How Clarity of Purpose Drives Better Improvement Results, With Karen Martin


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Podcast: Just-In-Time Cafe, Episode 27 – How Clarity of Purpose Drives Better Improvement Results, With Karen Martin -

In this episode we interview power consultant Karen Martin and zero in on the role “purpose” plays in outstanding performance.

We’ll give you a glimpse into her latest book, Clarity First, and which “Five Ps” make the difference for smart leaders. In the news, we’ll highlight a man whose relentless work to improve the lives of others landed him in an Army Hall of Fame, and lastly we’ll let you in on how GoPro cameras are not just for underwater photography. Line us up on iTunes and enjoy and engagingly educational commute.

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Podcast Transcript

Elisabeth Swan: Hi everyone. I’m Elisabeth Swan.

Tracy O’Rourke: And I’m Tracy O’Rourke.

Elisabeth Swan: We are from and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast where we bring you fabulous apps, polls, news, books, and people so you can build your problem-solving muscles.

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m really happy to be spending some time with you today, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: Great to see you too, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: They just made some cookies so I grabbed you one.

Elisabeth Swan: Only one? Well, bring it and then I’ll meet you in the private dining room.

What’s on the Menu (Podcast Agenda)

Tracy O’Rourke: Elisabeth, that looks like a good menu. What’s on it?

Elisabeth Swan: OK, Tracy. Here we go. For an Appetizer, we’ll find out how GoPro cameras are just as good for process improvement as they are for underwater photography.

In the News, we’ll find out how a Lean Six Sigma focused on purpose brought a Materials Manager into an Army Hall of Fame.

For the Printed Page, we’ll cover Karen Martin’s brand new book, Clarity First. It teaches you how to clarify the 5Ps, purpose, priorities, process, performance, and problem-solving.

And for Today’s Special, we’ve got your interview with Karen Martin where you address the first P in her new book, which is purpose. It’s a purpose-filled menu, Tracy. A lot of good things to come.

Tracy O’Rourke: I hear you. It should be good. Remember to stay tuned for this month’s coupon code in order to get a discount on’s online training.

Elisabeth Swan: Let’s get to that Appetizer.

Appetizer of the Day

Tracy O’Rourke: So Elisabeth, GoPro cameras are not just for underwater photography anymore.

Elisabeth Swan: No. This was new to me. I got this at a workshop recently. One of our colleagues, Craig Tickel, told me that he used GoPro cameras when he was working on reducing change-over time with one of his clients. And they had a single operator, and that person was responsible for all the change-over work. And GoPro makes this harness and places the camera right at the worker’s chest. They also make a headband so you could put it on your head as well.

And they had this operator strapped on the harness and then turn on the camera and they conducted the change-over just like normal business. It’s as if you’re doing a process walk and the camera was watching what was going on.

And at the end, they download the video. And once they did that, they could record the time required for each step. It allowed them to make a spaghetti map of the operator’s movements. And then they use the video to answer questions they had on the process and what are the tools that were needed.

And based on their learnings, they attached a tool to the machine at each location it was needed. So that was putting the tools near the work. And that was the improvement they made and it dropped the change-over time significantly.

So it’s a really cool application.

Tracy O’Rourke: Really nice. I really like this application feature because process walks are becoming more and more common and with virtual environments, everybody is always asking about tools that they can use to do virtual process walks. And the GoPro camera is a great way to do it. People that have been using FaceTime on their phone, people have actually just gone to GoToMeeting and have shared screens.

I really like this application feature because process walks are becoming more and more common and with virtual environments, everybody is always asking about tools that they can use to do virtual process walks.

So there are lots of ways if you really put your mind to it to actually get the process walk down so that people can actually see what’s going on.

Elisabeth Swan: So if you haven’t tried it and it sounds usable, GoPro cameras could be for you. I’m Elisabeth and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast. Up next, it’s Lean Six Sigma in the news.

