Clarity First

Clarity First


This is a conversation between Karen Martin and Marcel Bamert. Karen is a two-time Shingo Research Award-winning author, consultant, keynote speaker, and University lecturer in the fields of operational excellence, Lean Management, and organizational development. Karen talks about her latest book, Clarity First, and how companies can create healthy working environments, increase employee engagement and be highly profitable by fostering clarity. Karen and her team at TKMG, Inc. has served many top companies, such as Intel, Lenovo, Epson, Prudential, Mayo Clinic and Qualcomm.

Clarity First
Clarity First: How Smart Leaders and Organizations Achieve Outstanding Performance

Who are you and what is your mission?

I’m Karen Martin, and I’ve been in the field of business performance improvement for most of my career. I started out as a scientist, which was a good background for what I’m doing now.

My mission is to help companies create productive and healthy environments. I believe in every cell of my body that you can have it all in business, and I have already experienced it. You can have a workplace that allows everyone to be deeply fulfilled, while you’re delighting customers beyond anything they’ve ever experienced, and while making a very healthy profit at the end of the day. It makes me sad when I look at businesses that don’t have all three factors in place.

How would you explain to a child why we need clarity?

I would say that we need clarity because communication is difficult even in the best of circumstances and that adding ambiguity into the equation leads to more misunderstandings. As a consequence of ambiguity, people spend a lot of time and energy on activities that are not aligned with their company’s vision. A lack of clarity can lead to death in extreme conditions or can even lead to war between two countries.

It’s important to always strive for clarity, whether you are a recipient or a deliverer of information.

Is clarity mainly about communication?

At the end of the day everything we do involves a form of communication. But when it comes to organizational performance, it’s about first having clarity around what the purpose of an organization is. A lot of organizations are clear on their mission (what they do), but not why they exist. Being clear on the organization’s why is a great way to attract top performing people and develop better business strategies

Most human beings want to be connected to something larger than themselves. And being clear on what performance levels you’re wish to achieve and what your priorities are, is very helpful. Clarity is also a prerequisite for standard work. Actually, clarity and it’s close cousin, transparency, are the foundation for all principles, practices and tools in the lean management approach.

For example, to be an effective problem solver, it’s essential to clarify the problem one is attempting to solve and not assume that you understand it before you know the root causes. In my book Clarity First, I write about the five Ps of clarity; purpose, priorities, process, performance and problem-solving. (A sixth P—people—is the focus of a chapter that is now called “You.”) The five Ps are the areas that require an organization to strive towards clarity.


Could you talk about purpose?

When it comes to purpose, the people need to sit down and rediscover their “why.” If you look back to who founded an organization, you will often find the unmet need(s) your organization is based on that resulted in the good(s) and/or service(s) the organization provides. Founders are quite passionate about why it’s important to fill that gap or an unmet need. After purpose has become clear, it’s critical the organizations become far more transparent about how it’s performing as an organization and whether that performance is meeting the “why” behind its products.

Could you expand on the area of priorities?

The priorities of an organization need to be linked to purpose. In the book The Outstanding Organization, which is a prequel to Clarity First, I spoke of four necessary conditions that need to be established to achieve outstanding performance: clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement. I received a lot of response to the Clarity chapter, much of it in an emotional context. I decided then that I would write a book focused solely on Clarity.

It’s common to see companies attempting to operate with a lot of ambiguity around what matters to the organization, on all levels. In the most extreme cases, different people work at cross-purposes from one another. It’s difficult to perform well until leadership gains consensus about the strategic priorities for the year. Only then are the people below that level able to work in alignment and not waste time doing good work that doesn’t move the organization in an intentional direction.

In the absence of clarity, we also observe a lot of what we call task-switching: projects that are started and stopped. Most often the projects being managed in parallel require much more “bandwidth” than an organization can handle at a given time, which creates productivity drains. Organizations achieve far more by working on fewer projects at once, completing them and then moving onto the next set of projects. You have to work on what matters now and have to get very good at say “no” or “not yet” to avoid allocating limited resources to too many activities that are not aligned with the company’s purpose.

Our firm does a lot of work in the area of problem solving. Many companies do a fair job with problem solving, but there are very few organizations that do a stellar job at problem solving, consistently and across all parts of the company. Many are mitigating problems at best versus actually solving them.

