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Best Books to Buy: “Clarity First” by Karen Martin -

This month’s book is Clarity First: How Smart Leaders and Organizations Achieve Outstanding Performance by Karen Martin.

About the Book:

“Ambiguity is the corporate default state, a condition so pervasive that ‘tolerance for ambiguity’ has become a cliché of corporate job postings, a must-have character trait for candidates.”

Are you annoyed by ambiguity? Vexed by vagueness? Do you find it hard to get things done amidst corporate confusion? Karen Martin has the answer. Her new book Clarity First is a clarion call to leaders to get their houses in order. She describes her role as having to “push you to face the hard truths” and the truth shall set you on the path to greatness.

In keeping with the message, the book is an easy read, and Ms. Martin is generous with examples from her own experience which is broad and deep. Financial services firms, government agencies, engineering firms and hospitals serve as great vehicles to bring her points home. The book is rich in detail, structure, sample visuals, tools, concepts and everything needed to achieve outstanding performance.

One of the hard truths is that you have to actually do the work. Her guidance is not something to hand off to middle managers. Everyone is involved at every level. Throughout the book she urges leaders to develop clarity by learning for themselves. Going to where the work happens — the “Gemba” — is critical as you work toward clarity.

The book flows easily from the macro-organizational effort down to tips on how to foster clarity at a personal level. One great specific suggestion is for leaders to avoid acronyms since they can confuse recipients. That resonated since the inside joke in the process improvement community is that you shouldn’t use” TRLs” — Three Letter Acronyms. They save you time but force others to translate. It’s a false economy.

The book is structured around the “Five Ps:” Purpose, Priorities, Process, Performance and Problem Solving. It’s a nice, straightforward structure, and she appropriately begins with Purpose.

1. Purpose

Understanding why an organization exists seems so basic it’s surprising how many organizations are unclear on that point. In her experience, millennials will choose purpose-driven jobs over higher-salaried jobs in organizations that are not purpose-driven. They are a critical workforce so if your organization suffers from high turnover this chapter is for you.

She also makes clear that “making money” is no substitute – profit is not purpose. “Making money is an outcome of providing a desired or needed good or service in a way that meets the quality and price expectations of your customers.” That’s often a surprise for people but it’s a critical distinction since it can make the difference between fostering an inspired workforce or driving a broken internal culture like Wells Fargo.

With clear purpose, priorities are easier to set, creativity can be funneled in the best directions, and problems are easier to surface. Knowing why you do what you do contributes to clarity about how to handle an emerging problem or business opportunity.

CVS is a great public example of purpose in action. They began as a convenience store with a pharmacy attached, but they changed their purpose to, “Helping people on their path to better health.” They even changed their name to “CVS Health” (I’ll bet you don’t even know what CVS stands for: Customer Value Stores — Another victim of the “TRL”). Once they made that change, it became clear that selling tobacco conflicted with their purpose. In spite of dire predictions, removing cigarettes didn’t hurt their bottom line – just the opposite.

2. Priorities

Once organizational purpose is clear, it’s time to prioritize. This is where strategy comes into play. Prioritizing at a basic level means deciding not just what’s important, but what’s not important. Another hard truth is you can’t do it all. With that in mind, one of her first efforts is to help organizations determine what’s in their two “buckets” of work.

The first bucket is the “work it takes to run the organization on the daily basis.” The second bucket is “special efforts” that are not part of day to day activities. What she discovers is that leaders are not always aware of the amount of manpower going into that second bucket. If they were, they might choose to apply their resources elsewhere.

Strategy Deployment (aka Hoshin Kanri) is a great way to clarify which special projects take precedence. She’s clear this is a company-wide effort. It involves a top down and a coinciding bottom up sharing of information and priorities. By engaging in this two-way communication, a technique called “Catchball,” organizations get goal clarity while building a strong, clear problem-solving culture. This brings us to Process.

3. Process

Everything a business does – in fact, everything in life – occurs as a result of processes. Yet few leaders overtly advocate for process to the extent needed for clarity.

Whereas purpose is the “why” – process is the “how.” She rightly points out that leaders routinely miss how process clarity is critical for the business. A well designed, executed and managed process enables employees to operate at their best.