In the News

Elisabeth Swan: So Tracy, tell us how this problem-solver ended up in this Army Hall of Fame.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. I’m happy to report about John Dugan who is at the Army Material Command. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Congratulations, John.

Dugan attributes the fact that he is in the Hall of Fame to the people that have mentored him. And ultimately, his skills for Lean Six Sigma, the fact that he utilized them to reduce lots of different operations that were redundant. He helped improve quality and timeliness of all their products and saved about $125 million, which is awesome, right? That gets people’s attention, a $125 million.

But I think what’s really interesting and what struck me in this article is the reference that John Dugan made many times in this article about his purpose. And his mantra is really and his position is to ensure the right equipment at the right time for soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. And that has been throughout his civilian career. And that is his – the purpose of his position.

But in actuality, he also attributes a lot of his achievement to making sure that he has had positive decisions to influence soldiers in a positive way. So even though Dugan leads a $32.9 billion operation, he never lost sight of the Army’s true asset, which is the people who make up its workforce and its fighting force.

Dugan says, “The question I always ask myself when I left work was, did the decisions I made today have a positive influence on soldiers?”

And so ultimately, he really has a very strong sense of purpose. And so to me, he has had some amazing achievements with a clear sense of purpose.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s a really great story and it’s a really case in point of what’s coming up in our book review of Karen Martin’s book. The act of being clear or the act of getting that clarity on your purpose makes decisions easy so that he knew what his focus was so he just would ask himself, like you said, “Did the decisions I made today have a positive influence on soldiers?” Because he knew that was exactly what he was after. So that clarity really helps people and clearly, it helped him. That’s a great story.

Tracy O’Rourke: It really is. And it’s really just improving the lives of others and having a clear purpose on how you do that. I think if everyone had a clear sense of purpose, they would get a lot more fulfillment out of what they do every day.

I think if everyone had a clear sense of purpose, they would get a lot more fulfillment out of what they do every day.

Elisabeth Swan: I’m with you.

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m Tracy O’Rourke and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast. In a short while, we’ll get to hear my interview with Karen Martin, author of Clarity First. But first, let’s hear a review of her new book.

Printed Page

Tracy O’Rourke: So Elisabeth, you wrote a review of the Clarity First book. What did you think?

Elisabeth Swan: Karen Martin has written a great book for a lot of reasons. So, as you might guess from the title, her writing is direct and clear. It’s a very readable book. Her approach is to address what she calls the 5Ps. I mentioned earlier, we got purpose, priorities, process, performance, and problem-solving.

And it’s a really helpful structure. But I appreciate that she starts with purpose, right? As we’re discussing and you just referenced it, our experience is that organizations suffer at all levels from a lack of clear purpose.

Organizations without a clear understanding of why they exist are not as successful as companies that have a clear statement of why they exist. And purpose can change.

A few years back, a lot of you may have noticed in the news, CV has changed their purpose to helping people on their path to better health. And you may not have known that but you probably knew what happened after that, which is that they had to stop selling cigarettes. If that was their purpose then their priority had shifted and they could no longer sell cigarettes. Purpose makes priorities clear.

And process improvement teams that can’t articulate the reason why they are changing a process fail to engage stakeholders and they don’t have as much success. So she applies the idea of seeking clarity at a macro level with the organizational purpose down to something as detailed as not using acronyms since they can lead to confusion.

And this one really hit home and I know it’s going to resonate for you, Tracy, because we now have an internal rule. You’re not allowed to use acronyms. And I remember before we set the rule, I saw this note and it said, “We’re creating a TPS video.” And I thought, “Wow! I don’t know how we’re doing that but Toyota Production System, that’s awesome.”

And then it turned out that it was the Tacoma Public Schools. Now, that video is still awesome. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. But it’s not about the Toyota Production System.

So her point is that even down to the words you use, you should strive for clarity. And I found myself shaking my head in agreement throughout the book because it really resonates with our approach, Tracy, because we are constantly looking for, what is the clearest way to say this? What’s the clearest way to teach this?

