Leading and Lagging Indicators - Are They Created Equal?

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January 15, 2024
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Patrick J. Karol,

Metrics play an important role in the success of any venture or organization. An organization’s culture partly reflects the metrics and reward system. Metrics fall into two primary buckets, leading and lagging metrics or indicators. We need both to ensure our safety and health program is effective and to send our employees home safely. How these indicators are used is key to success, and that starts with understanding the difference.

Let’s start with leading indicators. Leading indicators are typically activity or behavior-based. These are the actions the organization takes to reduce risk. They are intended to affect lagging indicators. Lagging indicators are the needle we are trying to move. Also known as outcome measures. These are the metrics that are most familiar to organizational managers and executives. Lagging indicators reflect past performance. They do not predict future performance. The TRIR and DART are the most common examples of lagging safety metrics. Both indicators are designed to measure progress.

Examples of leading and lagging indicators include:

Examples of Leading and Lagging Indicators

The problem is that not all leading indicators are created equal. A mistake many organizations make is assuming all leading indicators are good and will have the same impact on the lagging indicator they wish to move. As a result, a misalignment occurs between the leading and lagging indicators. Frustration follows when the needle doesn’t move as expected.

Another metric misstep is gathering data before deciding how the data will be used. Failing to decide how to use metrics before collecting puts the proverbial cart before the horse and is a colossal waste of time.

Here is a 3-step approach to ensuring alignment between leading and lagging metrics.

1.     Ask what problem we are trying to solve and what is the metric associated with this problem.

2.     Ask, what behavior or action can be taken to directly impact this problem, and what is the metric associated with this action?

3.     Establish goals for each metric and collect and communicate the results.

To close the process loop, evaluate progress and adjust either the metrics or goals to ensure continuous improvement.

The metrics we choose to collect and communicate are a direct reflection of our organizational culture. They are a valuable management tool that can be used for accountability, reward and recognition, employee engagement, and to motivate and celebrate success. Properly aligned metrics can move the organization forward. Misaligned metrics waste time and energy and lead to much frustration.  

It’s also a likely topic on the Associate Safety Professional (ASP) and Certified Safety Professional (CSP) exams. See our Exam Materials for guidebooks on ASP, CSP and CHST exams to learn more.