How to use an X matrix to define your direction as a new team

As an international company that embraces disruptive technologies, we’re often looking at new and exciting ways to approach the way we collaborate across our teams and departments.

Recently, we set ourselves a fresh challenge of forming an international Ocado Technology department, with sites spread over 1000 miles, and thus decided to try something new when it came to our ways of working together.

The new Platform Services department, headed by Dan Nelson, was split between several teams based in our Hatfield head office and in two of our development centers, based in Krakow and Wroclaw . To kick off a dialogue between the different team members of the department, the management team decided to structure its decisions using the Hoshin Kanri X matrix - a powerful Lean method for effective strategic management.

Based off their experiences of this strategy deployment model to date, we have put together this handy guide to help you define your direction within your own teams.

A guide to creating your own X matrix

The benefit of the X matrix is that every member of the department, from the top down, has a stake in the end product, and a say in process from start to finish. The design also means that there is a constant and visible alignment between the milestones you want to achieve, and how you plan to achieve them.

Both factors are particularly useful in a new department where people haven’t yet got to know each other and when they are  based in completely different countries. The process is also very data driven, meaning that everything can be measured and assessed, so you’re always able to check whether what you are doing is effective. All sounding good so far, so let’s take a look at how it works:

1. Set your ‘True North’

The core principle behind the X matrix is the ‘True North’ you set for yourself as a first principle. This will be your ultimate goal; what everything you’re doing should work towards and abide by.

The Platform Services department found that having a True North that invited further questions was a great help when looking for a natural starting place to kick off discussions. So, perhaps consider this when writing your own True North. These questions could help you communicate with other areas of the business and make it easier to explain what it is you do. It’s worth investing a significant amount of time into this and making sure everyone has bought in. This is the foundation on which all other elements of the X matrix are built, and so it has to be rock solid. Platform Services found that the discussions alone were extremely valuable, not only in defining the outcome, but in achieving their aim of getting everyone aligned and cohesive.

It is often useful to think of your True North as a ‘product‘ that you are building and delivering, so that you are always considering whether it is still what the customer (in this case other departments within Ocado Technology) wants and needs.

Making sure your initial True North is accurate and useful is key. However, equally important is accepting that the market may change. As a result you have to ensure that, should the need arise, you’re prepared to check your True North to ascertain you are still relevant.

2. Aspirations

Once you’ve set your True North, you can start to focus on your aspirations - the results you hope to achieve. For the best outcome, choose aspirations that cover the full breadth of what you want to achieve as a team, but  bear in mind that less is often more, and keep it brief. You also need to remember that your aspirations should adhere to and be guided by your True North. Consider them carefully, as they will arguably be your most defining decisions as a department.

3. Strategies

The next step is to define your strategies - the guiding principles that will enable you to abide by your True North. Platform Services chose their strategies based on the fact that they believed they should promote a healthy culture as well as an efficient service, while also helping them on their way to their ultimate goal. It is useful to consider your department as a whole, rather than just looking at your end goals. Your working culture is equally as important as the work itself.

Now you have the first two out of four sides of your matrix filled out, it’s time check that it all correlates i.e. strategies relate to at least one aspiration, and therefore the True North. Platform Services achieved this with a simple  dot-vote. This builds the X of the X matrix and is designed to check the effectiveness of the choices and highlight whether anyone in the department is unhappy with the decisions that have been made so far.

Everyone is given a set number of dots to place on the strategies they believe have the strongest correlation with each of their chosen aspirations. These dot votes are then tallied up, and represented on the X matrix. Correlations can be easily seen by looking at the box that corresponds with the column of the specific strategy and the row of the aspiration you want to check it against. If a strategy and an aspiration correlate well, it means that the former enables the latter, while also adhering to your True North. If any of the strategies show a particularly poor correlation with all of the aspirations, they should be reconsidered. Additionally, if this process is making you rethink any of your aspirations, it’s better to change them now, than try and go back after completing the whole process.

4. Evidence

Your evidence is the proof that you will look for which shows all of your strategies are enabling your aspirations and abiding by your True North. One important pitfall to avoid is simply working clockwise around the matrix from strategies, to tactics, to evidence - hold back from filling in your tactics yet!

The first time Platform Services designed their X matrix, they made this mistake. This meant that there was a confirmation bias between these last two stages: because they were deciding on their tactics before their evidence, they could choose evidence that supported their tactics. After realising their error, they erased these two stages and started again to ensure the X matrix would be as effective as possible.

This process will lay out your defining principles as a department, so it’s worth getting right.

Now it’s time to  focus on the correlations between your evidence and aspirations, before you turn your attention to the last point of your compass - your tactics. Follow the same process as you did previously with your strategies and aspirations.

5. Tactics

With three sides of your matrix in place,your evidence decided upon and everything nicely correlating, you can now think about the tactics that may bring about this evidence. Bear in mind these should still correlate with your strategies and in turn the rest of your matrix. You can think of these as your shorter term strategies!

Now is the time to bring in some accountability and ownership to the system. With your tactics decided on, you begin asking for volunteers from any area of the department to claim ownership and responsibility for specific tactics they feel they can implement and help work towards, again demonstrating that X matrix is in no way a top-down leadership solution.

Once you have all your volunteer owners in place, you ask them to vote on which evidence factors they believe best relate to their particular tactic, and how this evidence in turn relates to the original aspirations. Make sure during this process that you provide a sounding board for volunteers to bounce ideas off. This will make it easier to establish strong correlations at this stage, and if they are struggling to find any links, re-enter discussions and consider whether your evidence and tactics are suitable.

Lastly, there is one more department wide vote that needs to be taken: the correlation between strategies and tactics, or, if you prefer, the long and short term plans. Like the original voting process, this vote should take the form of a dot-vote which can be tallied up and represented on the X matrix.

This complete process should give you an ideal balance between department wide opinions and individual responsibilities, enabling a fantastic mix of autonomy and collaboration.

Platform Services have found this Hoshin Kanri strategy deployment model has become an integral part of their day to day decision making, and find themselves frequently referring to it to check that what they are doing is agreeing with all of the guidelines they have set for themselves.

Ocado Technology is known as a disruptive company, meaning fast paced change and development is a reality of everyday life. This can at times feel chaotic, especially for an international department like Platform Services, but the X matrix has allowed them to always keep sight of their True North, no matter what may be going on around them.

The Platform Services teams in Hatfield, Krakow and Wroclaw are able to work autonomously on their individual projects, happy in the knowledge that everything they are doing is working towards a common goal. Whenever they meet to discuss their next steps, they can refer to their X matrix to ensure their ideas agree with the department’s vision.

In Dan’s words:

We are now at the front of solving problems, rather than always having to be asked. This means we are actively bringing autonomy and empowerment to other departments, despite being still being in a formative stage of development - a result we’re very proud of!

If you’re starting out as a new team, department or business, why not try out the X matrix model and see what you can achieve?

Have you designed your own X matrix and do you have any tips relating to your own experience of the model? Leave us your comments!

george smith