One of the minimal few words to get this definition across, it’s a great guide to building a problem-solving culture. And she touches on every aspect with great examples from her own work with hospitals and government and financial firms and tons more.

Tracy, I know you got a lot out of this book as well.

Tracy O’Rourke: I really did. And it’s really awesome because I know Karen Martin. And it’s just – I can hear her talking as I read this book. She also references Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, the whole purpose of why, and that most organizations don’t start with why. They start with how and they start with what.

And I think a lot of the questions she asked organizations are very provocative. And one of them is, “What do you do? No. What do you really do?”

And it really makes you sit up and think about what is it that we really do in terms of our higher purpose? And I got a chance to ask her why she does what she does and the work that she does and I loved her answer.

I think the most – one of the most interesting things is that leaders do forget that it is their responsibility to be crystal clear about the purpose of an organization. And not just being crystal clear but communicating it broadly with inspiration to everyone in the organization. That is ultimately the role and the responsibility of leaders that sometimes I don’t think is taken seriously enough or done well enough for an entire organization to be inspired.

…one of the most interesting things is that leaders do forget that it is their responsibility to be crystal clear about the purpose of an organization.

So I guess that’s the challenge for leaders. Visit our website and you can read the full review that Elisabeth put together because it’s awesome.

Elisabeth Swan: You’re so kind.

Today’s Special

Elisabeth Swan: Tracy, can you give us a little preview? You have sort of hinted a lot of what you talked about with Karen. But can you give us a little preview of your interview with Karen Martin?

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, I will just say that if you are in the Lean community and you haven’t heard of Karen Martin, you need to be catching up on some reading because Karen has written five books. She has won multiple Shingo prizes as an author. She is a Lean powerhouse. She is a consultant, a trainer, a keynote speaker. She has a very busy schedule. I tend to be a very busy person and when I talk to Karen, I get exhausted just thinking about all the things that she is doing to make an impact with Lean for organizations.

So today, we are going to really speak to Karen about her book, Clarity First, because there are lots that we could be talking about with Karen. And ultimately, how getting clear on purpose is a key priority.

Elisabeth Swan: Wow! Sounds great. Looking forward to it.

Tracy O’Rourke: You’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café. I’m Tracy O’Rourke. And joining me today is my friend and colleague, Karen Martin. How are you today, Karen?

Karen Martin: Hi. I am doing well, Tracy. How are you? Thanks for having me.

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m so glad you are able to join us today. And I will tell our audience a little bit about you since I know you but they might not know you although I’d be shocked if they didn’t hear about you yet.

Two-time Shingo Research Award-Winning author, you’ve written five books, three of them co-authored with Mike Osterling. He was also a dear friend of ours. You are also President of the global consulting firm, the Karen Martin Group, been in business what, 24 years now?

Karen Martin: Yeah. Actually, we’re in our 25th. We just turned the corner.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wow! 25 years! And you look so young. When did you start? When you were ten?

Karen Martin: Oh, flattery will get you everywhere.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right. So I have had the pleasure of working and knowing Karen for a number of years. We both lived in San Diego. And that’s kind of when I first met you. We went for coffee in La Jolla.

Karen Martin: We did. That was a fun day.

Tracy O’Rourke: It was. And so, we’ve got a lot of Lean consultant types in San Diego, you and me, Mike, Jerry Wright, Sammy Obara, lots of people.

Karen Martin: Yeah. I think a lot of it is because the manufacturing right over the border in TJ, in Tijuana. That seems to bring over and went to San Diego for Lean.

Tracy O’Rourke: True. And San Diego is not a bad place to live.

Karen Martin: Not too shabby. Not too shabby.

Tracy O’Rourke: So now unfortunately, you live in Santa Monica now.

Karen Martin: Yes.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, for me, it’s unfortunate.

Karen Martin: Yeah. Yeah. And I’m about to go further. But we’ll talk about that later.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK, great. So thanks for coming to the café to talk with me about your newest book, Clarity First. Very exciting. Did it already launch? Because I thought you had told me it’s launching in March. And I don’t know if you actually got an early release.

