Management by Objective, as practiced, loves goal setting and measurables. The old mantra “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is uttered every 1.2 seconds in some office, somewhere in America.

It works like this: Measure a result over some period of time, decide on a goal for better numbers, communicate that goal to subordinates, and hold them accountable for attaining the goal. On-time shipments averaged 80% over the last year? Set the goal at 90%. Average GPA for a student body is 2.0? Mandate a requirement that the school reach an average of 2.5 within three years. This is also the favored method of the bureaucrat and the central planner.

When Dr. Deming spotted such practice, he would always ask: “By what method?” How would you attain such a goal? And if you could get better results simply by decree, what prevented you from doing it the year before?

“Must have been goofing off”, Deming chided.

Brian Joiner expanded on Dr. Deming’s work by teaching that there are three ways you can get better numbers out of a system:

1) Improve the system.

2) Distort the system.

3) Distort the numbers.

That’s it. Three choices. The subjects, given a new goal to reach, will follow one of the three methods. Let’s look at methods #2 and #3 first, since lacking any tools and methods for real systemic improvement, people usually resort to one or the other. Method #2, distort the system, may take the form of “show me what you’ll measure, and I’ll show you how I behave.” It means that people will shift their priorities from one task to another if they know it is being scrutinized closely. Less time and effort will be spent on Task A because management has stressed that Task B must improve. Of course, Task A was the big push last month, but management can only keep up with so many priorities. As a result, we get local improvement in one area, but no real systemic improvement because some other area suffers a lack of effort or attention. This leads to management playing the old whack-a-mole game, like the one at the arcade. Holding a padded mallet, moles pop up out of holes and the player beats them down, only to have another mole pop up from a different hole, and on and on… The management version of whack-a-mole involves keeping up with all of the goals and priorities while employees shift their efforts around to meet the big push of the moment. Method #2 may also involve changing the system to its detriment to make better results, as measured, more easily attainable. In the case of student GPAs, we may simply make tests easier, inflating grades but with no net benefit to the learners.

Method #3, distort the numbers, is much simpler. We simply fudge the figures. An inspector, charged with reporting the number of defects per worker, may fail to report defects to save a co-worker from discipline or firing. The defects are hidden, the numbers get better, but quality did not improve.

There are countless ways methods #2 and #3 can be carried out, limited only by the creativity of the workers. McDonald’s installed an electronic eye below the drive-up window of their restaurants to count the cars as they pulled up. The vehicles-per-hour figures were sent up to corporate, and goals were established. A consultant schooled in the Deming management methods knew the right question to ask: “What do you do when your numbers are running low?” A grinning employee showed her – they would dangle a bag out the window, back and forth across the electronic eye to run up the counter.

Bank tellers seldom have a perfectly balanced till at the end of their work day. Overages and shortages occur. A new branch manager, intent on eliminating the problems, simply mandated that they will not be tolerated. Anyone turning in a till with anything other than a balance would face discipline, a few occurrences would result in their dismissal. Within a short time, he got his results. All of the tills were balanced, day in and day out. Corporate management was impressed and the manager was rewarded for the exemplary performance of his branch. How was it accomplished? Within the ranks of the tellers, a sophisticated banking and lending operation had developed; anyone with an overage would keep it outside the system, and would turn in a balanced till. Anyone with a shortage would borrow from the overages bank, and would turn in a balanced till.

The numbers improved, but the system did not. In fact, the effort expended in running the subsystem of banking and lending diverted time and effort from customer service and real system improvement.

If we want better results, we have to improve the system that delivers the results. Real improvement comes from the introduction of better methods, an understanding of the System of Profound Knowledge, and the methodology of the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle.