On The KPI Culture

Over the past ten years, it seems as if this once-great nation has been suffocated underneath a stifling array of forms, paperwork and boxes to tick. This sort of thing has always been an element in human endeavour, I’m sure, at least since the invention of the box (and the tick) but it seems to me, and this is purely anecdotal, that it has got far, far worse in recent years.
It’s common daily news fodder that state-run institutions like the NHS and the Police are becoming too obsessed with targets and missing the point of the service they are supposed to provide. This is to be mourned, for sure but it is really no more than is to be expected when the state itself is obsessed with targets.

This is a corrosive culture. When people are set targets, they will put all their efforts into beating those targets. The idea that setting the right targets will create the culture intended is a myth. Setting the notorious 4-hour wait target in A&E, for example, has not resulted in everyone either being treated or admitted within four hours. It has simply meant that A&E departments have been organised to beat the target in the simplest way possible and patients are merely looked at by a doctor within four hours and then have another (sometimes much longer wait) on a trolley somewhere to actually get treatment. They just count the Trolley Area as a ward and presto, we have a fully-compliant A&E.
The same thing has happened with the police. They have been set targets for ‘Crimes Solved’ or some such nonsense and as a result the police now concentrate on solving as large a number of easy crimes (often resulting in cautions or the now-ubiquitous fixed £80 fine) like running red lights or speeding, and the serious crimes like burglary, murder or rape get less attention because they still only tick one box.

This is a huge problem, and one that only a major change of government will fix and even then it may take a long time. The problem that causes me the most frustration in everyday life, however is the way that the private sector seems to have taken this culture on board, in a way that is actually damaging to their own businesses. Now, we’ve all heard apocryphal stories about Ten Ton Nails and the like, but it seems to me that we are really in danger of becoming that sort of society. Around six years ago I worked in a factory, boring work but well paid. I was quite fast, and within the restrictions of the operating cycles of the machines, I nevertheless quite often managed to run out of work and leave my machine to help out on other lines. Until, that is, the company decided that we all had to fill in A2 sheets tracking our output by time, and detailing toilet breaks and anything that stopped production on our lines. It quickly became apparent that filling in the sheet itself took rather a long time, especially as the sheet was paper and the machine coolant we used was oil-based, so filling in the sheet meant removing gloves and washing hands to prevent the sheet from becoming so greasy it was impossible to write on. Once this system was in place, my productivity dropped due to wasting so much time travelling back and forth to the bathroom to wash my hands. I remarked on this to my supervisor and he said simply “Write that on the sheet then.” So I did. It didn’t matter that their system reduced productivity, it didn’t matter that they wee paying more wages to produce less product, as long as it was all recorded!
And people wonder about the decline in manufacturing in this country.

This is an issue in my current job too. I work in retail now, and recently the company I work for has seen fit to attempt to codify every single eventuality, the way every shop must be set out, which types of POS must be used in which areas of the store, everything. Everything that is, except sales and customer service which have neccesarily become much harder as the staff are spending all their time running around checking every little detail (an impossible task in a fast-paced retail environment) because that is what their appraisals are based on, and of course things that should be important, like selling things get less effort spent on them.

But what about the things that fall between boxes? In this culture things like that don’t count. A policeman giving a small boy a scare and a clip round the ear, and preventing a life of crime. A nurse giving a lonely, depressed individual some care and a listening ear and preventing a suicide attempt, people going above and beyond the call of duty? These things are dying out and our society is the poorer for it. The question is how can we redress the balance?

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