Karen Martin: Well, the lovely thing about publishing and their processes is that their processes aren’t predictable. And so, it actually just started shipping two or three weeks early. So better than late but I’m not ready.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right.

Karen Martin: So I’m getting ready now.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right. So this book is really about eliminating ambiguity for leaders and organizations in order really to achieve strategic goal.

So tell me. How did you come to write this book?

Karen Martin: Yeah. So when I was writing The Outstanding Organization and focused on the four different conditions or behaviors that organizations need for outstanding performance, clarity was one of them along with focus, discipline, and engagement.

And once that book released, you kind of never know how a book is going to hit the market and what people are going to think about it. And I started getting all this feedback about the book, positive feedback. And the clarity chapter was the one that was getting far more emails and far more emotion frankly and just far more attention than any of the other chapters. So I figured that was one reason why I wanted to write a book to do a deeper dive on it.

…you kind of never know how a book is going to hit the market and what people are going to think about it.

But then the other thing that happened, after I had that inkling that I would focus on clarity at some point, then I started doing a deeper dive into Lean like I have for what, 18 years now. And the more I looked at Lean principles, practices, and tools, the more I saw that they were all geared toward improving clarity and to generating clarity. And I got really excited about it because we, you and I and everybody else who does what we do experienced a fair of resistance to Lean.

And once I started realizing that clarity is at the core of it all, it started becoming more clear why people resisted because people resist becoming clear because then you have to do something with it, with the truth. And I got really excited to write the book once I put both of those kind of needs together. And that was the thing that started the baby.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And so, this is – the book prior to this, the precedent book was The Outstanding Organization. You did win a Shingo award for that particular book.

Karen Martin: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: And you said that clarity, the discussions around clarity were the ones that got you a lot of – people sending you messages and emails. What kinds of things were people saying?

Karen Martin: Well, it ranged from, “Wow! Never thought about clarity and its role in improvement and business performance,” to things like, “Thank you for raising some of these issues because I’m tired of working in ambiguity. I’m tired of not knowing what the direction is the company is going. I’m tired of not seeing how we’re actually performing.” And all of that – I got a lot of that.

And then I got one really emotional email from a guy who I had worked with at a previous client. He was this kind of big, burly guy, not really given to showing emotion on a sleeve. And he said he actually cried while he was reading the book because he finally realized that what was causing him and his whole department and company to not perform well and it just lack of clarity and this deep fear that the organization had around learning the truth. And it was a pretty emotional email. To this day, it has stuck with me.

…he finally realized that what was causing him and his whole department and company to not perform well and it just lack of clarity and this deep fear that the organization had around learning the truth.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wow! Well, I think that’s a really nice tribute to what you’re putting out into the universe really and people coming back and getting a response from that. And it reminds me, in this new book, you spend a good part of the book thinking about sharing the barriers that get in the way of clarity, things like ignorance, time constraints, and fear. And you just mentioned fear was recognition. He had recognition that there was fear in the organization.

So, are there any of those that you listed in the book that you find are the most pervasive within organizations in terms of getting in the way of clarity?

Karen Martin: Well, I actually believe that fear is at the core of all of those. Even biases and assumptions, even lack of humility and lack of curiosity which are big barriers, they call kind of drill down to fear.

I didn’t go as far down that fear path as I wanted to. Partly because there was a lot of content to cover and you have a page count max with your publishing contracts. But partly because I just was a little afraid, ha ha, a little afraid that if I went too deep into fear, it would actually turn people off because it gets deeply psychological. And I didn’t want to get – I wanted to stay practical because that’s kind of what I’m known for is the practical side of things but I didn’t want to be silent on it because it’s a big deal. Fear is a very big deal and it’s prevalent, pervasive, and it’s in our way.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. Well, you mentioned practical, being a P, and in your book, this book, you organized your work by the 5Ps, purpose, priorities, process, performance, and problem-solving. And I’m not going to let you give away the story about all of those things. But I do know that you believe purpose is the most important out of all of these. Can you tell us a little bit about why you think it’s the most important?

