smartWe are all taught at an early age in our careers (i.e. ‘Management for dummies’) that we should cascade down S.M.A.R.T objectives. You will come across it as an idea that is so deeply rooted that it has been co-opted as ‘common sense’.

Sounds so good, it must be right, right?

Let’s just remind ourselves what SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time bound

Let’s then also remind ourselves about the definition of a system (taken from my earlier ‘Harmony or cacophony’ post):

“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim [purpose] of the system.” (W. Edwards Deming)

The cascaded objectives technique (known as Management by Objectives, or M.B.O) is used by ‘Command-and-control’ organisations in the mistaken belief that, if we all achieve our cascaded personal objectives, these will then all roll up to achieve the overall goal (whatever that actually is).

This misunderstands:

  • the over-riding need for all the parts (components) of a system to fit together; and
  • the damage caused by attempting to optimise the components…because this will harm the whole system.

A simple illustrative example (taken from Peter Scholtes’ superb book called ‘The Leaders Handbook’):

Let’s say that we run a delivery company – our system. Fred, Amy and Dave are our drivers – our people components. If we provide them each with SMART personal objectives cascaded down (and offer performance-based pay), we might assume that they will all be ‘motivated’ to achieve them and therefore, taken together, the purpose of the whole will be achieved. Sounds great – I’ll have some of that!

…but what should we expect?

  • Each driver might compete with the others to get the best, most reliable, largest-capacity truck;
  • Each driver might compete for the easiest delivery assignments;
  • Drivers might engage in ‘creative accounting’: such as trying to get one delivery counted as two; or unloading a delivery somewhere nearby where it can be made after hours so that they can go back to the warehouse to get more jobs;
  • If we have created a competition out of it (say, the getting of a desirable award) then we can expect to see little driver co-operation, more resentment and perhaps even subtle sabotage.

The above shows that the sum of the outcomes will not add up to what we intended for the whole system…and, in fact, will have caused much unmeasured (and likely immeasurable) damage!

This is a good point to bring out Eli Goldratt’s classic quote:

“Tell me how you will measure me and I will tell [show*] you how I will behave.”

* I prefer to use the word ‘show’ since most people won’t tell you! They know their actions aren’t good for the overall system (they aren’t stupid) and so don’t like telling you what daft practices the management system has ended up creating.

A critique of S.M.A.R.T:

“SMART doesn’t tell us how to determine what to measure, and it assumes knowledge – otherwise how do we know what is ‘achievable’ and ‘realistic’? It is only likely to promote the use of arbitrary measures that will sub-optimise the system.” (John Seddon)

If an individual (or ‘team’) is given a truly SMART objective then, by definition, it would have to have been set so that they could achieve it on their own….otherwise it would be unrealistic.

Therefore any interdependencies it has with the rest of the organisational system would have to have been removed…which, clearly, given the definition of a system means one of the following:

  • if all interdependencies had been successfully removed…then meeting the resultant SMART objective will be:
    • a very insignificant (and very possibly meaningless) achievement for the system; and/or
    • sub-optimal to the system (i.e. work against the good of the whole)


  • if (most likely) it was in fact not possible to truly remove the interdependencies…despite what delicate and time consuming ‘word smith-ing’ was arrived at…then:
    • it will be a lottery (not really under the person’s control) as to whether it can be achieved; and/or
    • it will ‘clash’ with other components (and their supposedly SMART objectives) within the system

So where did the post title ‘D.U.M.B’ come from? Here’s a thought provoking quote from John Seddon:

“We should not allow a plausible acronym to fool us into believing that there is, within it, a reliable method.”


  • SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound


  • DUMB: Distorting, Undermining, Management-inspired, Blocking improvement

Does the fact that the acronym and its components ‘match’ make it any more worthy?

Cascaded personal objectives will either be ineffective, detrimental to the whole system or a lottery (outside of the person’s control) as to whether they can be achieved.

We need to move away from cascaded personal objectives and, instead:

  • see each horizontal value stream as a system, with customers and a related purpose;
  • provide those working within these systems with visible measures of the capability of the system as against its purpose; and
  • desist from attempting to judge individuals ‘performance’ and thereby allow and foster collaboration and a group desire to improve the system as a whole.

2 thoughts on “DUMB

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