About Clarity, Focus, Discipline, and Engagement

This post is inspired by Karen Martin’s (author of Shingo Research Award-winning book, The Outstanding Organization)  interview by Ron Pereira (Gemba Academy). In this interview (https://www.ksmartin.com/videos/the-outstanding-organization-interview/) Karen explains the importance of Clarity, Focus, Discipline, and Engagement. These are the four fundamental behaviors or common patterns in successful organizations, that are strong foundations upon which to build improvement programs up to outstanding organizations.

This interview resonated with me especially because the company I was trying to help at the very moment I heard the interview lacked every one of these four “pillars” and I truly believe this was the cause of all its trouble.

Here is my take on Clarity, Focus, Discipline, and Engagement, piggybacking on the interview. These opinions are mine, they may not reflect Mrs Martin’s opinions.


Clarity is first of all about the clarity of purpose, about making it very clear for everybody within the organisation what the organization is supposed to achieve. Why the organization was put in place in the first place and/or what Goal the founders are/were pursuing?

This Goal can be referred to as “True North” in Lean parlance and is called the “Goal” in the Logical Thinking Process. Both are a long-term objective that will turn a Vision into reality.

Once this purpose is clearly communicated, everyone can align his/her actions onto the organization’s Goal. Management is supposed to derive contributing intermediate objectives that make sense to their subordinates, in their daily jobs, while ensuring alignment onto the Goal.

Yet when circumstances require swift decisions, even without management around to give instructions, the clarity of purpose helps subordinates to take consistent decisions with the organization’s Goal.

Clarity is also, according to Karen Martin, about the lingo in the organization. Indeed, many employees use acronyms they are often unable to explain or worse, don’t understand! This makes it tough for any newcomer or temporary help to be at ease with the job, procedures, etc.

It can lead to misunderstandings, errors, interpretation, ambiguity, and slowing a process that could run smoothly if everything was clear.

For knowledge workers or for those that can work from home, without as much guidance and reminders than in a corporate building, clarity about the Goal is also important in order to keep focused.


With clarity of purpose it is easy* to focus on what really matters. Resources and time can be well used on what is important. Conversely, lacking clarity opens many options to go astray and waste precious and scarce resources on the wrong things. Alas, the latter is more common than the former.

When some people lose their focus, it is easier for themselves, for management or even colleagues to remind the Goal and what to focus on and why, when the Goal has been stated with clarity, communicated, and repeated.

Focus requires also to track progress with KPIs and review the progress regularly in order to correct the deviations.

*Staying focused needs discipline.


Discipline is about the ability to stay focused on the objective or to accept being reset onto the right objective. Discipline is also about sticking to the rules, using the defined standards, the official good practices, methods, systems and tools. Without sufficient discipline, chaos finds its way in. Little variations, little bits of ill-used freedom may lead to major problems.

It doesn’t look very harmful to download data from an ERP into a spreadsheet and drive processes from this copy, but at some point data may be so divergent that the situation becomes a mess. A little deviation messed up in unexpected proportions.

How many times manual data inputs do not follow the rules and the dataset is littered with entries that should be in the same format but do not accumulate properly because of scripting variations?

Now some degree of freedom is necessary to adjust to the circumstances as no procedure or work guide can describe every possible case and provide all necessary answers. So discipline is also acting in the interest of the organization while remaining the closest to the rules and standards. The latter should be adjusted with the lessons learned.

I was shocked to hear that some people in an organization, without the position giving them the freedom to act like this, chose themselves to stop reporting or stop attending meetings. I was even more shocked to hear that management did not react to these deviant behaviors. Here the lack of discipline goes both ways, bottom-up and top-down.


Engagement is the commitment to work on achieving the organization’s Goal. It is, in my opinion the result of Clarity, Focus and Discipline that provide the necessary framework, with sufficient empowerment to adjust to circumstances plus the feedback and management support to keep motivated.

Many surveys show that disengagement is way more common than engagement. So if we start from disengagement all the way back up, we can assume that disengaged staff doesn’t take it so seriously with discipline, as they don’t care.

If there is no motivation and probably poor discipline, focus is not likely to be kept on what matters. And if focus isn’t kept nor reinforced, it doesn’t matter if the purpose and the Goal have been communicated with clarity.