Karen Martin: Yeah. So purpose to me is something that organizations have struggled with for a long time in large part because we’ve gotten all kind of tangled up with the whole mission, visions, and values, operating principles, and things like that. And purpose has been I think the quiet one.

And it was Simon Sinek that really started kind of grabbing my heart and saying like it’s all about purpose. And when you get down to the end of the day, our lives on the earth are all about purpose. And when you find that purpose and you get clear about it then it drives everything from that point forward. And you can stay more true to mission and you can get higher results and all that if you understand what your purpose for even being on the earth is.

Companies have an equal need. They’ve got to understand it’s not about the product or the service that they are providing. It’s about why they are providing it? And when you get people rallied around that why, it not only is a much more stimulating environment for people to work in because it’s not just about, I call it the noun versus the verb. It’s not about the noun of what you do. It’s about why you do it.

And so, it has been fascinating to start challenging leaders to answer the question of why do you do what you do. And they can’t answer it. I mean most leaders cannot answer it quickly and unequivocally. Most leaders can’t do it. And it’s fascinating to me that we’re so blind to why we do what we do.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. Simon Sinek, I saw his TED talk and his book. I read this book, Start With Why. And I think …

Karen Martin: I love that book.

Tracy O’Rourke: I do too. And it really does – everybody starts with the what. Here’s what we do. And I don’t really spend time talking about the why. And that’s the inspirational part. That’s the part that is emotional. And I guess one question I have is leaders do confuse purpose and vision. What do you think is the difference between the two? Why do think they get tangled up?

Karen Martin: Well, vision to me is still what. But a good vision will be very tied to purpose even if it’s inexplicit. But to me, a vision is still like what do you want to be doing, when do you want to be doing it, to whom do you want to be doing it to with. Those – it’s still what.

And so, the purpose is why. And the companies that perform the best, I mean if you look at Toyota, if you look at Google, if you look at Amazon, they are very, very clear on purpose. And their purpose is why they do what they do.

So in the case of Toyota, they are very clear that it is about getting people from point A to point B safely in a car that doesn’t break the bank, a reliable car, high quality, and all that stuff. It’s about movement of people. It’s not about the car. It’s about movement of people.

And if you look at Amazon – I’m sorry. Let me go to Google. Google is about connecting the world through information and helping people get power through information. And so, it’s not about the search engine. It’s about giving people information so that they can be more powerful and they can survive and thrive as human beings.

And so – and I can go on and on about every company has a purpose. Even if you make something kind of more mundane like some kind of widget connector thing in manufacturing, the purpose of that could be that it helps make people safer in using a product or an employee is doing a job if it’s a B2B type of product. You got a mind for it but it’s powerful when you find it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Why do you do what you do, Karen? What drives you?

Karen Martin: OK. So there are two things. One is I have long believed that we spend a lot of hours at work and that work simply does not have to be as hard as we make it. And I say we because I do think that we collectively make work difficult. It doesn’t have to be that hard. It shouldn’t be that hard. So that’s the effort part of it.

But similarly, I do believe that because we spend so much time at work that we should go to work and be incredibly fulfilled by what we do. And look for that job that helps you become fulfilled and become the greatest version of yourself.

Everything that companies do that doesn’t help them perform at high levels, it’s also the same things that make employees frustrated that lead to turnover, that make your days more complicated than they need to be.

Everything that companies do that doesn’t help them perform at high levels, it’s also the same things that make employees frustrated that lead to turnover, that make your days more complicated than they need to be.

And so, when companies tap into the power that they’ve got to perform at high levels, they are also tapping into the thing they need to make a work environment that really fulfills people. And at the end of the day, yes, I want companies to perform well. Yes, I want shareholders to be happy. Yes, I want companies to be able to grow and provide more for the communities and the people they serve.

