• Aaron Styles

Establishing True North for your Organization


My sons have been in Scouting since they started first grade. My oldest is an Eagle Scout and my youngest will be soon. Camping is naturally a big part of Scouting, backpacking is our favorite mode of camping, and we are happy to live near the entrance of the Pisgah National Forest. One thing that is important to learn when backpacking in the Wilderness (more so before GPS) is Orienteering. Orienteering is the skill of being able to use a map and compass to figure out where you are and how to get where you want to go.


An important thing one needs to know, even when one has a map, is which direction is North. Without that knowledge, a map is useless. One uses the knowledge of which way North is to orient the compass, one uses the compass to orient the map. The same is true of an organization that wishes to improve. The improvement “roadmap” needs to be “oriented” toward “true north.” Otherwise, we end up like Sam and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, wandering around in circles trying to find the entrance to Mordor. I have seen many organizations undo last year’s improvements as part of this year’s improvement plan because they did an about-face and headed off in another direction. This happens because no True North has been defined to establish a compass heading for all improvements.


This happens shockingly frequently when a company gets new leadership. Western leaders often seem preoccupied with “making a splash.” When this is the objective, they come into their new organization with the goal of making a lot of big course corrections. Often, they do this without first understanding what had been planned and why. It can cause tremendous disruption, confusion, dissatisfaction, and cost.


Figure 1: Organizational Free-Body Diagrams

Take a look at Figure 1, above. It depicts three different organizational situations. The one on the left is “Working Hard, Unaligned” and it depicts the organizational alignment situation of most companies who have not defined their True North. In this situation, there are different initiatives pulling in different directions with the net result that there is much expenditure of effort with little or no result. Once True North is defined (Up), we can quickly identify that two directions are distracting (left and right) and one is counterproductive (down).


Some organizations simply try to add more effort in the newly defined True North direction. This is depicted in the middle diagram, “Working Harder, Unaligned.” Such an organization will begin to move slowly in the right direction, but is still making poor use of improvement efforts. What the diagram does not capture is the confusion this creates in the organization as management professes to be moving toward True North, yet still executes initiatives that are both distracting and counterproductive. This is like the organization that establishes an Operational Excellence or Continuous Improvement department, but changes little else, especially around executive thinking.


One might think that no one in their right mind would do such a thing, but I have one very common example from manufacturing. Many companies attempt to simultaneously implement Lean Manufacturing as well as offshoring their supply base (and some of their vertical integration). These two are clearly diametrically opposed, yet companies still proceed with them both because they are both part of conventional wisdom, not part of a carefully thought-out, long-term strategy.


The diagram on the right represents an organization that has defined True North and applied it rigorously to their improvement strategy such that every single initiative is deemed to be “directionally correct” (e.g. aligned with True North). Such an organization makes much more improvement, at a much faster rate, that is more sustainable. In addition, employees will be more engaged and “bought in” to the direction, management will have more credibility because what they say aligns with what is being done, therefore there will be less frustration for all, and fewer improvements that are implemented will be subsequently undone as part of later “improvements.”


The above might create some excitement about creating True North and organizational alignment. Before starting, however, it is necessary to establish a proper Organizational Context (see my blog on the subject). It is necessary to establish an organization’s Purpose, Mission and Vision before continuing to establish True North. With that said, below is an example of a True North statement that can be used to guide selection of improvement initiatives:



Every decision we make will be aligned with the following statements:

  • Reduce safety risks toward zero

  • Reduce defect risks toward zero

  • Reduce negative environmental impact toward zero

  • Increase employee enthusiasm and engagement toward 100%

  • Increase customer satisfaction toward 100%

  • Increase value-add toward 100%

  • Increase market share toward 100%

  • Increase profitability toward 100%


Pretty straight-forward, huh? The trick is in how to create organizational alignment from it and get yourself moving in that direction…fast! It has much more to do with, “What will we not do?” than “What will we do?” It requires local leadership to manage corporate “help” more effectively. It often requires more scrutiny around how shared resources are utilized. It demands that there be a prioritization process that may not have been in place previously and some pet projects may be placed in the Parking Lot. The best way to do it is with a comprehensive strategic improvement planning process, or Hoshin Kanri. That should be a blog of its own, however.


Does your organization's alignment look like one of the two diagrams on the left ? Do you want it to look like the diagram on the right? At a loss for how to get there? Contact us at Pathfinder for a no-cost, no-obligation initial consultation. We will review your current situation with you and map out a plan to get you headed in the right direction!

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