Eighteen elementary examples of target setting pitfalls
Target setting should not be treated lightly!
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A key element of managing performance is to set challenging but achievable targets against meaningful performance indicators.
The achievement of these targets is a key element in an organisations duty to continually improve their services and to deliver their aims, objectives and priorities.
Target setting can come with its own problems, but listed below are 18 things to consider, which will help you avoid many of these.
1. "From the top"
Here is your starting point – what is your baseline position: what was the figure achieved last year?
2. Think of changes and variants
Are all of the conditions the same – capacity, budget, regulations, definition, local context, data systems, operating processes? If not – how are these likely to impact on performance?
3. Good-lookin’ performance
What does good performance look like? Is it to be as high a percentage as possible (e.g. percentage of invoices paid on time) or as low as possible (number of days sickness absence) – or should it be neither too high or too low (e.g. number of child protection cases, where too high might indicate too much intervention and too low might indicate not enough).
4. What is needed to maintain existing performance
What needs to be in place to maintain existing performance – this question can be crucial if high levels of performance are currently being achieved – e.g. 95% or more.
5. What could help to improve performance?
What could help to improve performance? Do you know where the blockages are – the problem areas? Are there plans in place to address these issues? How long might it take for the outcome of these actions to have an impact on performance?
6. Dictation or Collaboration
Has the person who is involved at the operational level, delivering the service that is being measured by this indicator, been involved in the target setting discussion? Their local/practical knowledge is essential, and so is their buy-in and commitment to achieve it.
7. To count or not to count?
Is there a clear definition for the indicator which states exactly what should be counted and what should be excluded from the calculation?
8. Check for a statutory performance target
Is the indicator one of a national framework which has all of the parameters clearly defined? If so, have you set the same target for wherever it feeds into a performance outcomes framework?
9. What about what others are achieving (benchmarks)
When reviewing performance and setting targets, consider our current benchmark position. Benchmarking allows you to set local performance in a wider context: at local level we can track improvement and achievement of target, but in the wider context are we really doing well – are others doing much better?
10. Local metrics could mean a lack of comparability
If a local performance indicator is created, bear in mind that this will provide you with a limited amount of information and it will not allow you to benchmark your performance with other providers.
11. Set disaggregated targets for business-critical metrics where possible
For a selected number of ‘key’ performance indicators, set targets for and review the data by it contributory levels – for example if the overall indicator is made up of reports by each town team or each school in the borough, set targets and report data at that level. There might well be a sound reason for one area to have a tighter target level than another, and it is better to set realistic targets that staff feel able to buy-in to it and give a commitment to try to achieve. If a target is totally unrealistic, it will often be ignored.
12. Internal comparability can engineer better collaborative working
Where the data is reported down to ‘team’ level there is often healthy competition – teams will scrutinise each other’s performance levels and where there are notable difference in the levels, will ask questions about what has been done differently to achieve the performance levels reported.
13. Smaller cohorts mean big variances
Bear in mind that if the indicator relates to a very small number, a seemingly large percentage might only mean an increase or reduction of 1 person.
14. Consider potential seasonal impacts
Consider whether it is appropriate to profile targets to take into account, for example, seasonal variations in performance.
15. Would the data source stand up to an external (or internal) audit
Consider the data source for your performance information: is the data quality checked and auditable? Can you be sure that the same type of data is being reported each period – there is a pre-defined report which extracts the same set of information from the database? If new data reporting mechanisms are introduced, these could produce a variation to the expected level of performance, which could in turn impact upon the targets set. Regular data quality assurance checks/validation should be undertaken on a regular basis throughout the year so that the data that feeds the performance indicator is consistent.
16. A robust target setting process is imperative
Ensure that there is a robust target setting process in place – a detailed proforma of historical data, most recent performance data, and proposed targets for the next three years. Involve the service provider and head of service in the agreement process. For each target, apply a robust challenge – ask questions, as outlined above, to check that there is clarity about what is to be measured, there is a means of capturing the information at regular intervals throughout the year, that the proposed target is achievable, and whether or not the target should be profiled to reflect season variations, etc.
17. Set the targets and lock them down
When there is satisfaction that the target is appropriate, get key players to sign their commitment: the target should not then be changed within the reporting year, unless there are exceptional over-riding reasons e.g. a late notification by government office of a change in the definition and calculation of an indicator. Any such changed target should be subject to the same challenge and sign off processes as the initial target setting activity.
18. Utilising stretched targets
Is the target the target that you should be working towards or is it only a position of continued acceptable performance e.g. if you always achieve 90% performance, then you won’t performance to slip; but if you can meet a stretched target then is there an opportunity for additional rewards?
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About the Author
Gareth is one of our Implementation Consultants. He has a wealth of experience in the public sector, particularly local authority where he spent 18 years delivering on policy, citizen engagement and performance management in the West Midlands.