But at the end of the day, I want leaders to be able to sleep at night. I want people that are there in the frontlines to be able to be fulfilled and grow through their jobs. And I want peopled to be able to contribute in a way that helps them grow and develop as human beings. And that’s what drives me.

Tracy O’Rourke: That’s wonderful. I think the issue we really do face is finding that purpose. I agree with you. I love what I do right now.

Karen Martin: Yes. Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: That’s a lot of pride in what I do and it feels good and it’s very fulfilling and it’s really just trying to make it easy for everyone everywhere to build their problem-solving muscles.

Karen Martin: Yes.

Tracy O’Rourke: So my question is this and you’ve probably heard this quite a bit. When you start to push leaders on their purpose and people say, “Well, we’re here to make a profit,” in your book, you write, “Profit is not your purpose,” can you tell us a little bit more about the statement?

Karen Martin: Yeah. When I hear leaders say that and I’ve heard a lot of leaders over the years say that, when I hear leaders say that, it immediately tells me that they’re a superficial thinker and that they’re also not really looking at providing value to customers. They’re looking at some other more superficial and in my view, not as important part of why they do what they do.

The thing that’s cool about profits, so I am a big believer in profit. Let me just say that. The more money companies make ultimately the better it can be for them even though non-profits because you need to reinvest new equipment, better people, larger facilities. I mean there are all that. You have to have capital to do all that.

But profit is the by-product of everything else. So it’s a little bit of a Zen view of how you make money as a company and how you get to the end that you’re looking for. It’s not about focusing on the profit even though you make decisions to improve profit. It’s about doing the right thing and getting processes well-defined and getting waste out of the system and getting the right job fit for people, getting the right pricing on a product, all – getting the right product that the market wants. There are all that that then results in profits. So, you need to focus more on the operational why and then you’ll get the profit you’re looking for. So, you get it in a roundabout way and in a more humanistic way.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And as leaders, I think it’s very challenging if you tell everyone in the organization, “Well, we’re here to make money. So go out there and make some money for us.” I mean that just doesn’t sound very profound.

Karen Martin: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: It feels a little empty. It feels a little superficial like you mentioned. And so, it feels a lot better when you could say, “Well, we’re here to save lives as opposed to just making money.”

Karen Martin: Right. Right. And I think we want to be careful not to put lipstick on a pig. And I have had leaders when we talk about purpose and they’ve come out with, “Hey, well, we’re here to make money,” and I help them understand that that’s not necessarily the most helpful way of viewing their purpose. Every once in a while we’ll find someone that just says what they think they should say but they don’t really believe it. They still believe they’re there to make money.

And so, you have to be careful that you really grasp the deeper meaning of work and the deeper meaning of serving and the deeper meaning of providing value in order to really embrace that shift in thinking about profit.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And that’s a great point because if you really don’t believe it as a leader, it comes across as very disingenuous.

Karen Martin: Yup.

Tracy O’Rourke: And then you’ve lost credibility in your organization as well. So, getting started on clarity, I’m going to believe that people are going to want to read your book because they recognize that they need more clarity in their organizations. And you talk about three questions to help them get started. What do you do – what do you really do and why do you do it? So tell us more about these questions and why they’re so important.

Karen Martin: Yes. Thanks for asking that because it seems like a very basic differentiation but it’s actually pretty tricky to get people clear on what the differentiation is. So the what, what do you do is the product. So I mean the good or the service that you provide, and that’s usually very easy for people at least at the leadership level to answer. Sometimes the frontlines don’t know the full range of products but the leaders know.

What you really do is about solving a customer problem. And so, it’s taking that product definition a little deeper and we’re getting closer to purpose by the way by looking at what specific gap or problem does that close for customer, does it solve for customer and getting clear on that.

And that actually, answering that question really helps product development for example. It helps marketing. It helps everybody understand and start adapting a problem-seeking, problem-solving mindset which is helpful in all kinds of ways.

The why do you do it is why does that problem matter over another problem. Whoever founded the company, why did they choose to close that gap over other gaps? And that gives you a very good clue into what your purpose is. It’s not still the purpose. But it gets you very close to it and then you’re only a step away from defining the purpose.

