the silly practice of performance reviews

For Deming performance appraisals and the often subsequent, employee ranking, is one of the seven deadly diseases of management. He also insightfully told us to get rid of numerical targets and work quotas, clever fellow Dr D.

As you may know I am a big fan of Elliot Jaques and his seminal work developing a comprehensive coherent organisational theory.

Regarding this topic however, Elliot Jaques’ states:

“An individual’s performance is the relationship between targeted output and achieved output.”

I’m afraid it just does not stack up, it is way too simplistic in today’s complex business environment. Firstly all targets are arbitrary so measuring performance relative to an arbitrary target is just as arbitrary. Secondly, I most likely work in a system that has been designed by someone else (if at all, it may just have emerged over time) so it constrains my ability to perform, meaning there is inherent unfairness in assessing my individual performance as measured by output. Dr Deming’s 95-5 rule highlights the impact of the system on performance vs. the impact of the individual. Of course this is not a literal rule but it is clear where the greatest leverage for improvement is.

I agree wholeheartedly that feedback is essential but I think annual reviews should be banned; they have no place in a modern organisation. I really do wonder for whom they are valuable, not once have I heard a manager nor a staff member even hint at getting any value from them. Someone in HR however, most likely with a nonsense target about how many have been done, harasses anyone who still has not completed this complete waste of time.

Often the design of performance management systems are delegated not only to HR, but to a level in HR that is too low to understand the true complexity of the task. We end up with a process-laden system that assumes there is true objectivity in numbers and targets as measurements of performance.

Of course we all need to know what is expected of us in our role and how we are going. That bit goes without saying and I think your 8 questions go some way to improve the feedback process and as you point out make it a more frequent occurrence. Discussing performance and the role is something that can and should happen continuously. Context changes and subsequently roles may need to be adjusted to better reflex these changes so the role description can be a live document. It is also critical that the role description outline what the expected good behaviours are for the different elements that the role is accountable for. I like that your questions are based on manager’s using their own judgments to assess performance. An often overlooked role in performance systems is the role of the MoR who plays a critical part of the overall system in that their role is to make sure the manager-subordinate relationship is fair.

If you subscribe to the idea that systems drive behaviour, you have to, as a manager dig a bit deeper than the individual if you see undesired or unproductive behaviours emerge in the organisation.

I wrote this entry as a response to Michael Cardus’ post on performance appraisals.

performance target, friend or foe?

I subscribe to Stacy Barr’s blog on performance measures and the other day she posted an entry on targets. Since I am working towards removing targets all together I posted a reply.  

Stacey’s post is available on

My reply is published below and I’ll be interested in Stacey’s reply.

Hi Stacey, I’ve commented on this topic before and in my view targets are a complete waste of time – we should not become friends with them we should abolish them. The negative consequences of targets and a target setting culture are quite astonishing.

What is wrong with just measuring performance with the intent of learning and improving? What value does the numerical target add to this, especially since it will be an arbitrary number anyway? Any number you put up could be questioned, we need to improve by 10%, why not 11% or 9%? – the real question is by what method will we improve our performance? 

Even in safety with Zero harm targets which on the surface sounds admirable, the danger is that people do not report things as it will ruin the reporting.

Targets motivate people – if so where is the evidence for this claim? I’ve seen much evidence to suggest the contrary, targets demotivating staff and creating a de facto purpose to reach the target regardless of broader impact, all sorts of creativity comes into play to manipulate data to reach the target. A recent report from House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) into allegations of police mis-recording of crime statistics highlight this.

Simon Guilfoyle’s blog and link to the report is available on

I’ve borrowed this marvellous image from Simon’s twitter feed.


Targets sets direction – surely a well defined sense of purpose already does this. If people do not know why they are doing something that is a critical failing of leadership.

Stacey, you know your statistics so when I say that there are only three places a target can reside on a control chart you know what I talk about (assuming a stable process). It will either be below the LCL (in which case you will always meet the target), it will be in between the UCL and LCL (in which case it will be hit and miss due to common cause), or it will be above the UCL (in which case you will never reach it with the current method).



Your example of reducing the time from 24 hours to 12 hours is an interesting one, why is the average time important? A couple of complex cases and your average can blow out. You have spoken before about the need to shift the process capability and that’s a way to understand if any real improvement has been achieved. The value is as you know not in the average as such.

Targets and target setting is the thinking of the command and control manager in a organisation where decision-making is separated from work. As the complexity of organisations increase and more and more work is knowledge work, managers have had to abandon the attempt to control the individual activities of their staff and stop using target-setting to try to control the organisation.