The modern management obsession with targets is missing the point…

Being told to grasp the bull by the horns is usually a management metaphor for getting on with the job. In my line of work as a country vet, it’s just as likely to be a reality. A significant part of my time is spent Tuberculosis testing cattle as a subcontractor to the department of agriculture.

We will all be familiar with the concept of a having a blood test at the doctors and the sample being whisked off to a shiny white computer controlled lab. Well, my role is nothing like this. The Tb test was developed in the 1950s using the state of the art equipment available then, mainly scissors and brass callipers.  I clip two marks at precise but undefined positions on the animal’s neck I then inject within the few millimetres of skin a precise dose of tuberculin. While this is occurring the half ton of muscle that is my moving target is, of course, attempting to express its entire bowel content and several millennia of evolutions worth of fight or flight reflexes.

The test was developed as a public health and eradication program, the pubic health significance disappeared with the pasteurization of milk and true aspirations of eradication have long since evaporated as well. The test continues now only due to obligations under international trade rules.

As subcontractor, I am at the delivery end of the stick interacting with farmers who range from shroud multi millionaires to those for whom it’s a much bigger thing, a way of life preserved for generations. For years the management of this very human and animal interaction at the government’s air conditioned office end of the stick was a person whom I knew by their human name (cows previously called Daisy or Buttercup now have 13 digit numbers) and could phone or visit and discuss ongoing situations with.This person would have cut their teeth working for the department out on farms and would be well aware of the variable nature of farms farmers and animals locally. Sheep also come under their remit but there would be no pulling the wool over their eyes.

Under political pressure to move forward with eradication, DAERA came up with figures which showed that private vets found less TB on average than their own staff. This was not a surprise as their staff only test high-risk herds and within this subset are free to choose larger herds with better facilities increasing their chances further. Interestingly goats are not tested for TB not even troublesome scape goats.

The upshot of this has been the movement of management away from local offices to the land of League tables and KPIs that resides behind a computer screen. The raft of paper work that makes up the new contract and it’s many amendments were too complex for DAERA to complete alone and they called in other Government departments to aid its drafting. Having only one lifetime available to me, I have not read all the contract though I have considered printing it out and seeing if the displacement of A4 would actually float me down the Lagan.

Any queries I have are no longer to be directed to my local office. Instead, I am to direct them to an email address which will eventually redirect me to my own internal IT, legal or Health and Safety departments. As that is also me and I’m usually up to my oxter in a heifer with a twisted calf bed solutions are minimal.

As a management tool, KPIs are essential if you are to produce complex statistics and charts and progress reports for your next departmental committee meeting or review group. When you are at the coal face managing has a whole different level of complexity.I need to know that Willy John will only be able to test between boxing day and new year as that is when his daughter who is a barrister in London will be home to help.I can’t email or even phone to arrange this as at 82 he’s  hard of hearing. I have to call out unpaid and scream politely in his ear.

To meet these targets and keep our place in league tables we are having to squeeze our 1950S callipers a little less tightly to “find “ more reactors resulting in more compensation payments to farmers and more restricted herds to be retested at government expense. To get paperwork in on time for KPI targets we guess information rather than waiting on farmers or DAERA to come up with it.

Managing large public service sub contractors with tools such as KPIs might be analysed as a success on statistical charts in air conditioned offices. Ask those clients at the receiving end or employees on zero hours contracts facilitating the efficiencies and the answer may be different.

The delivery point of most services involves a very human interaction which is much more complex than any figures can record. Perhaps if your work can be contained to digital info on a computer screen then KPIs and league tables can be fairly applied. It’s ironic that those working in these very limited circumstances are the ones applying the KPIs rather than having them applied upon them.

My industry is only at the beginning of this slope others have already gone down the path of no return. Managing an ever increasing set of targets inevitably results in fewer larger subcontractors who can afford to employ their own management staff to deal with the contract. Eventually, one or two big players are left until they are large enough to sell out to a multinational, trading in their staff and clients like the cattle being tested.No doubt somebody in my industry will grasp this opportunity and make it big.

Which ever country you prefer to think we live in here, surely we are small enough to manage human interactions with humans. Do we really need an extra layer of management and shareholders sucking funding out of our public services and local businesses?

William Kinmont is the pen name of a vet in Northern Ireland. This is his first post on Slugger.

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  • Muiris

    Great post ‘William’.
    Unfortunately, wherever you are, as a ‘coal face’ service provider, you will be subject to computer generated ‘KPI’s ( took me half a minute), and graphs,possibly the same ones adapted for all services, for all the sense they make, at times.