Tracy O’Rourke: And which of these do you think is the hardest for organizational leaders to answer?

Karen Martin: The last one, the why do you do it. I actually just had an example with an automotive parts manufacturer that is a really solid leader, good thinker, real – I mean he has a good Lean mindset the whole bit. And we were on the phone for 20 minutes and he still didn’t get to the why. And so, he now has homework. And I can’t wait to talk with him when I get back from Asia and see if he got it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Karen Martin: We are indoctrinating it and we are almost brainwashed into being product-centric. And so, it takes a while to break that.

We are indoctrinating it and we are almost brainwashed into being product-centric. And so, it takes a while to break that.

Tracy O’Rourke: So in the book, what caught my eye in particular, well, the whole book is great but the topic that you talk about that I really think is very interesting and often get missed is this topic of catchball. Can you give our listeners some insight into what that is and why it’s so important to do?

Karen Martin: Yes, I love catchball and it’s very difficult to execute well. So catchball is the process for – it’s typically known in the strategy deployment Hoshin Kanri world where once priorities are being decided and defined by leaders, instead of just passing them down in a cascade fashion like we did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you are basically asking with humility and curiosity the next level in the organization, “What do you think about these priorities? How do you see what our work needs to be for the next fiscal year typically?” It could be midyear but usually it’s a fiscal year. What do you think?

And then you humbly listen to the answers that people give you about, “Well, I’m curious about that one. I actually think that this is more important because we’re hearing from our customers blah, blah, blah, blah.” And it’s the image of tossing a ball back and forth through conversation, which takes a bit of time. So this isn’t something that you do in one day.

And then companies that get really, really good at this are able to play catchball all the way down and I’m using a hierarchical org chart in my mind, which most organizations are, not all but most. And you can take it all the way down to the frontlines.

When you get to that level of maturity and can do it and not many have, then you got everyone in the organization bought in to the priorities by the time you get them set because everyone has had a voice. And I don’t mean like a deep voice but there has been a process to getting everyone’s perspective.

And so then it’s easier to stick with the priorities. It’s easier to avoid organizational ADD as I call it. And everyone is much more closely aligned with mission and why, purpose. And so, it’s a beautiful thing.

What happens is leaders fall prey to the old cascading style of, “Here’s what we think. Now, what are you going to do to support this and in that level? Here’s what we’re going to do. Now, what are you going to do to support this?” It’s not a conversation.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right.

Karen Martin: Catchball is very different from cascading goals.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And ultimately, people feel much closer, more connected to something they helped create, right? I mean that’s why the point of this is people can really get behind because they were sort of part of the creation of that, those mission, the visions, the goals.

Karen Martin: Yeah. And I have not had the luxury of being with a client long enough through like I’d like to someone through five cycles of this and everyone – this helped for the first couple and then go, “Oh, we got this.” I’d love to see someone for five years go through it because my hypothesis is that if they also embrace a lot of Gemba leadership and they’re in the Gemba a lot then the disconnect between the different levels will narrow and be less and so there would not need to be as many provocative conversations back and forth about, “Wait a minute, I see it this way. I think these should be our priorities,” because leaders will be much more in the know about what’s really happening with the direct value being provided to customers. And so, there would not be such a disconnect.

The first year, it’s very tough because there are significant disconnects between the different levels in the organization and their views.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, darn it, Karen. I wish I could have another cup of coffee with you because I feel like we just ripped through that cup of coffee very quickly. So just to wrap up, do you have any special interest as of late where you’re spending your time or special interest that are just piquing your curiosity these days?

Karen Martin: I keep going back to process management and process design. And we’re working with a pretty long engagement right now where it’s just so wickedly difficult to get the organization to understand you can’t just verbally say what your process is. It has to be documented. There needs to be someone managing it. You need to have performance indicators that are being constantly monitored.

