Leading and Lagging KPI Indicators

We’ve been compiling the 12 best examples of KPIs for various areas in business as we continue building out our KPI mini-series. This post is a small supplemental to that series, which answers one of the most common questions we get asked when people first start creating their KPIs. What’s the difference between a lead and a lag KPI?


For each KPI in our mini-series, we’ve provided a brief description of why you might want to use it. We recommend that you create at least 2 KPIs for each of your strategic focus areas. Check out the full list of teams for which we’ll be providing examples of KPIs:

  1. KPIs for Finance Teams
  2. KPIs for Sales Teams
  3. KPIs for Marketing Teams
  4. KPIs for HR Teams
  5. KPIs for Engineering Teams
  6. KPIs for Health & Safety Teams

Tom has done an excellent job of sharing all sorts of KPI’s to help manage your business, but I wanted to spend some time focusing on leading and lagging indicators, and how they can help tell your story.

Before joining the team here at Cascade, I was a CFO. From that experience, I can tell you first-hand that reading historical financial statements was the equivalent of watching paint dry for many on our senior team. Instant narcolepsy would take hold for ⅓ of the senior staff with the first PowerPoint slide sharing the balance sheet and income statement. A 3rd cup of coffee and a trip to the bathroom would be required to get through the actual to budget comparisons.

If you want to impress (or wake up) your executive team, start a discussion regarding leading and lagging KPI’s.

Let’s Start With Some Definitions:

A leading indicator is a measurable factor that changes before the company starts to follow a particular pattern or trend. Leading indicators are used to predict changes in the company, but they are not always accurate.

Examples of Leading Indicators for a company’s future growth:

  • % Growth in Sales Pipeline
  • % Growth in New Markets
  • Number of New Patents
  • Number of New Website Trials
  • Number of Unique Website Views

People tend to love leading indicators because they’re varied, interesting, and…often not that hard to ‘succeed’ at. But therein lays their danger…

Just because a leading indicator is positive, it does not mean the final outcome will be positive. For example, Sales Pipeline for a company is a leading indicator of sales. If the Sales Pipeline is growing it may indicate that the Company Sales will grow, however, if the Company does not convert the Sales Pipeline to Sales, the leading indicator may be inaccurate.

A lagging indicator is a measurable fact that records the actual performance of an organization.

Lagging indicators include the following:

  • Annual Sales
  • Growth in Annual Sales
  • Gross Margin
  • Annual Net Income
  • Growth in Annual Net Income

These all represent facts about the company or organization.

Pop Quiz: Is 12-month trailing revenue at mid-year, a leading or lagging indicator?

Answer: 12-months trailing revenue is a leading indicator.


The trailing 12-month revenue is the best predictor of what the full year will be. As each new year of monthly revenue records over a prior-year month, the new data points are a leading indicator of what the next year will be.

For example:

2016 Sales: $20 Million
12 Month Trailing Sales, as of June 30, 2017: $24 Million

In this example, it would be reasonable to predict that if July 1st 2017 through December 31, 2017 sales were flat year over year, 2017 sales would equal $24 Million and the company would expect to grow 20%.

Let’s take a few more examples from Liquidity Measures provided in the examples of KPIs for finance teams:

Current Ratio: This measure is generally used by financial institutions to validate what is the ability for a company to meets its current obligations. Although this may be predictive in nature at one point of time, it is generally a lagging indicator at the end of a financial period.

AR Turnover: This is also a lagging indicator as it has described how often AR turns over for any specific period.

Runway and Burn Rate: Burn rate is a lagging indicator as it describes how many money is spent (or lost) for any period of time. The runway is a leading indicator as it predicts how long cash would last with a specific burn rate.

A great example of the impact of leading and lagging indicators is when a company does an Earnings Conference Call. If a company has great financial earnings and beats expectations, a company’s share price may increase because they have to increase their financial model to reflect the higher financial earnings. However, if the same company predicts lower future earnings, this leading indicator can significantly decrease a company’s share price based on the lower expectations.

As you evaluate leading and lagging indicators, ask yourself the question – is this predictive in nature and does it have a possibility of predicting the future? Valuable KPI’s have the closest correlation to predicting the future. Great organizations then should find the specific levers to improve those KPI’s which will in turn improve the company’s financial performance.

The bottom line is that you need to understand the difference between these two types of KPIs to ensure that you have a healthy mix when it comes to measuring your focus areas.

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