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.