There are times when our chance encounters have interesting outcomes. Last October when Patti and I were in Denver we had coffee with one of her high school friends, Cindy, at Starbucks. At the table next to us was a woman working on her laptop. Sitting on the edge of her table was a book.4 Disciplines

The book was upside down to me. Being the book nerd I am I kept sneaking a peek at it, trying to see the name and title. I finally figured-out the title, but I wanted to know more. As we were leaving I asked the woman if I could look at it and if she would recommend it. She said, “Feel free and I would absolutely recommend it. I am working for a new start-up and my boss told me I had to read it and it is much better than I expected.”

The book was The 4 Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Covey, and Huling. Published in 2012, I was not only amazed I had not heard of it before, I was amazed at how easy the concepts were to understand. Though not easy to fully implement, the four disciplines described in the book will get you thinking.

The Four Disciplines. Over time organizations that survive become good at executing practices that keep the organization going day-to-day. But because of the daily “whirlwind” most organizations find it very challenging to discover, embrace, and execute new strategies that help the organization grow. The major reason this is difficult is because it requires employees, including leaders, to make behavioral changes. And behavioral changes are the most difficult for each of us. As Jim Stuart has said, “To achieve a goal you have never achieved before, you must start doing things you have never done before.”

The authors, all accomplished behavioral and organizational practitioners, decided to research the root causes of weak execution. In their research with hundreds of companies and thousands of people they found that the many execution problems they observed were caused by four factors:

  1. Unclear goals / objectives – “People simply didn’t understand the goal they were supposed to execute. Only 15 percent of the people could name even one of the three goals their leaders had identified.”
  2. Lack of goal commitment – Only 51 percent of the people who knew the goal were committed to it.
  3. No accountability – 81 percent of the people reported no one they knew was ever held accountable for achieving regular progress on the organization’s goals.
  4. Inability to escape the “whirlwind” – Most employees are expected to do whatever they can to serve the customers, today. The gravitational pull of this daily activity, a very important force that keeps the organization in business, is very difficult to escape.

Using the best practices they observed, the authors developed the Four Disciplines of Execution, a system they have named “4DX.”

Discipline 1 – Focus on The Wildly Important. The research shows that when people and organizations focus on fewer things, they are more successful. Too many goals actually creates more whirlwind. Leaders of organizations need to figure-out the one or two most important goals that people should focus on to advance the organization. 4DX calls these goals a “WIG,” a wildly important goal.

The four rules for Discipline 1 are: (a) No person or team has more than two WIGs at one time; (b) Each individual’s WIG supports the team’s WIG and so forth; (c) Leaders can veto team or individual WIGs, but they should not devise them; and (d) WIGs need to be measurable and have “finish lines.”

The authors reminded us of arguably the most famous example of a WIG at NASA. Before President Kennedy came along NASA had eight goals in 1958. Then he gave them one WIG – Before 1970 land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. This completely energized NASA and changed the whole culture.

Discipline 2 – Act on the Lead Measures. The authors describe two types of measures or outcomes. Lag measures, which are most commonly used in organizations, tell us how we did over some prior period. Sales or revenue reports, for example, measure how a team or organization did over the past month or quarter. Lead measures, on the other hand, are objectives that measure current activity and predict WIG success.

Selecting the right lead measures is the hardest part of 4DX. A lead measure is both predictive of success and influenceable. The authors use the lever and rock metaphor to explain, “The rock is your WIG. Unlike the rock, the lever is something we can move: It’s influenceable. And when the lever moves the rock moves; It’s predictive.”

One example of lead measures used by the authors was at a high-end department store in decline outside Atlanta. Senior store leadership developed a WIG that was to stop revenue decline and achieve last year’s sales level. They described how lead measures in the shoe department were developed. They studied the behaviors of the top salesperson and discovered she did three things effectively – showed each customer at least four pairs of shoes, wrote thank you notes, and invited every customer to set-up a charge account. They transferred these three activities into lead measures for all shoe sales people. Not only did they achieve their department WIG (maintain last year’s sales level) they surpassed it by 2%.

Discipline 3 – Keep a Compelling Scoreboard. This discipline is what the authors refer to as the “discipline of engagement.” Team members need to know the score and whether they are winning or losing at all times. Only when a scoreboard is in place that tracks lead and lag measures, will achievement of the WIG become more of a reality. Without a scoreboard, they point-out, lead activities fade into the whirlwind.

While it is vital to understand people play differently when they keep score, 4DX reminds us they become more engaged when they keep score. The authors encourage organizations to involve individuals in designing the Scoreboards and keeping the Board up-to-date. Here are four characteristics of an effective Scoreboard:

  • Keep it simple. Think of a football game scoreboard as one example and then the statistics a coach is keeping on the sideline to help him manage the game.
  • The Board should be easily seen. The metrics for each person or area need to be visually available so that anyone walking by can see. The scoreboard should not be hidden away on a supervisor’s desk or computer screen.
  • The Board should show both lead and lag measures. The lead measures are those each person can affect and the lag measure shows the result of their action.
  • You know at a glance if you are winning or losing. The authors write that the best scoreboards are those where anyone can glance at it and know within five seconds whether they are winning or losing. Some organizations use green-yellow-red colors to emphasize results, too.

The authors remind us that compelling Scoreboards always show both where you are now and where you should be. Giving people a frame of reference improves engagement.

Discipline 4 – Create a Cadence of Accountability. At the heart of 4DX is what is referred to as a WIG session. WIG sessions help make sure team members are “in” the game. They are weekly meetings that hold individuals accountable for their own lead actions. These group sessions should only last 20-30 minutes and they focus only on WIG activities, not other operational issues part of the whirlwind.

WIG sessions have this three-part agenda:

  1. Account – Individuals report on commitments. Each person reviews their personal commitments and what they achieved and learned.
  2. Review the Scoreboard – Meeting starts with whether the lag measure is being met and then the results for the lead measures. Discussion focuses on problems that are affecting or will affect lead measures. The group then determines what new actions are needed.
  3. Plan Clear the path and make new commitments. Following the Scoreboard review the group talks about who can help with the various obstacles impacting lead measures. Then everyone states what their commitments will be for the next week.

An important part of 4DX is teaching people and teams to build into their schedules time to work on WIGs. This is time away from the whirlwind and it is mandatory. This is one of the most fundamental behavioral changes required of 4DX.

My introduction to better execution was by a chance encounter in Denver. I encourage you to tackle it now, pick-up the book, read it, and internalize their ideas. Don’t leave execution up to chance!

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