Jigsaw Management - Faster and Better Decisions

for the Canadian Business Review

In managing a business today, your success depends on how well your management team makes and recommends correct and timely decisions.

If you want to get repeatable success with decisions, you need to be able to show a pattern or model to follow. This could be for you or for your management team, but in order for it to work, it has to be both simple and truly portable. If it cannot be carried around in a new manager's head, it won't work.

In this article I will suggest a proven tool called the Jigsaw Management(tm) Model. It is a crisp way to deal with management and communication decisions. It is easy to remember how to use, and it can be kept in your head. It helps to reduce wasted time and resources. Best of all, if you are familiar with jigsaw puzzles, you are familiar with the model.

The Puzzle, Using the Boxtop

Every day we are surrounded by enormous amounts of information. Look at your in box, or the agenda of your staff meetings. Like puzzle pieces, all these data must be sorted and organized to be of any use.

A business day resembles an extended jigsaw puzzle. Disconnected pieces of potentially valuable information appear and you must arrange them into a comprehensible picture. Each piece of information, trivia, data, and random noise requires a decision. The first: Decide whether to deal with the bit or not.

Jigsaw puzzles have similar decisions, like how to start or what to do next with all of those pieces. Most people start to solve puzzles by looking at the top of the box to get a clear picture of what they are trying to recreate. The clearer the picture the more easily and quickly the puzzle is worked. The boxtop will allow a person or team to decide where a particular piece belongs and which pieces to work on next. Even which pieces do not belong in this puzzle, and can be set aside.

Do your team members, associates, employees or friends ever come across information that seems like a complex puzzle? Like you they are living in a puzzle of data they need to sort through before they can make use of it. For any employees who face a puzzle, it will usually seem much easier to sort out the puzzle if they can visualize a "boxtop" to guide them.

To explain the boxtop, define your criteria for success. The boxtop is nothing more than what they will have when they are done. Michael Hepworth's example of this is typically straightforward. His Canadian client wants to become the supplier of choice in this industry. Decisions can then be measured by how they contribute to that vision.(Cf. Sidebar One.)

For another example, look at how Jan Carlzon set a boxtop for SAS. (Cf. Sidebar Two.) By telling his team to build an airline that focuses on business travelers, he made it easier to decide which pieces to work with. There are always more pieces than we need. Creating a new city stop to attract tourist traffic is an example of pieces that look attractive, but just does not fit.

Making Good Decisions and Saving Resources

I define a good decision as one in which the answer best fits the overall plan of the organization and uses the fewest resources to get the result. The boxtop is that plan. The boxtop defines which of many possible solutions to a decision is the best one by offering a framework in which to place it.

This saves you resources. That may be the best reason to recommend it to a management team. When your team uses the model, each member will be doing two key things to reduce the cost of doing business.

First, the model gets a team or organization to a decision quickly. At SAS Carlzon could clear a decision that had taken undue time and energy for five years. Are there projects in your business that take up meetings and pull analysts off more important projects? How many times a month do people review some equivalent of the cost and benefit of drink carts? Getting to a decision quickly doesn't just save the time, energy, people, and support staff for that decision. If done often enough, it has the potential to change the tone of your business so that it emphasizes speed and responsiveness.

The second key cost saving from using Jigsaw Management comes from reducing the wasted effort of doing unnecessary activities. A manager's business is more like several jigsaw puzzles piled into a single box than just one. In the same way that you would sort puzzle pieces to toss out the ones that clearly are from another puzzle, Jigsaw Management calls for a decision maker to reject information, ideas, and projects that do not lead directly to the execution of the key idea, expressed as the boxtop.

At the same time Hepworth's team was reviewing the warrantee, "there were forty-nine other issues that were causing market damage." One high profile issue was concerns about the availability of field service representatives. Many solutions were discussed until they realized that solving that problem would not contribute to the boxtop. The pieces were set aside.

If your team is assembling a puzzle, and it has a time limit to do it in, with cash penalties for missing the limit, the team will have little patience for extra pieces tossed in. That describes your business, and you should have no more patience than your team would.

The Danger and a Conflict

There is a danger in the analogy. What if there is no overriding vision or boxtop? If not, how does a manager in your company make key decisions? How does he or she know how to save resources and to avoid time-wasting projects?

The answer is that your company can't share in those benefits. The model is limited by the vision or boxtop. Some executives do not have one defined, and for them poor or slow decisions are indicators of this omission. The symptoms cannot be successfully addressed without looking at the root disease. All other decisions should assume a lower priority, because the first key decisions concern building the image of the boxtop. This makes the difference for Hepworth's project. Without this resolution hundreds of the smaller decisions that make a business run will linger and eat up time and resources.

A second danger is that objectives periodically conflict with each other. An example is the conflict between any airline's desire to cut expenses in uncertain times and the desire to improve the flight experience for passengers. We might also look at the example of an airline wishing to reduce the number of attendants on a flight. This is potentially a savings in cost and an increase in seat revenue that might conflict with safety objectives.

The balance is complicated by expectations. As Hepworth observes, "Delight is often an occasional experience. You cannot hope to get it all the time. Your customer comes to expect delight, and it can't happen. You have to exceed expectations on a continuing basis, and that is not practical. Sometimes, delight comes from not having any negative experiences." You wind up balancing expectations and performance.

Some balancing is easy to accomplish. In Canada, both the government and the airlines mandate safety as a high priority. So, airlines will put at least three attendants on a Boeing 757 even if it is lightly loaded. Other balances are less clear. In large organizations (public or private) conflicting priorities are a major cause of wasted effort and seriously disable all kinds of production.

The conflicts occur when you have a jigsaw puzzle with an indecipherable picture. The most likely case is that working in this kind of environment is similar to a picture on a boxtop that changes. It may change as you work the puzzle. It may change as you find that someone has mixed pieces of another puzzle in with yours.

There is a very real responsibility for all executives and senior managers to avoid that confusion and to repair it if it occurs. Instead of accepting this kind of conflict as natural, managers must develop and present a clear picture to their employees and associates. In the end, of course, that is what Carlzon and Hepworth did.


The higher up in the organization you rise, the more dependent you are on how well you and those near you can make decisions. If you can help yourself and them to speed correct decisions, you will make your days more effective.

Use the Jigsaw Management model. The first step is to look at the organization's overall goals, like looking at the boxtop to a jigsaw puzzle. The second step is to set priorities, i.e., to build a frame for the puzzle. This has the effect of defining which resources will be necessary. Finally, a decision can be made by comparing the alternate solutions to the boxtop of the puzzle. The correct decision is the one that best fits the managers' objectives.

The model has worked before and it will work again. It will repay you and your team with better results in less time and at a lower cost. Jigsaw Management will help you to become more successful.

The SAS story is taken from Carlzon's book Moments of Truth (New York: Harpers and Row, 1987)