Saturday, May 3, 2014

The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling

The subtitle here is “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” something the authors almost immediately start referring to as WIGs, and then proceed to provide a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for doing exactly that. They call it 4DX, short for the Four Disciplines of Execution, and here they are:

1. Focus on the Wildly Important
2. Act on the Lead Measures
3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
4. Create a Cadence of Accountability

I’m not going to give a comprehensive summary, but here are a few things that really spoke to me as I went through the book.

People Are Not the Problem

In a key study on organizational change, the global management-consulting firm Bain & Company reports these findings: “About 65 percent of initiatives required significant behavioral change on the part of front-line employees--something that managers often fail to consider or plan for in advance.”

Despite the significance of this problem, leaders seldom recognize it. You don’t hear leaders saying, “I wish I were better at driving strategies that require people to do things differently.” What you are more likely to hear is a leader saying, “I wish I didn’t have Tom, Paul, and Sue to deal with!”

It’s natural for a leader to assume the people are the problem. After all, they are the ones not doing what we need to have done. But you would be wrong. The people are not the problem!

W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, taught that any time the majority of people behave a particular way the majority of the time, the people are not the problem. The problem is inherent in the system. As a leader, you own responsibility for the system. Although a particular person can be a big problem, if you find yourself blaming the people, you should look again.

I could so easily be of two minds on this--and could probably argue both sides endlessly. But I suspect at the end I would come down on the side of Deming. The people are not the problem. One person may be a problem, but it is far more likely--and helpful--to understand that the problem is the system, not the people that comprise it.

Much of this book is premised on this core concept, and the challenge is that the system is all-too-often an unwieldy and unforgiving whirlwind of activity, where too many priorities compete for too little time, attention and resources.

The first discipline, Focus on the Wildly Important, confronts this reality head-on, saying that despite the whirlwind, teams need to focus their time, attention and resources on a very small number (in most cases, one) of Wildly Important Goals (WIGs).

Top Down Doesn’t Work

The highest levels of execution are never reached when the strategy is devised solely by the top leaders of the organization and simply handed down to the leaders and teams below.

I totally agree. And that’s where the second discipline, Act on the Lead Measures, comes in. Maybe the boss sets the WIG--always, according to the authors, in the form of a “lag measure,” a “from X to Y by when” statement--but the boss can’t choose the lead measures--the things that the team will focus on and try to effect in order to see action on the goal.

To pick up one of the book’s examples, a hotel identified “Increase revenue from corporate events” as their WIG, and then created a lag measure that set the goal as moving from $22 to $31 million by December 31st. Then it was up to multiple teams across the staff to identify their own lead measures--the things they could do week-in and week-out, that would have the greatest potential impact on achieving the lag measure. One chose “completing two quality site visits per week.” Another chose “upsell our premium bar package to 90% of all events.” Instead of designing a strategy from the top down, once the WIG and its lag measure was made clear, the strategies came from the bottom up.

Focus on Behaviors, Not Outcomes

This approach really reminds me of a blog post I wrote some time ago where I posed the idea that to ensure greater success, we should measure and reward the behaviors that lead to good outcomes, not the outcomes themselves. When we reward people for “getting new members to join the association,” I remember saying, people start doing all kinds of things that really don’t serve the long-term interests of the organization. But when you reward people for “visiting two prospective members per week” people do the things that do serve the organization’s interest and which tightly correlate with increasing the number of members in the association.

People Play Differently When They’re Keeping Score

Remember, people play differently when they are keeping score. The difference in performance between a team that simply understands their lead and lag measures as a concept, and a team that actually knows their score, is remarkable. If the lead and lag measures are not captured on a visual scorecard and updated regularly, they will disappear into the distraction of the whirlwind. Simply put, people disengage when they don’t know the score. When they can see at a glance whether or not they are winning they become profoundly engaged.

