Lean Management Journal: Can you explain
your background?

Karen Martin: At my core, I’m a scientist. After receiving an undergraduate degree in microbiology, I worked as a clinical laboratory scientist. I learned about process and process control while performing diagnostic work in hospitals and independent laboratories, and during a short stint in medical research. While I loved the work, business was always in my blood—my father owned several businesses, my mother was a retail buyer, and my brother had his first business when he was only 19.

I didn’t see the connection until I was in my late – 20s and found myself at a managed healthcare organisation. It was there that my true passion for business started to emerge. I was blessed with outstanding leaders who allowed me the freedom to explore every facet of our rapidly growing operation: customer service; legal/compliance; product development; sales and marketing; quality; and finance.

In my next role, I built half of the operational infrastructure for another rapid growth managed healthcare firm. That’s where I fell in love with the work of W. Edwards Deming and my career trajectory was forever changed. I started my consulting firm (The Karen Martin Group) in 1993, after turning down a promotion to vice president. There were too many companies that needed pragmatic external support for me to stay internal.

LMJ: Was there a significant moment when you thought “lean is the way forward”?

KM: Yes. In 2001, I was hired as the director of the Institute of Quality and Productivity at San Diego State University and one of the programmes I oversaw was the always-sold-out lean manufacturing programme. Since all of my experience had been in healthcare and white collar, I decided I needed to sit through the program to understand what I was responsible for. Within 30 minutes of the first class on the first day, I was hooked. Lean was Deming made practical. The rest is history.

LMJ: Lean at times can seem male dominated. How do you think this has
affected your journey?

KM:In business and in life, I try to be as gender agnostic as possible. Performance is performance and competence is competence, regardless of gender. I have always operated in a world dominated largely by men and am quite comfortable there. While I have had my share of experiences that I’m reasonably sure would have been different had I been a man, they seem to balance out in terms of advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I believe I have had to prove myself a bit more than men often have to, but as a woman I have well-honed intuition.

LMJ: How would you describe your present role in the world of lean?

KM: I think this question is best answered by others. I aim to be a catalyst for organisational and personal transformation and I believe that lean is a powerful means to accomplish both. I view myself first-and-foremost as a teacher, truth seeker, and diagnostician – with motivator and remover-of-obstacles close behind.

I also see myself as a “corrector” of sorts. I spend a fair amount of energy correcting misconceptions about lean and help people experience the truth.

LMJ: In your opinion, what is the biggest contributory factor to implementing lean and sustaining a culture of lean?

KM: That is a big question. Leadership, hands-down, is key. Leadership can accelerate results, yet it can be the greatest obstacle. In many of the organisations we have worked with, we reached a point where, if they wantedto take lean to the next level, they needed to transition out some of their leadership team. Most had chosen not to make this bold move, so they remain stuck where they are.

The second factor relates to fundamentals, which I address in my book, The Outstanding Organization (2012). Lean – or any management approach for that matter – requires a solid foundation upon which to build a resilient and responsive organisation. All too often, organisations believe they can transform themselves on the surface and all will be well. It doesn’t work that way. If an organisation doesn’t operate with high degrees of clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement, their progress will be slow. That said, lean offers a fairly well
defined way to instill those behaviours into an organisation. So if an organisation has a cracked foundation, it doesn’t need to repair it fully before attempting lean, but it does need to put as much effort into mastering the fundamentals as it does in doing the “sexy” stuff. It is hard to complete 50-yard passes if the team can’t do basic blocking and tackling.

LMJ: What book on lean do you wish you had written?

KM: I still don’t believe there’s a good, practical, easy-to-digest lean primer out there. I’m talking about a 200-page non-academic, accessible, introductory book that covers the full spectrum of lean management. Mark Graban got close to it in Lean Hospitals, but it’s industry-specific. We need an industry-agnostic view. I believe the lack of this book is a large reason why there are so many misconceptions about lean. I’ve been asked to write it many times but, so far, haven’t felt motivated to do so. Time will tell.

LMJ: When running a business, what are the top three measures you ensure are visible, understood and owned by all employees?

KM: I don’t believe there are three defined measures that apply in all circumstances, but I can assure you stock price isn’t one of them! And yet, in many publicly-traded organisations, that’s the most visible of all metrics. An organisation needs balanced metrics. While financial metrics are important, leaders and employees alike need to be far more focused on profit margins than gross sales. Relevant operational metrics must be in place: what defines success operationally? Naturally “visible and understood” are key.

LMJ: What is the single most common contributing factor in an instance
when lean fails?

KM: Similar to my response to question four, leadership plays the greatest role in the success or failure of organisational transformation. However, I’ll add a few other characteristics that I failed to mention above: expectations, patience, and intestinal fortitude. Many leaders have unrealistic expectations regarding the speed at which sustainable improvement can be made. Many don’t have the patience to sow the seeds of long-term change through workforce development, nor the intestinal fortitude to confront the obstacles to improvement that will inevitably rear their head and need to be addressed for significant progress to occur. I often say that taking the lean journey will reveal every single organisational weakness that exists. Leaders have to be ready to deal with that.

LMJ: Do you think lean journeys are different depending on what sector
you are operating in?

KM: I’m also industry agnostic in how I view lean. The principles, practices, and tools are universal. The biggest differences are in terms of the competitive landscape and market pressures, culture, incentives and appetite for change. Healthcare and government, for example, are generally slower to change, whereas we can often move mountains in high tech and telecommunications companies, who are used to rapid change.

LMJ: What advice would you give your younger self?

KM: Relax, everything will work out, have fun.