Despite its widespread acceptance, little practical application of the Hayes and Wheelwright four‐stage model is reported in the literature. This paper formulates a questionnaire to classify manufacturing companies under the Hayes and Wheelwright four‐stage model and assesses the reliability of the instrument. In an application of the questionnaire to three small manufacturing companies, the paper finds that half of the questions asked are statistically reliable according to the Interclass Correlation method. An in‐depth cross‐case study of the three organisations reveals patterns of management which further support the statistically reliable questions. The overall conclusion is that further research on questionnaires as instruments for exploring the four‐stage concept is necessary before a reliable method is available.