This brings in the book’s third discipline, Keep a Compelling Scorecard. And the best example the authors offer is something they call “Beat the Goat.”

Hopefully, the image says it all. Once you have a lag measure in place, you can easily create a graph that shows how that measure has to progress over time in order to meet its goal. That’s the “goat.” Then, by plotting your actual progress on the same graph, you can see week-by-week if your lead measures are helping you “beat the goat.”

This is where I really began to see the potential power of this system, but it is also about where I began to wonder how such a system could be wholistically applied to the notoriously difficult-to-measure world of association management. Some of the things we seek to achieve can be readily measured (e.g., membership growth, meeting attendance, fundraising) but others are more complicated (e.g., creating a better educated workforce, promoting the industry). For some of these latter goals you can certainly pick numerical metrics to determine their success, but experience has shown that whichever you choose tend to de-escalate the scope of what you’re trying to achieve.

In other words, measure how many students receive scholarships from your Foundation and you’ve changed your goal from creating a better educated workforce to giving out scholarships. Measure how many media impressions your press release generates and you’ve changed your goal from promoting the industry to getting things published in the press.

Still, the point the authors seek to make should not be lost. Part of what 4DX is doing is creating a winnable game for your team to focus on and accomplish. The strategic goal may be creating a better educated workforce or promoting the industry, but the authors would probably tell me those aren’t winnable games. Giving scholarships to 25 high school students who achieved a 3.5 GPA or better and intend to study your industry’s field in college before the end of your fiscal year and sharing one marketplace example per week for the next 26 weeks of the advantages of your industry’s technology with your list of media contacts--those may not get you to your big picture objectives, but they are winnable games. And…

A winning team doesn’t need artificial morale boosting. All the psyching up and rah-rah exercises companies do to raise morale aren’t nearly as effective in engaging people as the satisfaction that comes from executing with excellence a goal that really matters.

They Will Tear Down Walls

The authors tell a compelling story in the book about a company called Towne Park.

The largest provider of valet parking services for high-end hotels and hospitals, Towne Park has always been extremely well run. When Gaylord Entertainment (one of Towne Park’s largest customers) had great success as an early adopter of the 4DX, the leaders at Towne Park became interested as well.

Towne Park was already measuring virtually every aspect of its business: Did attendants open the door for you and your guests when you arrived? Did they use the proper hotel greeting? Did they offer you a bottle of water? Their execs could tell you all this, as they were literally measuring everything they thought mattered to their customers.

Still, they decided to apply 4DX to the wildly important goal of the company, increasing customer satisfaction, to see if they could improve it even more. While developing lead measures in Discipline 2, they realized that one thing they weren’t measuring might actually be their point of highest leverage in pleasing the customer: How long it takes the customer to get his or her car back.

So, they chose reducing retrieval time as the most predictive lead measure for further improving customer satisfaction. Although they had always known this was an important aspect of the business, they had never measured it because it isn’t an easy measure to get, even for a company that believes in measurement. They knew that collecting retrieval-time data would require them to clock when the customer called for the car and when the valet arrived with the car. The elapsed time between the two points, the retrieval time, would then need to be consistently captured for all teams in all locations.

You can imagine how difficult it would be to gather this data in the whirlwind of incoming and outgoing cars, so difficult that some leaders argued that it couldn’t be done. However, because they were committed to their WIG of unparalleled customer satisfaction, and because they believed retrieval time was the most predictive and influenceable measure for achieving it, they committed to tracking it. Like all great leadership teams, once the decision was made, they found a way.

Initially, they wondered if retrieval time was really influenceable because of all the external factors that impact it, such as the location of the parking area and the distance to the car. Despite these worries, they were able to reduce retrieval time dramatically.

How? The teams figured it out because they were highly engaged in the game. Once the lead measure went up on the scoreboard, the valets began finding new ways to win. For example, they started advising arriving guests to call before checking out so that their car would be waiting for them. Whenever a guest called in advance, the valet knew the retrieval time would be zero.

