Skip to main content

The 4 Disciplines of Execution in Acuity Notes

4DX: An Overview

The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) is both an insightful book and powerful system for implementing strategic planning.

There are endless shelf-feet of business books that pontificate about abstract business principles leaving the reader (usually a helpless undergraduate or MBA student) completely in the dark as to how to accomplish the lofty results promised by the authors. I recall reading a book for my MBA program on using metrics. I finished the required pages and realized that the book had made a great case for why metrics are important but taught me nothing about how to create meaningful metrics or how to capture the data for analysis.

4DX is NOT that book.

4DX makes the case for the importance of obtaining results quickly and then lays out a road map for execution success in clear and actionable language. This book is practical through-and-through. It is written for practitioners and not academics or students (though it wouldn't hurt a student any to read it).

The book follows the following logical steps, each of which will be further developed in this hub:

  1. Goals fail to get accomplished and activities are left undone NOT because team members are lazy or incompetent, but rather because team members are BUSY. The very helpful metaphor of the Whirlwind is introduced to help the reader visualize how busy-ness is the greatest enemy of good business in most companies.
  2. The First Discipline is Focus on Wildly Important Goals (WIGs). Jim Collins already has BHAG copyrighted, so 4DX needed its own term. (I actually prefer WIG to BHAG. It sounds less ghoulish.) The principle here is to focus your attention on the one (or maybe two) most mission critical or lowest hanging fruit on your strategic plan for the year. Focus is the first step to overcoming the whirlwind and effecting positive change.
  3. The Second Discipline is Act on the Lead Measures. You don't drive your car facing the back glass. You don't walk down the street backwards. You don't prepare for the day by looking at yesterday's calendar or planner. Why would you run your company (or your part of the company) using only past information? Leveraging the actions that predict the success desired is the second step to overcoming the whirlwind and effecting positive change.
  4. The Third Discipline is Keep a Compelling Scoreboard. When you go a sports event, you are (usually) never left guessing about who is winning and who is losing. The score is prominently displayed for all to see in real-time, all the time. Sometimes the scoreboard motivates both fans and players to give that last push that puts their team over the top. Sometimes the scoreboard simply illustrates that the challenge was too low for one team and too high for the other. The same is true for your team. Finding ways to prominently display "the score" for the WIG you are pursuing so that everyone knows if the team is winning or losing will either be a motivator and morale booster for your team or a clear signal to you that you need to change the plan.
  5. The Fourth Discipline is Create a Cadence of Accountability. The key word here is "cadence." Too often, when the word "accountability" is used in business, it is a euphemism for a beat down in the boss's office. Much like the word "discipline," "accountability" has both positive and negative applications. By establishing a regularly scheduled accountability encounter with team members, you can minimize the fear and actually maximize effectiveness. Not only will you be afforded with regular opportunities to positively reinforce your team for good performance, you will also start spotting problems or potential adjustments earlier when the adjustment is more manageable and less drastic.

This is a must-read book for every business owner and manager. If you only had room for five books within reach of your work space, The 4 Disciplines of Execution should be one of them.


Franklin Covey Promo

This video is the Franklin Covey promo for The 4 Disciplines of Execution. It's a 2-and-a-half minute summary of just why this topic, and this book, is so important for business leaders.

Graphic by Evonne Benedict as posted on Haiku Deck. Photo by dbr Atl (on Flikr)

Graphic by Evonne Benedict as posted on Haiku Deck. Photo by dbr Atl (on Flikr)

Focus on Wildly Important Goals

The first discipline is all about FOCUS.

Narrowing your companies focus to a Wildly Important Goal (WIG) keeps all the available and necessary resources focused on one point where they can have the most significant impact.

Consider using water as a cutting tool. If you put a rock or a piece of plastic or metal under the tap in your kitchen sink and turn on the water, you'll be waiting for an eternity before the water has any real effect. On the other hand, if you use high-pressure pumps with special spray nozzles to focus the water into a very small stream under very high pressure, you can etch and cut all sorts of materials in times ranging from hours to seconds.What changed wasn't the water; what changed was the focus.

Narrowing your focus is easy to say and difficult to actually accomplish. Remember that 80% of your company's attention and resources will be consumed by the Whirlwind. But even if you succeed in narrowing your focus, there are four additional rules you need to follow in order to truly and successfully master the first discipline.

Rule #1: No team focuses on more than two WIGs at the same time.

You may remember pictures or cartoons of lion tamers in the circus ring with a three or four legged stool and a whip. The whip makes sense, but what about the stool? Lion tamers used the stools to provide multiple focus-points for the lion to process simultaneously. By giving the lion multiple points to focus on at one time, the lion's brain was constantly tied up trying to pick a point to focus on and the lion's overall behavior remained subdued. If the lion was allowed to focus specifically and exclusively on the lion tamer himself, then the lion's instincts would have prompted it to prepare to pounce and kill.

