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Lean Litmus Test Question 1: Do small goals add up to big success?

I recently posted a list of questions that I use as a litmus test when I start working to help an organization improve.

The first of these questions was:

If frontline leaders hit all their individual targets, would the company hit its goals?

I ask this question to get a feel for how the company manages its strategy, as well as to get a read on how accepting or resistant the senior leaders will be to policy deployment. While this is phrased as a yes or no question, there is also a third choice. And that third choice is actually far more common than the other two. It is ‘I don’t know’.

When asking this question, I generally identify two types of executives. The first, and more preferred type, wants to change the company, and are willing to adjust how they behave as well. The other group is more interested in finding a way to change the behaviors of their teams. In the latter situation, Lean is more often than not looked at as a tool set, rather than as a business system or philosophy. While implementing individual tools can still generate positive results, Lean is much more impactful if key leaders embrace a new way of leading the business as well.

So, back to the answers I get.


When I hear that, yes, hitting frontline goals means that the company will meet its strategic targets, I follow up with, “How do you know?” The response an executive or senior leader gives to being asked to provide facts and data is telling. If the leader is offended by being questioned, or can’t explain without substantial effort, it is a sign of a fairly big problem and likely a potential headache for a mentor. It means that the leader doesn’t realize that he or she isn’t really on top of the business. As a consultant, making changes in that situation demands special attention.

Of course, a “Yes” answer with some methodology to it is music to my ears. It means that the company already has solid, fact-based, non-arbitrary leadership methods in place. If they are not already doing a version of policy deployment, they will likely be extremely open to it.


This is actually a rather unusual answer. Most bosses who take the time to consider whether goals are aligned at all levels won’t tolerate knowing that the targets are mismatched. If they recognize that the answer is “No”, they generally try to do something about it.


The most common answer is “I don’t know”. Most executives don’t go through the process of making sure that the definition of success at the frontlines translates into success for the company. When getting this answer, the nature of the follow-up conversation is packed with information. If a light bulb seems to come on, it is a good sign that the leader will be willing to try using policy deployment.

If, on the other hand, the executive moves the conversation along, or reluctantly answers questions about goal setting, it is an indicator that the culture will take significant effort to change.


For this question, the tone and attitude surrounding the question are more important than the actual answer. The truth is that most companies that are good at policy deployment are well along on their Lean journey, and are not bringing in much outsider help to make improvements.

Bottom Line: I want to see how executives react to being told that there is a better way to do things. No matter how good they are, they can always improve. If they don’t live that belief for themselves, they will have a hard time building a continuous improvement culture within their teams.

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Share Your Thoughts    |2 comments|

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  • Jeff,

    This is a great question. It’s hard to believe that it needs to be asked but I know it does. It seems like it’s common sense to make sure that one’s goals matches their boss’ and if everyone does that they are aligned. Somehow it’s not that easy though.

    I recall one time when I walked into a new role and found that all of my direct reports had goals that were woefully inadequate and were not aligned at all. This was corrected with the new year. I remember telling my new boss how everyone’s goals were now aligned. He didn’t seem all that impressed even though it was a lot of work bringing everyone around and it was a significant improvement. I’d even say that it was one of the factors in turning that plant around. In any case, I suspect that my boss would have told you “YES” if you asked him if the goals were aligned before I got there….

    Bottom line, I’ve seen companies or sites that are not aligned either because there are assumptions about the alignment or they are just really not good at goal setting.


    • Jeff Hajek says:

      I think this really helps on the back end of performance as well. When people hit their goals and the company is still not successful, life can be frustrating.

      As always, thanks for commenting.

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