Karen Martin’s The Outstanding Organization

I posted the following as a four-star review on Amazon:

Karen Martin has been a consultant on performance improvement in office, service and knowledge work environment for almost 20 years, with prior experience in health care management. She knows the subject of outstanding organizations in this domain, and her recommendations on it are worth reading. I did not find myself agreeing with all her prescriptions, but my own experience is primarily in the different field of Manufacturing. Yet I picked up several ideas from her book that I intend to use, from the basic clarity-focus-discipline-engagement framework to details like the percentage complete and accurate (%C&A)  as a clerical equivalent of first-pass yield in Manufacturing, or  the idea of pairing people on tasks.

The book’s central idea is that the key to removing the friction and chaos found in the daily operations of most organization is to (1) pursue clarity in internal communications, (2) focus on a small number of topics to reduce the time members spend switching between projects and give teams a chance to finish what they start, (3) have the discipline to keep practicing what makes it function better, and (4) engage members so that they identify their own goals with those of the organization.

That these four characteristics are necessary for an organization to be outstanding is without question, and it is also clear that most business organizations lack them, but are they sufficient? We need to keep in mind that they are about the how and not the what. Tom de Marco had imagined a service called the Astro-Pony Tout Sheet, to predict the performance of race horses from their astrological signs. It is a clear objective, and you could assemble a focused team, disciplined and engaged in the task of providing this service. But it wouldn’t work no matter what they did.

On clarity, I agree with the author that calling problems “opportunities” just creates confusion. I think it is just a case of a metaphor taken farther than it was intended. If you say “problems are opportunities,” it is just short for ”problems give you the opportunity to grow professionally by solving them.”  It does not mean that you should substitute the word “opportunity” for every occurrence of the word “problem.”

On the other hand, I can’t follow the author when she equates solution with countermeasure. In manufacturing quality, for example, there is a sharp distinction between the two. If you discover that you have shipped a defective product, first you put in place a countermeasure to prevent further defectives from escaping, and then you identify the root cause. Removing the root cause solves the problem, and then you dismantle the countermeasure.

What she emphasizes the most on clarity is seeking and telling the unvarnished truth. In running an improvement program, it clearly beats trying to deceive the people you want to engage, but what about company secrets? I don’t think the author meant to suggest that all business strategies, product launch plans, and proprietary technology should be communicated freely and openly. Intel founder Andy Grove is famous for saying “Only the paranoid survive, ” and other successful companies,  like Apple, are also secretive. In very company, there are lines to be drawn between information best shared openly and secrets, and employees do not always have a clear idea of where it is or should be. This is a topic that I feel the author should have addressed.

I also have a few minor quibbles with statements that are not essential to the book. For example, there is no need to say when Frederick Taylor was active, but, if you do, you can’t say that it was “in the early days of the industrial revolution” (p. 8). Taylor worked around the turn of the 20th century, more than 100 years after the industrial revolution, as the Brits reminded us in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

Also, martial artists cringe at the description of Kata as “choreographed patterns of movement” (p. 132), even if Wikipedia defines the word that way. Katas are simulated fights against multiple opponents, and the study of a Kata involves Bunkai, in which other students enact the attacks against which it responds.

It is also an exaggeration to describe the practice of PDCA/PDSA as “creating a community of scientists.” Most actual scientists have never heard of PDCA or PDSA, and the methods they use are substantially richer.

This being said, I enjoyed the book, learned from it, and think it is a worthwhile contribution to the literature on Lean.

4 comments on “Karen Martin’s The Outstanding Organization

  1. Reply from the author on Amazon:

    Hi Michel – Thank you for your review. I’m glad you found much of the content to be helpful. I thought I’d respond to a few of your points to clarify for book buyers:

    1. Your point is well taken that the four “outstanding” behaviors–clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement–while necessary, are not sufficient. Clearly an organization needs well-designed products that meet market needs, effective leadership, ample cash flow, etc. to be truly “outstanding.”

    2. Solutions vs. countermeasures – I don’t equate them at all – that’s the point. They are very different and using them produces different mindsets and behaviors. Yet people often mistakenly use them as synonyms, which is the caution I raise. Perhaps the distinction I draw didn’t make it successfully to the page?

    3. Clarity – No, I definitely don’t believe companies should spew all secrets. In fact, I intentionally stayed away from “transparency” as a subject because I didn’t want to become prescription on when an organization should reveal vs. conceal when it comes to competitive intel.

    4. Taylor – Good point. Taylor was actually involved in what many historians refer to as the Second Industrial Revolution – a period that began in 1860.

    5. Kata – I’m not a martial arts expert, but I’m a fan of Mike Rother’s work around improvement kata and coaching kata, which he introduced in his book, Toyota Kata. I don’t think he uses kata to signify fighting of any sort. Being a fan of words, I’ll explore this one more deeply.