While you certainly don't want your team pouncing on or killing anyone, you do want them to pounce on and "kill" the goal. In order for your team to succeed at this, they need to be able to focus on no more than two (and preferably just one) goal.

Rule #2: The battles you choose must win the war.

Films depicting some of the lessons learned through absurdity during the Viet Nam era have familiarized us with the tragedy of sending troops to take a hilltop at a high cost only to surrender it the next day in order to re-take it that day after. This exercise in futility gave rise to an expression heard frequently in business: "Are you willing to die on that hill?"

Scroll to Continue

The expression is all the more important in light of the nearly irresistible desire to take on goals or challenges that don't help win the war evident in businesses across the country.

In order to be truly and effectively focused, it is imperative that every goal, sub-goal, etc., be accomplishments that will demonstrably advance the larger mission toward the ultimate finish line. There is no time and there are no resources for tangents and window-dressing.

Rule #3: Senior leaders can veto, but not dictate.

Team members always work best when they believe that their role matters. Making sure that the team accepts and approves of the goals is a necessary part of winning that all-important team buy-in.

Besides, your team members see the problems and their possible solutions from many different vantage points throughout your company. Only by leveraging all of these perspectives can you create truly effective WIGs.

Rule #4: All WIGs must have a finish line in the form of "from X to Y by when."

There are two metrics that should be part of every project. One is a Substance Metric. The other is a Time Metric. Deadlines are a good thing. The help keep everyone focused on the substance to be delivered by keeping the ticking-clock sound audible for everyone.

If you have no "from X to Y" metric in your goals, you won't be able to measure success at the end of the time. You will certainly not be able to maintain a compelling score board (see Discipline Three).

If you have no "by when" metric in your goals, then the substance tasks keep getting recycled on the To Do list and little gets accomplished.

Graphic by Evonne Benedict as posted on Haiku Deck. Photo by Andy Magee (on Flikr)

Graphic by Evonne Benedict as posted on Haiku Deck. Photo by Andy Magee (on Flikr)

Act on the Lead Measures

If the first discipline is all about FOCUS, then the second discipline is all about LEVERAGE. You may remember the blacksmith Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean explaining to Jack Sparrow that dislodging the prison doors was simply a matter of leverage. The same is true when it comes to execution. Concentrated effort on the right points will accomplish the goal whereas unguided energy exerted in multiple places will simply leave you exhausted.

Lag Measures vs. Lead Measures

The first important point for the second discipline is to clearly distinguish Lag Measures from Lead Measures.

In the book Influencer, the authors point out that remarkable leaders, a/k/a influencers, find the root causes or source of a problem and then devise simple steps that reverse or correct the root causes.

For example, it does little good for your doctor to tell you to lose 20 pounds. The doctor is simply telling you what result to achieve without giving you any ideas on how to achieve the result. On the other hand, if your personal trainer tells you to put your treadmill in your living room and spend a minimum of 30 minutes every day walking at a certain pace, you have a much better chance of actually achieving at least part of your desired result.

The same is true for the second discipline. In the words of the book, you must act on lead measures that are predictive and influenceable. In other words, your lead measures must be actions within your control (or your team's control), and they must be actions that are predictive of success as measured by the lag measures.

Why all this talk about distinguishing lead measures from lag measures? When we talk with business owners about selling their company or acquiring another company, the talk almost always focuses on the company's financial statements. The Profit & Loss Statement (P&L) is the prime example of a lag measure. You don't now what it is until the action is already complete and the time has passed. But how many times have you heard someone say, "Our goal this year is to increase Sales by x% and Net Profit by x%." Unless you can derive some lead measures out of this declaration of a desired result, you have little hope of accomplishing the goal.

My brother was frustrated with his sales job a couple of years ago. His supervisor was a typical sales type that was high on hype and low on substance. My brother had certain goals he was supposed to reach, but he continued to be frustrated when trying to figure out how to succeed. In discussing the problem with him, I shared the 4DX Second Discipline with him. We came up with a certain number of calls and a certain number of call minutes that he should make every day in order to post the goal numbers. My brother could control the number of people he talked to every day by simply dialing the phone number and talking to them. What he couldn't control was that customer's decision to purchase the product or sign up for a free trial.

Acting on lead measures puts you in control of achieving your goals.

Defining Lead Measures

The 4DX book provides the following definition of a Lead Measure:

Lead Measures are the "measures" of the activities most connected to achieving the goal.

