Your cheatsheet for why league tables are total balls


Public Sector bodies waste huge amounts of money on total balls.

One of the most futile are the self-created league tables of performance indicators, showing where their organisation is on sorted lists against other similar organisations. Even though the government got rid of the despised and appalling Audit Commission, the thinking remains that comparisons aren’t in fact odious, but essential in driving improvement.

In the absence of any method of improvement this rot is still lying around stinking up the place.  So here are 10 reasons why league tables aren’t essential, they are total balls. 

1. They’re targets. League table positions and quartile numbers are basically numerical targets. They are an arbitrary number that an indicator “should” be at. This encourages gaming of indicators and distorting purpose just as normal everyday targets do.

2. Based on flawed assumptions. Comparing something with something else to justify if something is “good” or “bad” is a feature/symptom of command and control thinking, and is based on a set of flawed and inaccurate assumptions about work, rendering them flawed themselves.

3. Aren’t useful knowledge. Knowledge of what to do and why lies in the (i) customer/client/problem you are trying to solve, and (ii) the design of your solution to it. Deep authentic knowledge of these two things are what is needed to know what to do,

4. Don’t help learning. Experimenting with solutions will help you learn what works and what doesn’t. Learning gives you the improvement. League table postions do not provide learning. Organisations that are the best got there by learning how to be the best, not copying.

5. Can’t show the causes of improvement. Copying work design won’t help you because you can’t see the thinking. “The thinking” is what drives work, good work and bad work. It is how people think that work and people should be managed. That drives decisions and actions and is invisible. The design of the work is just the end product of the thinking.

6. Don’t show good or bad performance. Everyone in a league table could be good, or everyone could be bad. All the league table does is show relative positions, not absolute, whether the customer gets what they need is irrelevant.

7. To get better requires that others get worse . Any change in a league table position will logically be caused by relative positions of two numbers, your indicator and others. To get better requires that others get worse, stay the same or improve slower than you. You can’t improve on league table positions without the “competitors” getting worse.

8. Ignores natural variation. Benchmarking is riddled with binary comparisons. Comparing last time period and this, your number against others, your number against quartile positions. It is what people do who don’t know numbers, but happen to have two of them, so they put them side by side and announce proudly which is the bigger. Well done Einstein.

9. Futile time wasting. Managers and leaders waste time talking about the wrong thing, explaining and justifying things that doesn’t matter and won’t improve anything, in order to move a number that doesn’t matter up a table that shouldn’t exist.

10. Against continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is just that, continually improving actual work performance against the permanent target of perfection. League tables assume that people will do different things based on where they are in a league table. If you are the bottom, work hard! But if at the top do you slack off? Do top positions do anything differently, with less focus, because they are top? If not then why bother knowing you are top?

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