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Digging into the Data: Understanding Leading vs. Lagging Metrics and Setting Effective KPI Targets

Katie Hokanson | 28 June 2023

In today's data-driven world, organizations rely on KPIs (key performance indicators) to measure their progress towards achieving business objectives. In order to really dig into a company’s metrics, there are two important concepts to grasp when working with KPIs: leading and lagging metrics, and effective targets.

By understanding the difference between these types of metrics and how to set appropriate KPI targets, businesses can make informed decisions and drive meaningful improvements.

Making Informed Operation Process and System Decisions

One of the best ways we can identify areas for improvement and make informed decisions, is to use a data-driven approach looking at our KPIs. Afterall, you cannot improve what you don’t measure. More about KPIs tracking benefits can be found here.

Leading Metrics

Leading metrics, also known as predictive or input metrics, are indicators that provide early signals about future performance. They are forward-looking and can be influenced or controlled by individuals or teams. A leading metric is a great resource for individuals to see how their day-to-day efforts impact the overall business. Leading metrics help organizations proactively manage their operations and make adjustments to improve outcomes.

Examples of leading metrics might include:

  • Number of sales calls made
  • Equipment utilization
  • Order processing time
  • Inventory accuracy

By tracking leading metrics, businesses gain insights into their activities and can take corrective actions to drive better outcomes.

Lagging Metrics

Lagging metrics, also referred to as outcome or output metrics, measure the results or outputs of a process or activity. They are historical in nature, reflecting past performance. Lagging metrics are often used to assess the overall effectiveness of a business strategy or initiative.

Examples of lagging metrics include:

  • On-time delivery
  • Order accuracy
  • Customer churn rate
  • Quarterly profits
  • Customer satisfaction survey

While lagging metrics are valuable for evaluating performance, they are less actionable as they cannot be directly influenced once the results are realized. However, they provide crucial feedback and insights into the effectiveness of past efforts.

Importance of Balancing Leading and Lagging Metrics

To gain a comprehensive understanding of performance, organizations need to strike a balance between leading and lagging metrics. By focusing solely on lagging metrics, businesses might miss early warning signs or fail to identify opportunities for improvement. Conversely, relying solely on leading metrics without considering lagging metrics can lead to a lack of accountability and a failure to measure the actual outcomes. A combination of leading and lagging metrics allows organizations to align their actions with desired results.

Setting KPI Targets

Setting effective KPI targets ensures that organizations have clear objectives and can measure their progress accurately. Here are some key considerations when setting KPI targets:

Balance Aspiration and Attainability: KPI targets should be challenging enough to motivate employees and drive improvement, but they should also be attainable to maintain morale and prevent demotivation. For example, set targets to increase the overall throughput or handling capacity of the material handling system, ensuring that it can meet demand efficiently.

Align with Business Objectives: KPI targets should directly align with the organization's strategic goals. Each KPI should contribute to the overall success of the business.  For example, establish targets to optimize material handling costs by reducing labor, equipment, or inventory carrying costs while maintaining or improving operational performance.

Consider Industry Benchmarks: Research industry benchmarks to understand what constitutes good performance within your sector. This helps set realistic and achievable targets.

Use Historical Data: Analyze past performance data to identify trends, patterns, and areas for improvement. This analysis can guide the setting of ambitious yet realistic targets.

Involve Stakeholders: Collaborate with relevant stakeholders, such as department heads or team members, to gather input and insights. Involving them in the target-setting process fosters ownership and commitment. For example, gain insight from the team when setting targets to minimize errors in material handling operations, aiming for higher order accuracy, inventory accuracy, and reduced return rates.

Regularly Review and Adjust: KPI targets should be periodically reviewed to ensure they remain relevant and aligned with changing business priorities. Adjustments may be necessary based on new information or market conditions. For example, establish and then periodically review targets to reduce the time required to complete material handling processes, such as order fulfillment or product distribution. This may change depending on the volume and season.

Measure to Improve Your Operations

Leading and lagging metrics are both essential components of effective performance measurement. Leading metrics provide proactive insights, while lagging metrics offer retrospective evaluations.

By incorporating both types of metrics into their performance management framework and setting appropriate KPI targets, organizations can drive continuous improvement, make data-driven decisions, and achieve their strategic objectives. If you would like to talk about possible operational or process efficiency for your operations, talk to one of our solution consultant experts today. 

Author: Katie Hokanson

Katie is a Process Improvement Project Engineer at Bastian. In a role focused on process improvement, Katie spends her days helping to support Solution Delivery KPI and Kaizen activities, along with serving as the Project Manager for Solution Delivery initiatives.


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