And you’ll get little tiny pockets where people get it and then you go to a new area and you have to resell the concept all over again. It’s just fascinating to me how difficult it is for organizations to understand the value of standard work and job aids and visual management and all those things that it takes to have a well-oiled machine.

So I’m really – I’m wrestling with the psychology of all that and why is that and trying to figure out how to help in a more profound way.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah. I run into that too. It’s really interesting how every organization has clear org charts but you don’t see a lot of process charts that are high level to say, “Here are our value streams or here are what our core processes are.” It kind of blows my mind actually.

Karen Martin: It does. And when you have it at the leadership level, no one person that can actually describe the delivery of value from order to delivery, that’s not a good thing, and that is what exist because people don’t have clearly-defined value streams and clearly-defined processes and new hires. New hires go on board and they have this really bumpy onboarding because there’s nothing that standardize and we could go on and on. I do want another cup of coffee with you.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right. So anything else you want to share with our audience today?

Karen Martin: I just think that we are blessed. Most of your listeners I assume do what we do. And I think we are blessed with a way of helping the world that a lot of people don’t possess. Process work and organizational performance improvement and management consulting, all that stuff, is not for the faint of heart and it’s not easy. And I think that sometimes I talk with consultants that get really beaten down because it’s hard work.

But man oh man, when you think about what we’re actually doing, we’re saving jobs because if companies aren’t performing well, they are going to lay off because that’s what they do. And we’re making lives of individuals that are trying to deliver value to customers better and we’re helping leaders sleep at night. And yes oh yes, we’re helping them make profit.

It’s just – it’s a blessing to be able to do this work and I hope that everyone views it that way that does this work because it does get hard at times.

Tracy O’Rourke: It does. And I agree with you. I feel very blessed. It is hard work. And it kind of saddens my heart a little bit when people view process improvement as painful and they don’t want to have anything to do with it. They are just so missing the good things about this work. And so I absolutely agree with you.

And so, you are going to be making a major move out of California I hear. And so, tell us a little bit about that.

Karen Martin: I am moving to Dallas. And I’ve been in California since 1980, from Pennsylvania originally, never thought I’d leave. My mom is getting older and I feel like I want to get closer to her. I’m getting a little tired of California prices and I just decided to go for it. And I’m really excited for this new chapter.

Tracy O’Rourke: Oh. And Dallas is going to be very happy to have you. And if our listeners, any of our listeners are not in Dallas, where can people find you?

Karen Martin: Our website is That’s S as in Sue. And social media is @KarenMartinOpEx on Twitter and then Facebook is Karen Martin Group, Facebook/KarenMartinGroup. And LinkedIn, KarenMartinOpEx.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah. And I might just add that just Google Karen Martin. She is everywhere. But we do actually ask that if people want more specific information.

So I want to thank you, Karen, for joining me today at the Just-In-Time Café. I really appreciate it. It’s always a pleasure talking with you and working with you. I can’t wait until we get to work together again on something.

Karen Martin: Well, thank you, Tracy. Yes, that last project was really fun that we did. So, more of that to come.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And I want to thank our listeners for joining as well. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Just-In-Time Café on iTunes or listen to more podcast and visit us at to share your feedback with us.

Thanks a lot, Karen.

Karen Martin: Thank you so much, Tracy. This was really a great fun. Good questions. Thank you.

Tracy O’Rourke: Thank you. Tune in to success story, Darlene Schlueter and Kymberly Epperson’s process improvement. They went from 37 steps to only 7 and this is related to students doing events on campus at UC San Diego. And boy is it going to be a lot easier for you to do this event and get it registered now that they’ve improved that process.

Also, check out this month’s tools and concepts webinar, Introduction to DMAIC. It’s a great primer or maybe a refresher on DMAIC.

And also, tune in to our next podcast episode when I interview Angela Cook. She runs the Lean Six Sigma training program over at UC San Diego. You don’t want to miss that.

Elisabeth Swan: Thanks for joining us for another Java-filled episode of the Just-In-Time Café.

Tracy O’Rourke: See you in two weeks.

Thanks for Listening!

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