  • William Kinmont

    Thank you never done anything like this before bit nervous. Yes we are bit late to this party as a profession guess we should count our selves lucky to have gotten away without it for so long and the introduction is gentle but the direction of travel seems inevitable.

  • Tochais Siorai

    William – Great post, move aside James Heriot! (you probably won’t get the big comment numbers because it’s not ussuns n themmuns but all the better for that).

    As one who despairs of KPIs in a different field I can only sit here n buy you an imaginary pint.

  • Gavin Crowley

    If the people who control the funds have decided that they want an ISO9000-style multinational with the usual dysfunctional call centre, then that’s what they’ll get.

    The only way forward I can see is for us to kick back against every example of their mentality when we hear it. Every time some says “Fail to plan, Plan to Fail!” they need to get a 20-minute earful. It’s a disease that needs to be cured with a long-term bottom up approach.
    When someone calls for a ‘professional’ approach, we need to say we’d prefer an ‘amateur’ who loves the job rather than these mercenary ‘professionals. And we need to recruit other cranks into the ranks.

    Perhaps we need a few human KPIs …. ‘number of farmers who laughed at my jokes’…
    In the meantime they have the coercive power.

    PS. if Kinmont is a pseudonym does it have a meaning that you’re willing to share?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Welcome to the Global Corporations worldwide view of Take Over and Control, all done by that useful tool that they created Key Performance Indicators ! You want my advise, sell up shop to them and take the money and run because you ain’t going to beat their power !

  • David Crozier

    Thank you for your contribution William. Your sentiments could be applied to so many other industries and professions.

    I was brought up on a very small farm and spent some of my formative years wrangling bullocks into makeshift holding pens and crushes for testing by women and men such as yourself.

    Few of those in Dundonald House, or wherever The Department are based these days, may know the joy of being slapped in the face with a tail full of green skitter or the sheer terror of facing a bullock trying to jump over the crush bars. KPIs are the least of your worries at times like that.

    More of this type of content please Slugger!

  • Brian O’Neill
  • Zig70

    I like kpi’s. There are a bunch of humans that just want to do their own thing, make it up as they go along. Worse is the crew that don’t want responsibility but don’t take instruction. Ireland is full of them, unproductive low quality bunch. Kpi’s are here to stay unless we get all these types working on farms from an early age to beat it out of them. Sounds like the kpi makers need some kpi’s to make them re-evaluate the process and factor in the hidden factories through feedback.

  • hgreen

    KPIs are a crutch for poor managers. They stifle innovation and lock employees into inflexible processes. For the vast majority of businesses only two metrics matter, revenue and profitability.

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  • James Buick

    Great post William. I tested for the department for 8 years and they don’t treat their own testers hugely well, so I empathise. The joy of a squad of freshly laundered officials turning up on site to take 80 quid off your fee because there’s sh1t on your wellies or the injection you’ve just administered to the frothing, heaving Simmental bull behind a wooden pallet in the driving rain, is 1mm askew makes for a lovely experience!
    Still, it could be worse… you could be in small animal practice!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Gavin, William is flagging a “borderer” identity, which is the ultimate “non-conforming” version of the Ulster-Scot (comprising one line of my own family, so I think I know where he’s coming from). If I am at all misrepresenting him I hope he will put me right.

    The old border ballad “Kinmont Willie” has the telling line which speaks for many of us in this messy political impasse we are all living in,”My hands are tied, but my tongue is free”………….

  • Muiris

    A technicolour picture in 5 words ‘ tail full of green skitter’, you couldn’t ( you didn’t ) make it up.

  • Conor

    What happens in a post Brexit world where a trade deal is done between the UK and nz, USA, Brazil or Australia allowing this beef in UK markets? These countries have no TB testing. Why should UK cattle be tested when TB reactor beef from 3rd countries can enter the UK food chain? Maybe the days of Tb testing are over come 2019. Cattle or milk crossing the border is a really restricted if this comes to pass! No common food production systems.
    This has implications for large animal veterinary practices also if there is no compulsory annual farm tests?

  • William Kinmont

    Largely correct Seaan. Probably from the Mosstrooper period as far as I can research that’s when we arrived this side Irish sea . Disloyal bunch thieves .

  • William Kinmont

    Countries have to test according to the levels endemic in that country if they take part in international trade. Most the countries you mention have very extensive production so less likely to have TB. In terms of post brexit I understand that if anything rules will tighten up EU are aware of some tb rules we have been bending and are unlikely to be as lenient.
    Tb does subsidise large animal practise and to considerable extent stifles competition in the industry I would welcome it if this was to disapear

  • epg_ie

    “To meet these targets and keep our place in league tables we are having to squeeze our 1950S callipers a little less tightly to “find “ more reactors resulting in more compensation payments to farmers and more restricted herds to be retested at government expense”

    So you are saying that you are colluding in fraud? You need to tell the cops.

