NHS targets fail to win over the "hearts and minds" of doctors and nurses and signal a lack of trust in staff, said the Health Secretary.
Andy Burnham, speaking ahead of a meeting with US President Obama's health team, had vowed to cull the number of targets faced by NHS staff when he was made Health Secretary earlier this year, but defended some aspects of them.
"Targets drove the system hard and were the right thing to do," said Mr Burnham, speaking to public policy think tank the Urban Institute. "But we have come to learn that the top-down approach can only take you so far.
"It is not a great way to win the hearts and minds of the people who must make it all work," he said. "Looking back now, I can see that the emphasis on targets began to imply a lack of trust in staff at the front line that became disempowering."
Targets such as patients being processed through accident and emergency wards within four hours have fuelled concerns that more serious cases are being ignored, but Mr Burnham said it would be kept in place. He also criticised the Tories for planning to scrap the 18-week guarantee on operations.