Friday, 15 May 2009

Dangerous targets

A few days ago I made reference to Locke and Latham’s attack on using anecdotal evidence to “prove” a point. The rigours of research well done and properly carried out should provide information that is more dependable than hearsay.

However, during the course of our working lives we inevitably hear details of managers who have successfully or unsuccessfully used devices such as targets in performance management. One such story, from the 1950’s, demonstrates just how dangerous targets can be when left unchecked.

The North of Scotland Hydro Electricity Board was formed in 1943 after 50 years of successfully generating hydro electricity in the highlands of Scotland. They set out grand and ambitious plans to bring not only electricity to every home in Scotland, but also much needed employment. Their schemes did not go unopposed, but eventually won out and what turned out to be several decades of building hydro electricity plants across Scotland started.

The work involved tunnelling and blasting through mountainous areas to form the infrastructure for the hydro electric plants. It was dangerous work, often done by immigrants who were paid well, and incentivised to work quickly. Overtime was freely available, and eagerly taken up, despite the risks of having tired men working in dangerous conditions.

The overheads on the construction projects were significant and the faster the work could be completed, the better. In the absence of health and safety laws, and high targets for both managers and workers, risk taking was an everyday occurrence.

Many lost their lives and limbs in an atmosphere that valued speed over human life. The final tally for those that perished during the construction of such schemes has been lost – despite the relative recentness of the work. It is a stark reminder of what unchecked corporate targets can achieve.

Yes, the work was completed, but not without significant loss of life and not without construction failures. Since then, of course, different laws have been passed that do not allow such dangerous working conditions.

Walking in the peaceful highlands of Scotland now much of the hydro works are hidden – only the dams and power stations are visible. So it is easy to forget the toil and hardship suffered by those who built them. But it is a reminder that whilst targets might be a powerful weapon, they need to be used responsibly.

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