    KPIs exist nowadays because nobody blindly trusts vets or middle managers to do their job unwatched any more. There was a day when people knew their place and quietly put up with whatever the man with the qualification told them. No longer. People got fed up with excuses and demanded more.

  • epg_ie

    Do you prefer an amateur builder or shopkeeper to a professional?

    “He wrecked my plumbing, but at least he had a good time”?

  • DOUG

    I propose the invention of a cocktail to be known as the green skitter.

  • The worm!

    “So you are saying that you are colluding in fraud?”

    That’s what I was thinking, better hope there’s no one from the BBC or UFU reading this!

  • The worm!

    And which farms/farmers do you determine deserve the upset caused by this slackening of the calipers?

    TB testing day is the bane of just about any decent livestock farmers life. The upset of loosing stock, the upset of the day itself, never mind all the re-tests to get clear again if your herd does go down. And all this from a test well known by all concerned to be haphazard at best, totally erroneous at worst.

    The only thing that saved the day frequently was the human element, the fact that the vet (who you usually knew and had endured various other handlins with at other times of the year) could use his judgement and if everything else was clear, nothing else going about in the area, no recent movements in to the herd, then that one lump could get squeezed just that wee bit tighter in those some old brass calipers, he’d look at you and wink, “she’ll be a re-test!”. Then the face would turn serious, “but, you better isolate her till she’s re-tested, and don’t be letting me down now!”. “Yes sir, we’ll separate her now, thank you sir”, in truth you were so relieved you’d have kept her in your own house if he’d insisted! This happened to me a number of times, and to most farmers, and in all cases the animal in question invariably passed the re-test and whatever AHT’s it had during the rest of it’s life.

    But now it seems, the farmer and his stock have no one to apply the common sense to a highly flawed system, in fact the now vets now decide themselves whether you’re going to have a good day, or a miserable stressful number of subsequent months.

    An utterly depressing situation, you’ll forgive me if the attempted joviality of your post goes right over my head!

  • William Kinmont

    Worm we disagree strongly on other items but here I couldn’t agree with you more. This is the whole thrust of my article kpis and league tables are removing the common sense. Sounds like I might even have been your vet above. Squeeze them to tight squeeze them to slack which is fraud which is common sense which is inherent prob with the test. By the way I understand the issues that a test fail causes and 20 odd years have never hhad failed nasty response to every farmers credit.

  • doopa

    Or amateur Doctor! There is a reason the professionals enjoyed so much success in the 20th Century and it’s precisely because they were able to apply the principles of mass production and corporatism to large swathes of human endeavour. Farming is one of the last hold outs. Health and safety culture (a close relative of KPIs) is much bemoaned but it is telling that agriculture is the worst performing industry in the UK for fatalities at work. It’s well past time that this industry was brought into the 20th century. Or perhaps it just needs to be reimagined fit for the 21st.

  • Muiris

    Appetising, make mine a double!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I have a published account of a ten hour long duel using two handed swords between one of my own borderer ancestors and his cousin, only stopped when James VI knocked their heads together and told them to wise up.

    Still rather more user friendly than the fate of the Ó Néill lot who were probably hiding out in Killetra or Glencoyne at that date.

  • William Kinmont

    Am currently camping/hiding out in Scottish borders so reception for com’s poor. Had a look at Hadrians wall. Do you think the emperor sold it to the Senate that it was going to make Rome great again , we’re the picts going to pay for it. Do you think that building a wall then shows similar lack of imagination as building hard border back home now . Had an empire expanded too far or had those running it ran out of ideas.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Travelling myself, so my own links to the net are irregular at present. I think our ancestors were always a rather difficult bunch, with a rather warped sense of humour which others still find it hard to get their responses right with. One of the best books I’ve ever encountered about that thread of my very mixed ancestry would be George McDonald Frazer’s “The Candlemass Road.” Its quirkiness gets the borderer mind just right.

    But just why an intelligent man like Hadrian would even begin to think that a stone “hard border” would even begin to suggest anything but a challenge to such people is beyond me!!!!!! At least he had more sense than to suggest that the border could be controlled by registration plate recognition using the software skills HMRC has shown to be not fit for purpose even in handling tax returns!!!!!!!! Lets hope the senate gave him hell……..