The valets also began to ask what day the guest planned on checking out. If it was later in the week, they would park the car in the back of the lot. As the day of departure drew closer, they would move the car forward so that retrieval time would be reduced.

These and a host of other innovations not only reduced the lead measure of retrieval time, but immediately raised the lag measure of customer satisfaction. Towne Park was winning, but without the team’s engagement in the game, these ideas might never have surfaced, let alone been implemented.

With me so far? Okay. Here’s where the story gets really remarkable.

However, a Towne Park team in Miami, Florida, faced an obstacle that seemed insurmountable: A four-foot high concrete wall ran down the middle of the parking garage, forcing the valets to drive around it to retrieve every car.

After several months of trying to compensate for the wall, a literal breakthrough came during their WIG session. James McNeil, one of the assistant account managers, committed to his team that the wall was coming out. He obtained clearance from the hotel’s engineer who confirmed that the wall was not load-bearing, borrowed a concrete saw, and recruited several other supervisors to help. Starting early the following Saturday morning, they cut and hauled out several tons of concrete; by the end of the day, the wall was gone.

If you’re a leader, you should be fascinated by this story.

I am.

If a Towne Park executive had ordered the team to do something as far outside their normal responsibilities as removing a concrete wall, what do you think the team’s reaction would have been? At best, resistance, and at worst, mutiny, even from a good team.

But because the lead measure had become a high-stakes game, one the players didn’t want to lose, the effect was the opposite. Taking out the wall was their idea; and their desire to win was so strong, you couldn’t have kept them from doing it. Necessity really is the mother of invention. Once they made retrieval time a high-stakes game, the creativity and invention followed.

What’s critical to understand is that this level of engagement seldom if ever comes from a command-and-control approach--that is, one that relies exclusively on the formal authority of the leader. Authority alone at best yields only compliance from a team.

By contrast, 4DX produces results not from the exercise of authority but from the fundamental desire of each individual team member to feel significant, to do work that matters, and ultimately, to win.

That kind of engagement yields true commitment, the kind of commitment that led a Towne Park team to tear down a wall. And it’s only that kind of commitment that produces extraordinary results.

So, How Would This Work in My Organization?

I don’t know. But I have some ideas and I’m talking to my senior staff about them right now.

One of our challenges is that many of our obvious WIGs do not easily translate into lag measures that can be phrased as a “from X to Y by when” statement, and for those that do, it will be challenging to come up with lead measures that can reasonably be expected to “beat the goat.”

Are you up for some “inside baseball” analysis of my own association--the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA)? If not, stop reading now.

Okay? I warned you. Here’s a simplified version of our current strategic plan:

As an organization, we have three strategic priorities. In our lexicon, a strategic priority is a kind of vision statement--an aspirational statement of an envisioned future we need to work towards if we are to fulfill our mission. One of those priorities is:

Build and connect our members to an educated fluid power workforce.

Each strategic priority has a number of objectives. These are shorter-term goals that we believe will help bring about the envisioned future described in the priority statement. Our “workforce” strategic priority has three objectives. One is:

Introduce fluid power to middle and high school students, and connect their classrooms with local NFPA members for mentorship and support.

Each objective has a number of program goals. These are year-long objectives associated with specific programs that we manage that are aligned with the spirit of the objective. Our “pre-college” objective has four program goals. One is:

Expand the number of Fluid Power Challenge events, and the number of NFPA members participating as hosts, sponsors, mentors and judges.

So, in this structure, what should we call our WIGs? My initial thought is to make our strategic priorities the WIGs, but wonder what the discipline of defining lag and lead measures at that level will do to how the organization functions.

