So I cycle to work when I can. It’s approx. 22km from one side of the city of Christchurch to the other, right through the middle. I (usually) enjoy it immensely.
I upgraded my cycle computer a few months back to a fancy new GPS one. It’s got this cool screen that tells me lots of information. I can also download each cycle ride’s data onto my computer to analyse later – perfect for a geek!
I’d been using this computer for a few weeks and was starting to get an understanding of my average km/ hour for each trip. Sometimes I could get it into the 27 km/hour range, other times I could only manage 23 km/hour….and before all you MAMILs* out there guffaw thinking “how slow?!” the average speed takes into account stopping at lots of junctions (traffic lights, roundabouts, road works) and crossing busy traffic….not that I’m saying that I am fast.
(* MAMIL: middle-aged men in Lycra…and I must confess to being a member of)
Further, the computer tells me my average km/ hour at the bottom of the screen as I cycle. I can see it going up and down throughout the journey. If I stop at a junction I can see it plunge rapidly whilst I am sat idle and then if I cycle on a long flat straight I see it slowly rise back up again.
Now, I fell into the trap! I began to get distracted by the average km/ hour reading as I cycled. Without consciously thinking about it I set myself a target of completing each ride at an average of 25 km/hour or higher. The fact that I was doing this only dawned on me the other day after I performed a dodgy manoeuvre in my obsession to keep my average above the target… my sudden sense of mortality put me into a reflective mood.
Here’s what I reflected on:
What had I become?
- I had started to look at the average km/ hour reading all the time and obsess about it dropping below the magical 25;
- If I was stopped at traffic lights, I watched the average km/hour reading sink before my eyes. I was then in a mad hurry to get off so as to get that average back up again as quickly as possible:
- which meant that I was trashing my legs and blowing them out too early in the ride…
- which put me at huge risk of pulling a muscle/ injuring a joint whilst piling on the pressure to get back above that target…
- which meant that I didn’t cycle the next day because I couldn’t!
- If I was ‘on the cusp’ of the target and coming up to a junction then I was starting to do dangerous things in order to keep going, like running orange lights or crossing lanes in between cars;
- Even more bizarrely, I had unconsciously started to cheat!
- I had changed my behaviour to only turning on the computer after I had got going from my house because the few seconds getting up to speed from rest might count!
- If my average was 25.0 as I got to work I would turn the computer off before I came to a rest…so that it couldn’t drop down to 24.9 as I slowed…because that would have meant failure!
- Conversely, if I was well above the target (let’s say because I had a good tail wind or I had been really lucky with the light sequences), then I was pretty happy and relaxed…no need to push since I was ahead. I could have gone faster.
Reading the above, you may think me to be a bit of a nutter! Did I really do those things? Well, yes, I did…and I can honestly say that the 25 km/ hour target that I had set myself was to blame.
Now for those of you who have been on one of my courses or who have read the majority of posts on this blog, you will likely have a good laugh at me – “he bangs on about the evils of targets all the time!”
So, getting away from my target:
What is my actual purpose in cycling to work?
On reflection I came up with the following:
“To safely cycle to work so that I get fitter and I use the car less.”
Three things come out of this purpose:
- Fitter: I wanted to get better at it
- Use the car less: I needed to be able to cycle consistently, day after day
- Safely: there’s no point in getting killed or badly injured cycling!
This clarity of purpose has helped me drastically change the way I cycle!
Thinking about variation within the system:
In this case, the system is the cycling to/from work and the conditions I encounter in doing so. One cycle ride is a single ‘unit of production’. I should be thinking about the capability of the system (about how all units go through it), not about a single unit.
Here’s a control chart showing the variation in the last 20 of my rides:
The control chart enables you to visualise what a table of data can’t…that my riding is stable. It shows the meaninglessness of the target and variance analysis.
The following are the more obvious causes of variation:
- Head wind or tail wind (makes a huge difference!);
- Wet or dry weather;
- Heavy or light traffic;
- Whether the traffic light sequences are with me or not;
- …and so on
Some special causes might be:
- An accident;
- Road works
…although if you live in Christchurch you will know that there’s nothing special about road works !!!
You can see that it would be bizarre for me to achieve the same average km/ hour every day. Going back to that target: Some days it will be impossible for me to hit the 25, other days it will be really easy…and that’s without me changing anything about my riding.
Note: Looking back at the control chart, you might think that you detect an improvement from around ride 15 onwards. In fact, it was at around ride 15 that I had my ‘I’ve fallen into the target trap’ epiphany….so, yes, there could be something in that. However, you should also know that whilst ride 20 looks fantastic (it was), I had a massive Nor’ Wester wind behind me literally pushing me along.
What can I experiment with to increase my capability?
The first thing I need to do is STOP LOOKING at the average km/hour as I cycle. Then I can consider what I can change about my cycling for every ride.
Since ride 15 I’ve begun to experiment with:
- Junctions: looking well ahead and adjusting my pace to time myself through them so that I reduce the need to slow down/ stop
- Pedalling: trying to pedal more smoothly and efficiently
- Crossing lanes: improving my balance when looking behind me so that I can safely do this whilst retaining my speed with the traffic
- ….and so on.
Each of these changes will lead to small improvements on every ride, no matter what the conditions are. It’s not about the current unit, it’s about every unit.
Well, it’s too early to draw valid conclusions (I need more data), and it’s a never ending journey of improvement BUT I can say that I am cycling more often (because I didn’t wreck my legs the day before) and I’m having far less ‘that car’s a bit too close for comfort’ moments.
So what’s the point?
Targets cause dysfunctional behaviour. As Simon Guilfoyle makes clear:
“As a ‘method’ [Setting a target] is rubbish because it disregards the capability of the system and natural variation. … It assumes that the system knows the target is there and will respond to it (it doesn’t and it won’t!) It ignores the fact that the greatest opportunity for improving performance lies in making systemic adjustments rather than berating, comparing, or otherwise trying to ‘motivate’ the workers to achieve the target.”
‘No targets’ doesn’t mean ‘no measurement’! In fact, it’s quite the reverse. It means actually studying meaningful measures (i.e. against purpose) over time (via a control chart), understanding the capability of the system and therefore truly understanding whether it is improving, staying the same or getting worse.
Do you have targets? So what dysfunctional behaviours do they cause, moving us away from purpose?