The catch with the second discipline is the problem of identifying the real lead measures. Sometimes this is just a matter of slowing down long enough to think clearly about what you already know about your business, your operations, your customers and your industry. But often, lead measures are based on assumptions you make about the correlation between a particular action and an ultimate result. This is where lag measures come in. Lag measures serve as the accountability metric for your lead measures. If your lead measures are not positively impacting your lag measures, then you need to rethink your assumptions and come up with new lead measures.

Say, for instance, that you believe a lead measure for increasing sales is the number of calls made by the salesperson each day. You set the standard and track performance and find that even when your salespeople log the required number of calls each day, their sales don't change. So you re-think your position and decide to try using an email campaign with one salesperson while the other salesperson continues making calls. After several months, the salesperson doing the email campaign has consistently met or exceeded sales goals whereas the salesperson making phone calls is still stuck at the original sales volume. In this hypothetical case, you would need to scrap your belief in phone calls as a lead measure and replace it with email campaigns as a lead measure.

Tracking Lead Measure Data

The discussion above points out another critical component of the second discipline. In order to make sure you have the right lead measures and that the lead measures are performing properly, you have to capture and regularly analyze data from the lead measures.

In the illustration above, you would be capturing data about the number of calls made, the email campaigns completed and the sales that resulted from each. You may also want to collect data on how many of the sales were with existing customers versus new customers. For existing customers, you may be interested in whether the sale was a new item for this particular customer or simply a reorder of an item previously purchased.

Collecting data during the performance of the lead measures will also be important in the third discipline.

Lead Measures and Engagement

If you are a business owner or manager that manages team members, there is another very important benefit of using the second discipline.

When I was going through basic training in the Army, it was easy to get frustrated when the drill sergeant assigned you a task that was simply impossible to perform. Until, that is, we figured out that we were never meant to accomplish the assigned tasks. The real goal was to get us into solid physical shape by constant "smoke sessions" as "punishment" for failing the task. When we figured out that we needed to focus on the push-ups, sit-ups and running that made up the PT test we needed to pass, we could ignore the bluster and engage the real mission with more energy and determination.

Of course, there were many people in my training company that never figured out the game. And there are likely people like that on your team. Your employees or direct reports are looking to you, as their leader, to assign them a mission that they believe they can accomplish. If you tell them to double their sales and increase net profit by more than 50%, they will likely fall into a trance and start looking for another job. On the other hand, if you challenge them to various activities that are predictive of higher sales and profits as well as influenceable by the team members, they may well achieve the lofty lag measure goal.

It is amazing what a team of humans can accomplish when the leverage is applied properly.


Steering With Lag Measures

Trying to accomplish your business or professional goals using lag measures is a lot like running a steeplechase while mounting your horse backwards.

The photo is of Rodrigo Pessoa, a highly talented and reputable rider. Even so, Liz Goldsmith posted the following on "When I was a kid we did all kinds of wild and crazy things jumping our horses. No hands, no reins, no saddle. But I never tried jumping riding backwards and I have never jumped a fence this large in any direction."

Unfortunately, most business people are all too accustomed to trying to drive sales results or efficiency results or profit results relying almost exclusively on measurements that they can't directly control and that are not available until after the fact.

Think about it this way:

You want to increase sales by 20% this year. What control do you have over the end-of-year sales figure? Answer: None! Your customers determine what your end-of-year sales figure will be. What you do have control over is how many minutes of call time the sales staff logs every week or how many emails or letters go out every week or how many meetings or presentations are scheduled every week. If you make some assumptions about the realistic ratio of calls-to-sales or meetings-to-sales and the average dollar value of each sale, you can compute a benchmark for your team that measures the activities they can directly control.

To be sure, there are many amazing Rodrigo Pessoa's out there working in sales or accounting or production, but the rest of us normal humans need a lower fence and the right posture in the saddle.

Graphic by Evonne Benedict as posted on Haiku Deck. Photo by Philerooski (on Flickr)

Graphic by Evonne Benedict as posted on Haiku Deck. Photo by Philerooski (on Flickr)

Keep a Compelling Scorecard

Coming soon....

Graphic by Evonne Benedict as posted on Haiku Deck. Photo by Krikit (on Flikr)

Graphic by Evonne Benedict as posted on Haiku Deck. Photo by Krikit (on Flikr)

Create a Cadence of Accountability

Coming soon...

Which Discipline Helps Most?


Michael Kismet from Northern California on August 28, 2014:

At first I thought this would only apply to the titans of industry, but after reading through I believe it is useful for smaller business models, as well. Thank you for sharing a very informative article, clearly you're very knowledgeable in the mastery of execution by discipline, and I learned quite a bit. Welcome to Hubpages Jim, look forward to more of your posts!

Related Articles