Hitting the target

Another meeting

It is 930 on a Thursday morning in 2007 and the managers of a small district council are gathering in the council chamber. The room is filled with rows of tables facing forward while councillors and staff from local organisations sit around the edges of the room.

The chief executive and her deputy sit at the head of the room facing the managers. It has the air of a courtroom.

The session begins. A graph appears. Waste collection is off target. It has a black spot. Attention in the room turns to the environmental services manager. He explains that we’ve had a wet summer and consequently we’ve collected more garden waste than expected. The matter will be discussed at the next meeting of the corporate management team.

Next, it seems that communications performance is off target. This is mine. I explain that we had expected to issue the resident’s newsletter a couple of weeks earlier than we actually had. We will return to target next month. I also get a “black spot”. We will keep an eye on it. We move on.

Within an hour we have covered all of the metrics that are off target. We do not waste time looking at metrics that are hitting target. Hitting target is what we expect. Managers who are missing target are not being punished, their colleagues will help them. That’s the point.

Surgery

This meeting has been taking place every month for two years. It is now, business-like, focused and professional. It didn’t start that way. The first of these meetings was one of the most excruciating experiences of my working life. You see this had been one of the worst performing councils in England.

Back in those days councils had to gather performance data across a whole swathe of services and send it to the government. These reports were for “Best Value Performance Indicators” and there was a legal obligation on the council to send them. They allowed the performance of councils to be compared and, let’s face it, judged. We were not just poorly performing against a load of these metrics, we didn’t even know what our performance was against a chunk of them.

And so, in 2004, we had been placed into “Engagement” with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (for local government nerds actually we were placed into engagement in 2004 with the Deputy Prime Minister, DCLG came around in 2006).

Our chief executive had stolen an idea from West Mercia Police. They held monthly performance surgeries to review the performance of the various geographic commands in their area. They were set up to be quite inquisitorial, the (Chief?) Superintendents sat around a table surrounded by their teams and invited guests. The Chief Constable fixed them with a hard stare and asked them to explain crime figures in the area under their control.

The first time we tried a version of this it was, frankly horrible. None of us knew very much about our services, certainly we weren’t able to answer the (actually very reasonable) questions of our leaders. Our colleagues watched us squirm for two long hours until we were finally released.

The next month was pretty bad, maybe not quite as excruciating. The month after that most of us had realised this was going to be a thing now and so we had started to talk to our teams about performance. The next month things were a little easier.

Fast forward into 2007 and this monthly ritual had become the heartbeat of the organisation. Our absolute measures of performance had shot up but, more importantly, we understood our services, our teams understood our services. The organisation was working well. Customers who, in many cases had been getting a terrible service, were seeing real improvements. Most importantly of all, we wanted to improve, every day we wanted to deliver better services than the day before.

Would I do it again?

I’ve been meaning to write up our performance surgery approach for, well, a long time. Then, today, I finally sat down to do so and I realised that, nearly 10 years on, my perspective has changed.

For a long time I thought that our improvement had been driven by a relentless focus on performance. It certainly seemed that way. After all all we really talked about was performance and targets and indicators.

Actually, with the benefit of considerable hindsight (and a lot of subsequent learning) I don’t think that was performance management at all. It was the performance surgeries themselves.

Every month we sat down with our colleagues and we saw what they needed help with. Then we helped them. We learned from each other. We trusted each other.

I would absolutely not recommend the performance surgery approach these days. It was a particular approach for a particular set of circumstances and much too top down and prescriptive to breed responsive adaptable organisations.

Where I think there is real value is in supporting and encouraging processes that allow people across the organisation (and beyond it) to understand the current experience of other people across the organisation, to learn from each other, and to help each other.

Set a target for that. I dare you.