They’re delivering a one-two punch to defects. They’re ridding the earth of process waste. They’re on the front lines delivering customer service perfection. They’re in leadership striving to make a difference in the world. They’re kicking process improvement butt! Join us each month as we highlight another unsung hero of Quality – The Wonder Women of Quality are here!
This month in the Wonder Women of Quality pantheon we are honored to highlight Karen Martin!
Karen Martin, president of the global consulting firm The Karen Martin Group, is a leading authority on business performance and Lean management. As a thought leader and skilled teacher, Karen has shaped how leaders and improvement professionals approach business performance in over 45 countries.
An in-demand speaker, she’s the two-time Shingo Award winning author of The Outstanding Organization, coauthor of Value Stream Mapping and coauthor of two other titles on business performance improvement. Her latest book, Clarity First — her most provocative to date — is garnering deep praise.
Here are Karen’s answers to a few of our questions:
What is your Quality Mission?
My mission is help people create workplaces where they can become the best versions of themselves and reach their full potential; where operations are designed so that zero extra effort is expended; where innovation occurs freely and consistently as a part of doing daily work; where fear is non-existent; and where leaders model curiosity and humility in all that they do. With all five of these attributes in place, there’s a high likelihood that quality will be stellar, expenses will be kept in check, and customers will receive the high degrees of value that they richly deserve. Two of my mantras are “work doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it” and “customers deserve better.”
Two of my mantras are “work doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it” and “customers deserve better.”
What is your Quality Superpower?
I was blessed with insatiable curiosity and an investigator’s eye for detail. In addition, I was a scientist in my early career so hypothesis- and experiment-based problem solving comes naturally to me. A superpower I’ve developed over time is my intuition, which rarely fails me. Data and intuition are a powerful combination that enables me to quickly connect the dots, see trends and patterns, differentiate between relevance from noise, and discern fact from fiction.
On the non-technical side, I’ve always had a keen interest in psychology, which fuels my passion for learning what makes people and organizations tick—and discovering how best to shape mindsets and behavior to maximize performance.
What is your Quality Kryptonite?
In the extreme, most positive traits turn negative. And many negative traits—when used judiciously—turn positive. In my case, impatience (for excellence) is a trait that I’ve become better and better at corralling into positive use. It serves me well when working with clients to accelerate improvement. Still, there are times when my impatience spills into the “not helpful” bucket.
Organizations also have their version of Kryptonite. Some of the most common forms of organizational Kryptonite are:
- Fear-based cultures
- Leaders who don’t operate with humility and curiosity (often due to fear)
- Insufficient mettle to challenge the status quo (often due to fear)
- Belief that mediocrity is sufficient (often due to fear)
- Over reliance on copying others (aka lack of independent thought)
- Weak problem-solving capabilities
- Self-inflicted chaos due to lack of clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement
- Lack of respect for the people who deliver customer value and support the delivery of value
Achieving high levels of quality and building a high-performance workplace is far more psychological than many people assume. Root cause analysis is as vital in addressing obstacles in organizational transformation as it is with value stream and process performance gaps. To successfully combat Kryptonite, it’s critical that we understand why that Kryptonite exists in the first place and then establish proper countermeasures to mitigate or eliminate it.
Root cause analysis is as vital in addressing obstacles in organizational transformation as it is with value stream and process performance gaps.
What are some of your Quality Victories?
One of the turning points for me in my personal growth occurred in 2008 when I began learning about A3 management—and then, through experimentation and practice, learning the enormous role that proper coaching plays in building deep problem-solving capabilities in an organization. It’s been a life-changing journey—and a deeply personal one—to learn how to coach in a way that truly serves the problem owner.
It’s been a life-changing journey—and a deeply personal one—to learn how to coach in a way that truly serves the problem owner.
A second victory is around the technical aspect of problem solving. I’ve long believed that one reason why people have such difficulty with problem solving is that, on the surface, acronyms such as PDSA/PDCA over-simplify the level of critical thinking needed to solve problems well and the steps it takes to properly roll out improvement once a countermeasure has successfully proven a hypothesis. (The lack of a skilled coach at a problem solver’s side—an apprenticeship of sorts—doesn’t help either).
To aid in developing critical thinking and solving problems more effectively, I developed a questions-based model that you can overlay onto any problem-solving methodology. Since I began using the questions, beginning problem solvers are developing competence more quickly and those who already practice some form of disciplined problem solving are accelerating and deepening their results.
A third and important “aha” was discovering that classroom “training” is useless for anything other than introducing people to concepts and terminology (awareness), getting people excited about improvement (motivation), and having people discover how they think and behave (again, awareness). Developing entry-level skills and eventual competency occurs through practice with actual work. No one can “train” people to become proficient problem solvers, improvement practitioners, and facilitators/mentors/coaches. People need to be “developed” and development requires a living laboratory in the real world.
Do you have any Words of Wisdom?
In my experience, the single most important element to leading improvement is understanding people, work systems, and the psychological underpinnings that lead to top performance of any sort. Read, attend conferences, talk with experts, and explore unusual areas to deepen your understanding—for example, learning how juries are selected, learning how investigators uncover the truth, learning how NASA makes decisions, etc.
Recognize commonalities and similarities instead of focusing on “differences”: people are more alike than not, companies are more alike than not, industries are more alike than not, and countries are more alike than not. Just as people of all types all aspire for the same things (love, security, belonging, etc.), Lean thinking is industry and culture-agnostic: it applies everywhere, including at home.
If you feel compelled to benchmark, do it outside your own industry to stretch your thinking. Why strive to achieve 75% quality just because that’s how “top performers” in your industry are currently performing? 75% quality is unacceptable in any setting. Innovate and leapfrog ahead of the pack instead of striving for mediocrity. There are no limits to what humans and organizations can achieve with ingenuity and patient persistence.
There are no limits to what humans and organizations can achieve with ingenuity and patient persistence.
Finally, back to point #2: women are people just as men and non-binary people are people. We are more similar than not. Women have special gifts to offer just as men do. That said, we do have to strive harder to achieve the same recognition. It’s our current reality that will hopefully change over time. Beware of using “femaleness” as a differentiator in a way that rolls the clock back. Results matter and one’s ability to get results in a different, more effective way is the only thing that will get women on equal footing in all areas in business. And never, ever accept abuse of any sort, on any level.