning?” The solution they came up with was the infamous ‘body count’ – the theory went along the lines of “if we kill more of them than they kill of us, then we must be winning”. A war of attrition. Now, the use of the body count ‘metric’ as a measure of success is an interesting one for a number of reasons. Firstly, simply killing more VC and NVA than the total losses suffered by US forces doesn’t necessarily bear any correlation to their stated purpose of why they were there in Vietnam (i.e. to rid the country of Communism and prevent a ‘domino effect’ occurring in other countries in the region).

  • Lesson One –‘ Right measures, measured right’, remember? Measures must be derived from purpose, otherwise you’re measuring the wrong thing and the data will not tell you whether you are getting anywhere.

Secondly, the ‘body count’ metric was impossible to accurately measure, especially in the type of combat seen in Vietnam. Due to the transient nature of the fighting, soldiers from the two sides rarely came face-to-face, so there was never any effective method of ascertaining how many VC or NVA were actually killed following a contact. Let’s face it, if you’re suddenly attacked from the cover of the jungle and endure a 30 second gun battle against an unseen enemy, then it’s impossible to know how many of them were shooting at you. Even searching for bodies afterwards is problematic – dead enemy soldiers were often dragged away by comrades; that, and perhaps due to the nature of what occurred, there wasn’t much left to find. Think, ‘napalm strikes’. Sorry, but it’s true.

  • Lesson Two: If your measures are so unstable as to be this unreliable, they are absolutely useless when it comes to informing method, which after all, is what measures are supposed to do.

Finally, and most importantly, pressure from management to achieve good numbers always causes dysfunctional behaviour. In Vietnam, this manifested itself in body counts basically being made up. “They killed four of our guys, we found one VC body and a couple of blood trails…let’s record nine enemy kills”. It really was that ‘scientific’. And the bosses loved it, because to them, it meant the US must be ’winning’.

Sadly, the dysfunctional behaviour caused by this madness extended beyond merely making up figures – some field commanders actually initiated risky patrols that were of negligible military value, simply in the hope of bumping into the enemy and adding to the body count. Personal ambition and an obsession of ‘making the numbers’ placed soldiers’ lives at unnecessary risk and directly resulted in further loss of life. Frightening, isn’t it?

  • Lesson Three: Dysfunctional system conditions and dysfunctional performance management cause people to do dysfunctional things. Sometimes this can even result in death.

…and that was the essence of my impromptu university sermon.

When I’d finished my tirade I’m convinced that I’d popped a blood vessel or two (and entertained my classmates), but I also recall that I ran into the lecturer a couple of years later and he said it was his enduring memory of me as a student, adding that he wished he’d recorded it!

Now, I accept that the body count story is a pretty extreme example of performance management gone awry, but the principles hold true in less violent settings. How many ‘heroes’ are victims of dysfunctional performance management systems, and what effect does this have on them and the people they are there to serve?

It’s impossible for me not to think of the Stafford hospital scandal, where otherwise good people acted in the pursuit of targets at the expense of clinical care. Patients died. Or otherwise dedicated teachers coaching their young charges in test techniques so that their school doesn’t sink to the bottom of the league table for exam results. Education suffers. Or in policing, where the toxic effects of target-driven performance management have included prioritising what is easy over what is right. A generation of youngsters criminalised over playground fights and name-calling on Facebook.

Nothing heroic about that is there?

Courtesy of Simon Guilfoyle at InspGuilfoyle

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