Employee engagement is key and engagement is something the organization can only facilitate but not order nor buy.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

One thought on “About Clarity, Focus, Discipline, and Engagement

  1. Hi Chris,
    What Karen is sharing in her interview is actually nothing new. In the limited contexts of both LEAN and TOC thinking, they may seem novel and even eye/mind-opening. HOWEVER, in the greater/wider reality encompassed by the realms of Continuous Improvement [CI] and Operations Excellence [OpsEx], these four “pillars” are nothing new. In fact, I can give you a good example of where they played a key role in turning around the performance of a US nuclear-powered submarine. And in that context there’s no mention of either LEAN or TOC-oriented THINKING and BEHAVING. Here’s a link to two short 10-minute videos detailing the example I’m referring to:

    1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqmdLcyES_Q
    2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivwKQqf4ixA

    [Note: As you watch these videos, pay close attention to Marquet’s use of the term ENVIRONEMENT and what he’s referring to.]

    Hopefully, this example makes it clear that there’s a great deal to be learned and gained from expanding one’s purview concerning the world beyond LEAN and TOC. And in this regard, when it comes to defining a TNO (i.e., TNO = TRUE NORTH ORIENTATION which is made up of the COMBINATION of:
    1) the organization’s MISSION/PRIMARY PURPOSE or its fundamental/overarching reason for its existence,
    2) FUTURE-STATE VISION which is where the organization wants/needs to be – in terms of competencies and competitive capabilities – well into the foreseeable future,
    3) VALUES, which specify what the organization – on both an individual and collective basis – considers to be essential as inviolate standards for governing/guiding human interactions, participation, essential thinking and behaving patterns… and why, and
    4) both near and longer-term OBJECTIVES establishing measurable/track-able accomplishments/achievements that represent key areas and measurable milestones for making progress in the direction of the TNO.

    Bottom line: Creating and sustaining and evolving a high-performance organization is NOT just simple about four pillars that “somebody” needs to be paying attention to. Rather, there’s a more SYSTEMIC perspective that needs to be brought forth in terms of creating a SYSTEM-wide ENVIRONMENT; one which is most conducive to “LIBERATING/EMANCIPATING” the FULLEST DISCRETIONARY THINKING AND BEHAVING OF ALL COMPANY EMPLOYEES. And who do you imagine might be holding PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY for creating and sustaining and evolving the needed/desired WORK ENVIRONMENT? That’s right… IT’S THE SENIOR MOST MEMBERS OF AN ORGANIZATION’S MANAGEMENT TEAM. IF they cannot perform this PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY, then there’s simple little to no hope for the organization regards of however many pillars might be identified and institutionalized.

    PS – When it comes to the notion of developing and pursuing/implementing strategy, the language one employs to describe what one means and what one is referring to is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT! In this regard, it’s a COMMON MISTAKE to conflate and/or obliterate the meanings of words and context(s) in which those words are being used. My case in point in your article is referring to the seemingly careless ease with with you go about interchanging the words “orientation,” “goal,” and “objective.” In the true realm of strategic planning and thinking, there is a difference in both the meaning and contextual usage of these words that is both intentional and purposeful. Just by way of example, an organization’s TRUE NORTH “ORIENTATION” is NOT a destination or a goal or an objective. Rather, it’s a direction or heading to move in. It’s akin to a navigational bearing based on an ever-larger/expanding map of reality (not unlike what’s happening to the universe). Ergo, it cannot be broken down into measurable dimensions… only relative positioning. In contrast, a goal is something that needs to exist in a quantitatively measurable form. It is meant to represent a measurable attainment/achievement. The same applies with the notion of an objective, the only difference being that a goal is more narrow in scope and shorter in its time frame. And they – as both terms and concepts – need to be inter-related and inter-connected, and inter-dependent in the broader contexts of STRATEGY, PLANNING and EXECUTION.

    Clearly this is something that Karen has NOT addressed in her interview. Ergo, what’s being touted is deficient in its fullest applicability. What we are seeing here is an example of what’s been know in the IT realm for many, many decades now regarding a hierarchy of meaning and context-based value added…


    Ergo, based on what I’ve just stated/described above, statements such as the following:

    “Engagement is the commitment [by who and why?] to work on achieving the organization’s Goal [Is there only one? Do you mean Orientation? An Orientation is NOT a destination, it can change depending on conditions in the operating environment? What then?]. It is, in my opinion the result of Clarity, Focus and Discipline that provide the necessary framework [What does this mean? What kind of framework?], with sufficient empowerment [What is sufficient? And what is being implied by the word “empower?” Do the more powerful empower the weaker?] to adjust to circumstances [????????] plus the feedback [???????] and management support to keep motivated [?????}.”

    … are fundamentally devoid of any real meaning or actionable insights. And I certainly would prefer not to have to guess at what was actually on your mind when you wrote those words.


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