The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

The Futility of a Numerical Goal


Guest post by Tim Higgins

In discussions about goals, I typically find attempts to create two distinct categories of goals. I see the words “arbitrary goals.” Arbitrary numerical goals are believed to be bad, problematic. Some numerical goals the non-arbitrary type are believed to be useful, good, even necessary. I could find no evidence Deming made a distinction between arbitrary and non-arbitrary goals. His distinction was between goals I set for myself and numerical goals others imposed upon me or set for me.

For me any goal is inherently arbitrary particularly a numerical goal. Deming seems to warn us that the ill effects of a numerical goal have to do with imposing it on others (without providing resources to achieve it) rather than whether or not the goal is arbitrary. Deming pointed out the damaging effects of setting numerical goals for others without distinguishing between arbitrary and non-arbitrary goals.

Thoughts on “Arbitrary”
When I establish a system boundary, it is a thought process. The boundary I establish is arbitrary. The system boundary is not in the world outside of me; it is in my thinking. The boundary is arbitrary not in the sense that it is without foundation or irrational, or whimsical or frivolous.

It is arbitrary in the sense that it is discretionary, voluntary, elective, optional, and subjective. I can engage in much thought and effort; utilize my current knowledge; collect and examine data and information as a precursor to setting the boundary. Yet even with all that effort the boundary is arbitrary in the sense I have described. It is based upon the subjective things like: my purpose in establishing it; my perception of my current context; my current knowledge (which is never complete); the data and information I elect to gather and the data examination option I choose to apply. The system boundary is not in the world outside of me; it is in my thinking.

Similarly, a numerical goal, regardless of the level of rational thought and amount of effort I invest in establishing it, is similarly arbitrary.

Deming’s use of “goals” and “arbitrary”

In a comprehensive search of The New Economics 2nd Edition, I found:
“arbitrary” was used only once [p 146 in regards to student assessment scales]
“goal” paired with “numerical” was used a dozen or maybe two dozen times

A less comprehensive search (based upon “goal” in the index) of Out of the Crisis found:

An individual will of course have his own goals. A man may set his heart on a college education. He may resolve to finish this chapter by morning: I give myself a deadline. Goals are necessary for you and me, but numerical goals set for other people, without a road map to reach the goal, have effects opposite to the effects sought.

The company will of course have goals – for example, constancy of purpose and never-ending improvement.

on page 69, and “Management by numerical goal is an attempt to manage without knowledge of what to do, and in fact is usually management by fear.” [p 76]

Page 41 The New Economics (some words on goals)

How could there be life without aims and hopes? Everyone has aims, hopes, plans. But a goal that lies beyond the means of its accomplishment will lead to discouragement, frustration, demoralization. In other words, there must be a method to achieve an aim. By what method?
When a company holds an individual accountable for a goal, it must provide to him the resources for accomplishment.

The title of another paragraph on page 41 “Futility of a numerical goal” implies a particular viewpoint. The paragraph is followed by

Facts of life. There are facts of life that are not goals nor even aims. For example, if we do not reduce our mistakes and defective items 3 per cent by the end of this year, we shall go out of business.

In other words, the fact of life, a requirement for life, might be translated into a goal or an aim, provided a method for its accomplishment can be planned.

And from Dr. Deming’s 14 obligations of management, #11:

“Eliminate numerical goals, numerical quotas and management by objectives. Substitute leadership.”

The text in this quote is from a version of the list written by Lloyd Dobyns and Clare Crawford-Mason, who worked on the important “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” NBC documentary and later created “Quality or Else” for the Public Broadcasting Service and the 20-volume Deming Video Library. Shortly before his death, Dr. Deming reviewed the text for this list and given Dr. Deming’s penchant for continuous improvement, it is appropriate to use this version (this text also fits the topic of this post more closely than other versions).

Related: we honestly translate aims to goals. And then we do stupid things in the name of the goal get it the way of the aimDistorting the System, Distorting the Data or Improving the SystemWhat’s Deming Got to Do With Agile Software Development and KanbanUsing Control Charts to Aid in Improving the Classroom Learning Environment

Categorised as: Dr. Deming


  1. No amount of inspirational leadership (or sheer hard work) can achieve this if system conditions constrain the workforce…

  2. […] Numerical goals accomplish nothing. Ranking and reward of individual people, schools, districts, do not improve the system. Only the method is important. By what method? […]

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