Why is this? One reason is that it’s human nature to operate with biases and assumptions. Becoming aware of those biases and assumptions is one of the first steps in becoming an excellent problem-solver.

Another reason is many people operate with arrogance instead of using humility and curiosity to drive us. Becoming clear about what the problem actually is, requires us to be humble and not think that we know it all. Senior leaders, in particular, often believe that they know it all because the attribute of being the most knowledgeable person in the room is what got them where they are now.

A leader that thinks he knows the right answer, while he doesn’t, leads to a plethora of consequences. Therefore, operating from a position of humility and re-igniting our natural childlike curiosity enables far more effective problem-solving.

Watching my children, they’re amazing they are always curious about why something happens.

What often happens to children…it’s so hard to watch. They come out of the womb with insatiable curiosity and then little by little, parents, teachers, and bosses who feel stressed or overwhelmed, tamp down that curiosity down by saying “because I said so,” “it doesn’t matter,” “you don’t need to know why,” and other curiosity-eroding comments. Every time that happens, the child receives a message that it is not okay to be curious and ask why. This programming that we get from parents, teachers, and bosses, condition us to stop being curious. Part of the role of an organization that wants to transform itself at the executive level is to commit to creating a safe environment for people to re-ignite that natural curiosity. So, don’t ever tell your kids they shouldn’t ask why!

How can leaders move the needle with clarity within an organization?

Ambiguity hurts the performance of an organization and diminishes the ability to attract and retain top talent. It makes people go home at the end of the day spent, unable to be fully engaged parents, spouses, or members of the community. The working environment does not need to be that way. It’s my mission to help leaders and organizations to take on the challenge to operate with greater clarity. Clarity is very much about being truthful, transparent, honest—and not thinking that you know it all as a leader. New habits need to replace outdated, ineffective ways of operating.


How can people gain more clarity in their own life?

While I was writing Clarity First I started reflecting on all the different relationships I’ve had over the years with clients, co-workers, and loved ones. When I looked at the whole mass, I discovered that there were people who were naturally inclined to be clarity pursuers, people who were inclined to be clarity avoiders, and people were blind to the notion that clarity mattered and therefore not aware of their behavior.

Being fully present requires clarity and dealing with the facts at the moment they arise. Committing to clarity enables us to cope with changes more effectively and swiftly. This doesn’t mean that we should go out and intentionally hurt people, but it does mean that there’s a place for tough love when you are delivering a clear message that may be difficult to hear. Telling the truth is often the more challenging route yet hiding from it is disrespectful to the other person. A lot of people aren’t comfortable operating in that space. It’s time to get comfortable with the truth, no matter how difficult it may be.

In studying and practicing Lean Management for eighteen years, I often look for universal themes of why Lean often fails in organizations. I’m convinced that the primary reason is that people are fundamentally uncomfortable with the notion of clarity. I’m talking about executives, not the frontline staff. The frontlines crave clarity. The genius of Lean lies in the executives that see the value of clarity and who want to build an organization that is top performing. I do think that there’s naiveté in a lot of executives believing that they can create a high performing organization by operating with untruth, hiding problems, and creating ambiguous policies.

What kind of rituals do you install to create clarity within an organization?

Creating well-documented standard work and monitoring it through daily management is fundamental for operating with clarity. Another benefit of well-designed and well-executed daily management is that frontline obstacles to success are surfaced. It’s a powerful practice that ensures that middle managers attend to frontline needs.

Another ritual is looking at the work through a value stream lens. By understanding how work flows or doesn’t flow, teams become far more powerful to deliver higher value to customers. The efficiency and effectiveness of end-to-end and parallel processes increase dramatically. Using value stream thinking and value stream management is a great ritual to drive results.

Can you talk about some best practices for creating clarity?

Well, Toyota is likely the grandfather of operating with clarity.  Autoliv, the airbag manufacturer, based in the United States, is an outstanding example to look at. They are one of the more advanced Lean organizations in the world. Visual management is something that they excel at. When you make performance visual, you can’t hide from performance gaps. Autoliv works hard and consistently to make problems and performance visible. You can’t have clarity in a non-visual world. Visual management is key to making work easier, safer and more productive. Another dimension Autoliv excels at is the way they learn and manage the conversations they have with the workers to surface and solve problems in real time.

Thank you so much for your time.