    6. PDSA – Yes, it’d be nice if more scientists followed a scientific methodology for problem solving. I alluded to the fact that most physicians (aka scientists) don’t follow PDSA but should. Perhaps I should have been more direct about my views. 🙂 I drew on Steve Spear’s reference of “community of scientists” because I think most business people would be well-served to embrace a scientific approach to product design, customer service, problem solving, and continuous improvement. (I was a scientist in my early career.)

    Thank you, again, for your insights. It’s good for an author to learn what goes on in the minds of their readers. Wish more would share this level of detail.

  2. Aloha Michael,

    Enjoyed this article and also your blog so far.

    You sound like a kindred spirit. Back in a previous life I worked in manufacturing. I lived in Japan for a decade, and cut my teeth in production control with a Japanese automotive parts’ supplier in Japan in 1987. In this sense I was “raised” by Japanese managers, doing things their way before I knew how my own compatriots did it, even before I knew that “lean” had a name. I spent over 25 years in the manufacturing world, several years with a US company in sales (to the Japanese transplant market), and few years with Japan Management Association Consultants in the US, 4 years as a plant manager and the rest as a cross-cultural management consultant.

    11 years ago I started my own company, Japan Insight. My niche is connecting Japan with the West. Think of me as a cross-cultural marriage counselor. Most of my clients are in the manufacturing world. I educate Japanese executives and managers on “the current situation,” specifically barriers to developing hybrid cultures in their overseas subsidiaries, and guide them to figure out for themselves how best to adjust, so they can clearly and more effectively share their management strengths with non-Japanese (mostly Westerners but also China, India, etc.) On the other side I teach non-Japanese the difficulties and potential in working with and learning from Japanese counterparts. I challenge and guide non-Japanese to come up with their own ideas on adjusting and adapting the best Japan has to offer, while contributing the strengths of their own cultures. For in-house sessions, I bring Japanese and non-Japanese managers together for a structured workshop. (And they always end in a borderline love-fest, creepy, but in a good way. 🙂

    I enjoy articles like these because clear and precise distinctions of various words’ meanings can make or break the communication process, even among native speakers! Assumptions about the meanings of words (such as “solutions” versus “countermeasures”)–especially across the cultural divide–create the illusion that communication is happening when, in reality, it is not. This can be quite dangerous. A simple example is the word “coordinate” versus “chosei” (it kind of means coordinate but not exactly; interestingly it also means “adjust.”) The Japanese chosei process is cross-functional; the person performing “chosei-yaku” (chosei role) has no authority; he doesn’t tell people what to do, rather, asks for their help in defining the current situation. His first goal then, is to create consensus not on a “solution”, but on a common understanding of “the current situation.” The chosei process then, is a delicate behind-the-scenes dance with lots of Japanese-style schmoozing, adjusting, massaging, all the time with a concern for the preservation of “face” for all involved. In the end, several “proposals” on (what we called) “root-cause corrective action” bubbled up from the ranks. Then our Japanese president would pick one and have the group that proposed it be in charge of implementation and follow up.

    Now imagine a Japanese boss asking his American subordinate to “coordinate” a project when both are unaware the “coordinate” and “chosei” to mean the same thing? Happens all the time. (I call this phenomenon a “linguistic stack-up variance.”) The fact is many Japanese and English words don’t have equivalents. The English word “management” doesn’t exactly mean “kanri” in Japanese. “Make a decision and “ishi kettei” don’t mean the same thing either. These “stack up variances” can add up quickly in a simple conversation. Misunderstandings ensure, and too often with them, hurt feelings. And it makes me wonder hgow Japanese and Westerners communicate at all!

    Ironically my only critique on your piece is picking nits: because I thought you kind of nitpicked on the “kata choreography” verbiage a bit–but your point is well taken. Whatever martial artists believe, from a communication standpoint, calling the kata a choreography is an easy and elegant way to describe it to non-martial artist types. Granted, the kata are indeed simulated fights with numerous opponents, but from a non-practitioners point of view, unless the person doing the kata has the freedom to deviate from the proscribed movements and ad-lib his movement, then “choreographed movements” seems like a fair descriptor. Again, just the humble opinion of a non-martial artist. 🙂

    Look forward to reading more.

    • Why do I care about Kata? Maybe it’s personal: I have been practicing Shotokan Karate for the past 13 years.
      Generally, we describe activities by meaning rather than actions. For example, right now, I am writing, but and no one would describe it as pressing keys, even though it is what I am physically doing.
      If you perform a Karate Kata to music with the intent of dancing, it is choreography. In Karate, the way a Kata performance is evaluated is in terms of the accuracy of the sequence of movements, the speed and power with which they are executed, and the demonstration of an understanding of the self-defense principles in the Kata.
      The relationship between dance and martial arts is sometimes deliberately confused. For example, Brazilian slaves developed a martial art called Capoeira, and disguised it as dance to fool their masters.
      When I read about Toyota Kata, I don’t see the connection with what we do in Karate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *