Policy Deployment #1 – Smart Goals Aren’t That Smart

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We are entering the time of year when most of us will be planning next year’s activities.   Hopefully most of us are doing policy deployment or something like it and not just having numerical goals dictated to us so that we can be held accountable later.  Hopefully the goals that we work towards will lead us to new levels of performance as well as new levels of personal and professional satisfaction.  Sometimes though goals that are meant to be too SMART don’t get us there.

Go ahead and type goals into your favorite search engine and there is little doubt that you will get a few thousand hits on sites admonishing you to assure that you set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This model (SMART) is pretty widely accepted, almost to the point of being axiomatic to most people.  I have a couple problems with this model.  Here’s my take:

  • Specific – agreed
  • Measurable – agreed
  • Attainable – wrong!
  • Relevant – of course, that’s one of the main points of policy deployment
  • Time-bound – maybe, depends what you mean.

First let’s talk about time-bound.  If time-bound means framing the plan in terms of next year’s improvement then you are selling your organization and your people short.  A single year is far too short of a time frame for an aggressive vision.   President John F. Kennedy’s September 12, 1962 speech given at Rice University challenged the United States to send a person “to the moon in this decade….”  That left about 7 years, 9 months, and 19 days to get it done.  That was a pretty big challenge, and it deservedly required a long time frame.  Maybe a 3 to 5 year goal is a decent horizon for setting business goals.  This allows a pretty big goal to be set and assures some year to year constancy of purpose (Deming point # 1).  It will also allow you to both break and follow the other rule that I have a problem with – Attainable goals.

I don’t want to suggest that we set goals that are truly unattainable.  What is important however, is that you set a goal that strikes people as being unattainable (at least at first).  Set an audacious goal for the next few years that shocks people.  Your goal should create some cognitive dissonance or as Peter Senge would call it, creative tension.  In his book, The Leader’s New Work, Building Learning Organizations, Senge talks about how to use the energy created by that gap to drive learning in an organization:

Leadership in a learning organization starts with the principle of creative tension. Creative tension comes from seeing clearly where we want to be, our “vision,” and telling the truth about where we are, our “current reality.” The gap between the two generates a natural tension. Creative tension can be resolved in two basic ways: by raising current reality toward the vision, or by lowering the vision toward current reality. Individuals, groups, and organizations who learn how to work with creative tension learn how to use the energy it generates to move reality more reliably toward their visions.

That gap that Senge is talking about has to be powerful enough to do a few things:

  1. Lead people out of their current frame of reference, understand that they can’t achieve the goal simply by working harder.
  2. Lead people to acknowledge the need to develop new, and profound knowledge, people need to learn to achieve a good goal.
  3. Lead people to think deeply about how they will meet the challenge.  If people can quickly tell you how they are going to achieve your goal then it probably isn’t bold enough.  It should require some exploratory thought and reflection.
  4. Lead people to abandon their paradigms about product and process trade offs.   Relationships like “we can go faster but we will make more scrap parts,” or “we can deliver to a 3 day order fulfillment time but we will have to increase finished goods inventory by 50%” need to be challenged.  A good goal will force these perceived relationships to be broken.
  5. Require that people envision the solution after next.  President Kennedy talked about a giant rocket “made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented….”  If your goal is just the next logical “thing” then it probably won’t tap the inherent cognitive and creative energies of people.

On July 20, 1969 the Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin reached the surface of the moon (they splashed down along with Michael Collins on July 24th, 1969 completing the other part of the challenge which was returning them safely).  Had JFK merely set the goal of 10% annual improvement for the KPI of ‘maximum altitude achieved’ Apollo 11 would have achieved an altitude of 275 miles — 238,500 miles short of the moon.  Worse yet, by not setting a goal that “will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” he would have deprived his people (the nation of people and perhaps all of humanity)  the deep sense of accomplishment and joy at achieving something that they probably didn’t think was possible (and therefore flouting Deming point #12 – remove barriers that rob people of joy or pride in their work — short-sighted goals do this passively.)  After all, being part of the first expedition to send a spacecraft to an unknown celestial body, and returning it safely (one that countless new knowledge and technologies) was probably more fun and more rewarding than improving your KPIs 8% by working a little harder and longer.

Of course the big multiyear plan needs to be broken down into some single year plans (for some good reasons and some bad ones, another post maybe), but by making the time frame for your goal longer than a single year AND by establishing goals that seem unattainable at first people will be intellectually engaged on levels that they can’t be by shooting for a 6 to 8 percent improvement in a KPI.

Here is a brief excerpt from the speech.  I apologize for the low quality but I webcast it in the prepare phase of my policy deployment training and I need files to be small because a lot of people have low-bandwidth.

Here is the whole speech:

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7 Responses

  1. Bruce, I enjoyed the blog. I give you credit for taking the time and effort required to publish this. You have been one of the Lean thought leaders I can count on for insite and new perspective. You are right on the mark with the “time frame” and setting “wow” goals. Too often we get trapped with goals for ‘how we will be judged” and not “what we want to accomplish”. As your grand father would say- reach for the stars…

  2. Great points! As we are going through our policy deployment sessions, I was wondering if anyone has a solution to presenting A3’s via web sessions? The problem is the A3 looks too small to read when presented over say Webex. Zooming is bulky and tedious and just confuses people. Anyone have a solution that they would be willing to pass along?

    • Answer to the A3 question. Do what Toyota would do, fax that thing over. We are going through an A3 epiphany, how to structure/teach A3 without putting too much structure in the A3. Keeping it more of a tool for the discussion, instead of a document. Take a look at this book http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1563273608/ref=ox_ya_oh_product . Mine should be here in a couple of days. I am currently working with Durward on implementing a Lean curriculum for a national healthcare system. He is a student of Liker.

      Goals: I think is it important to set a “stretch goal” as a goal. Not that “stretch goal” in that it is unattainable, but as a goal that is out there far enough that if you fall short of making it, you will still dazzle the management team. My rule of thumb is at least 50% improvement. If you are not reaching that far, you are not reaching far enough and your efforts will be sub optimal.

  3. Bruce – great comments. you gave me some insights for a team speech. thanks!

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