Take the “workforce” example. If we stay tightly focused on the existing language--build and connect our members to an educated fluid power workforce--our lag measure(s) could logically be something like: “Increase the number of graduates with advanced fluid power training from X to Y in the next academic year,” or “Increase the number of member/student connections at NFPA events from X to Y in the next academic year.” Neither is how we currently define success in this area, primarily because measuring that baseline figure X is difficult in our environment. But assuming we could, these lag measure would replace what we know think of as our objectives.

And these lag measures could lead, I think, to a set of lead measures that are very different from the program goals we currently have. Say we choose “Increase the number of member/student connections at NFPA events from X to Y in the next academic year” as our lag measure. Thinking about the programs we currently manage, and the kinds of actions the staff who run them could take in order to move that needle, someone might come up with “Stage one regional Fluid Power Challenge program per month in this academic year,” or “Invite 50 NFPA members from the closest member companies to attend each Challenge program” as their lead measures.

So, let’s compare the two versions:

Notice any differences? Well, first and foremost, NFPA on 4DX has actual metrics of success baked into the “objective” and “program goal” statements--now known as our lag and lead measures. Metrics aren’t something we ignore in our current version, but they are compositionally separated from the objective and program goal statements. 4DX puts those metrics front and center and provides clearer targets to shoot for.

But are they the right targets? Frankly, I don’t have any idea. As I described above, we may now be measuring how many members we invite to attend our Fluid Power Challenge programs--but does success in that area mean that we are connecting our members to a better educated workforce?

Maybe that’s part of a process--we have to set and shoot at a few targets not just for the practice of hitting them, but for the practice of better understanding which targets are the ones worth hitting. But I worry that hitting targets that prove to be the wrong ones--that is, targets that don’t actually move the lag measure or accomplish the wildly important goal--will have the opposite effect on staff motivation than what our friends at Towne Park experienced.

So that makes me think that we should be looking deeper into our plan for our WIGs. All the way down to the program goal level--at least initially--so we can be better assured of not just hitting our target, but choosing the right one for achieving the WIG.

Keeping with the current example, if “Expand the number of Fluid Power Challenge events, and the number of NFPA members participating as hosts, sponsors, mentors and judges” was the WIG, the lag measures would practically write themselves. This is a program goal, so we know a lot more about their metrics and which ones track most closely to success. We know exactly how many Challenge events we held last year and we know exactly how many members participated as hosts, sponsors, mentors or judges. So lag measures like “Increase the number of Fluid Power Challenge events from 8 in 2013-14 to 12 in 2014-15” and “Increase the number of members participating as hosts, sponsors, mentors or judges from 24 in 2013-14 to 48 in 2014-15” quickly and easily come to mind.

And these lag measures make it a lot easier to identify the right lead measures. What are the one or two things that each staff person could do consistently to help bring the lag measures about? I wouldn’t write them for people, but at my level of the organization, I could say something like “Meet in-person with one member company per month to showcase the Fluid Power Challenge program and encourage them to get their people engaged as either a host, sponsor, mentor or judge.”

Now that I think this through, picking one of our 39 program goals to treat as a WIG is probably the best way to introduce 4DX into our environment. Rather than having everyone trying to tie their programs to a WIG that looks and feels like one of our strategic priorities--where the connections may be tenuous--staying at the program level gets everyone contributing to a much more winnable game. The weekly WIG session where we make our commitments and monitor our scorecard (that’s what the authors mean by their fourth discipline, by the way, Create a Cadence of Accountability) would really put the emphasis where it belongs and help pull everyone out of the whirlwind to achieve one collective objective.

It might be worth a try.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. Eric - did you implement 4DX as you described in this post? I would love to hear how it went / is going. We are discussing the same thing related to what level priorities are actually WIGs. Thanks for your response!

  2. Joe - We have implemented a modified version of 4DX, focused on what we call success metrics as the WIGs. In our world, success metrics live between the program objectives and the ends statements. They are, essentially, the high-level indicators that should be moving if our programs are helping us achieve our ends statements. Like most new experiments, we've have some success and some struggled with it.