Instead, people assume rework is just the “cost of doing business.” Ms. Martin encourages her clients to measure how often their employees engage in rework, the “Hidden Beast” as her colleague Mike Osterling puts it. By calculating the percent complete and accurate (%CA) you can illuminate the waste in a process.

She’s also clear that you don’t need specialists to achieve high-performing processes. “Processes that are impeccably designed, clearly understood, relentlessly followed, and regularly improved don’t require heroics. People with average skill sets can still perform them at high levels.” It’s not hard, but it does take time.

4. Performance

Performance answers the question, “How well are you doing?” Once you’ve got well managed processes, you need to know how they’re performing. That requires developing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). She has great examples of how choosing a few key measures helps organizations focus and make the right decisions.

She makes a great case for ensuring these indicators are visual and accessible. A spreadsheet on somebody’s hard drive doesn’t do anyone any good. She also offers guidance on what to measure. It’s important to track both what’s “critical to the business” and “critical to the customer.”

She cautions against creating too many measures. The problem with trying to measure everything is that it leaves organizations data rich and information poor. To stay focused, the top level scorecards should have no more than nine Key Process Indicators. Once the scorecards are narrowed down and populated it’s time to get to the heart of the matter: problem solving.

5. Problem Solving

This is a rich section covering how to select problems, state problems, solve problems and be a good problem-solving coach. One perfect revelation is that what organizations need to solve are problems, not opportunities. “Opportunity” is just a confusing positive spin on process issues and she dispenses with that term in short order. Fuzzy euphemisms are everywhere — and they just get in the way.

The point is to focus on reducing the gap between where a process ought to be, and where it is now. Her advice is to make problems visible and work to understand the current state. She stresses that building understanding takes time, “speed is not your friend.” Give problem solvers the time to do the job right. She’s quite clear about the role of leaders.

Problem-solving skill building is the most important aspect of people development. Viewed through this lens, problem-solving coaching is the primary role of the leader.

Wrapping It Up

She concludes the book with a personal “You” section and a call to action. She encourages her readers to build and nurture curiosity. Seek clarity by asking questions. She’s mindful that people, especially those in positions of authority, are reluctant to admit to ignorance. It’s important to fight this mindset. When people see their leaders asking questions, that’s a signal that it’s okay for everyone to seek answers. And you need an inquisitive culture to achieve any clarity.

Good questions are a sign of wisdom and deep thinking. When tackling an issue, take some time to frame what you want to know and why you want to know it. What will you do with the information?

Karen Martin has written a wonderful “tough love” guide for leaders to systematically clear away chaos and confusion and bring their organizations to operational excellence. She bravely discusses the feelings involved in this kind of work. The feeling that prevents people from seeking clarity – fear – and the feelings that grab your heart – excitement and pride in serving others. She’s even got a great addendum on how to meditate. Such a refreshing voice in a field that often lacks passion.

In her words, “Clarity is a gift – go on and give it.”

About the Author:

Karen Martin, President, The Karen Martin Group, Inc., provides Lean transformation, operations design, and performance improvement support to industry, government, and the not-for-profit sector. Karen is recognized as a thought leader in applying Lean thinking in transactional, service, analytical, and creative environments, and has generated impressive results for her clients.

In addition to her 20+ years as a business performance improvement consultant and coach, she is a passionate Lean educator. She’s a frequent conference speaker and serves as an instructor in the UC San Diego Lean Enterprise program and an Industry Advisor for University of San Diego’s Industrial and Systems Engineering Program.

Karen’s other books include: Value Stream Mapping (McGraw-Hill), The Outstanding Organization (McGraw-Hill), Metrics-Based Process Mapping (Productivity Press), and The Kaizen Event Planner (Productivity Press).

Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:

Who Should Read Clarity First?

From the Page:

“This book highlights clarity-enabling practices to define your organization’s purpose and priorities; promote clarity around processes and performance; enable deeper, more effective improvement through disciplined problem solving, and help you develop the clarity-pursuing habits you need to model before you can require it of your teams.”

Check out our Amazingly Awesome List for more book reviews as well as a comprehensive list of Lean Six Sigma and process improvement books!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.