What Should Leaders Focus on? Lessons Learned from Japanese Kata

When faced with a multitude of issues during the day, it’s often asked, “What should leaders focus on to be effective?”

For a quick answer, Studies show that to be seen as an effective leader, you must both be people oriented and results oriented. If you focus on one or the other, you are considerably less likely to be seen as successful in your role.

In fact, you have between a 400% – 600% increased chance of being noted as a great leader if you focus on empowering and engaging your employees AND ensuring targets are being achieved.

There are a number of factors that go into this answer. We’ll explore why this is a powerful concept and where to start.

Contextually, Ken Blanchard argued in his book, The 1 Minute Manager,” that people oriented and results driven managers (or leaders) are effective when both of these factors are used in equal measure.

The book defines that if a leader focuses just on people, they are often loved by their followers but berated by their employers, as their results don’t always match their counterparts who are more output driven.

Equally, those that are focused on output, have better results, but are often derided by their employees, as morale and team engagement suffers. 

Interestingly, this anecdotal description in Blanchard’s book has supporting real life evidence to back it up. 

Zenger and Folkman in their study and white paper, “The Extraordinary Leader Insights,” identify the following intriguing results:

  • Leaders that have high people skills but don’t focus on results, have around a 9% chance of being seen as a great leader;
  • Leaders that are highly focused on results, but have a low focus on people, have a 13% chance of being seen as a great leader.

Not great numbers, either way.

Here’s the kicker: Those leaders that were people focused AND results focused in equal measure, had a 66% chance of being seen as a great leader.

That Means…

If you were already a people person but added a results focus, you’d increase your chances of succeeding in leadership by a tad over 633%.

And if you are already a results focused leader, but then add people focus to your day to day leadership, you’ll increase your chances of success by 408%.

OK, these stats deal with the perception of being a great leader. It does highlight an important thing, though.

Those in the business perceive their leaders to be great if they focus on people and results in equal measure. 


Because they more often than not, engage people and keep them motivated AND get results while doing it.

What Should Leaders Focus On? People and Results In Equal Measure

So, it’s safe to say that as a leader, you’ll need to focus on two key things (plus one additional element):

  • 50% people focused;
  • 50% results focused;
  • Continue to learn each day – developing and honing your skills.

The Happiness / Success Spectrum

Results oriented and people oriented leaders shouldn’t be seen as an either or. These facets are not actually at the end of a spectrum.

Great leaders and businesses alike have worked out that they can have their cake and eat it.

They can focus on results, as well as ensuring their employees are happy and engaged in what they do..

We can see the effects of companies who choose this route.

Here are some examples:


Google has mastered the art of employee engagement and creating happy employees. They ensure their workforce works hard and get results. They also allow each employee to work on their own personal projects for 20% of the time.

This 20% personal projects activity allows employees to get a bit of downtime and create some autonomy in their role – both are important factors in providing employee engagement.

These personal projects are what helped create Google Adsense, Gmail and Google Maps.

In 2020, Google’s ad revenue amounted to $147 billion dollars.

Not a bad return from a personal project, backed up by a focus on employee happiness and results.


This large grocery chain in the USA, is known for its employee centric culture, resulting in high employee engagement levels. As part of their push for a happy workforce, they invest $50 million a year in developing their employees.

It’s not too surprising to see it’s constantly voted one of the top places to work in the United States.

The main net result? Their growth is huge and it continues to grow. From 2015 to 2018, they grew from $7.9 billion to $9.2 billion in sales.

The recipe to success is clear to see: They focus intently on employee engagement, happiness and growth, with a constant eye on sales growth and market share. Both of these hard drivers help mix employee engagement with results.


NVIDIA is a tech company, famous for its graphics cards and the like. The interesting thing is that in 2012, when they made it on the list of one of the best places to work, for the first time, their shares were $15 each.

Their people focused perspective was built around values of transparency, collaboration and inclusion for all. This has helped build the image of NVIDIA being a great place to work. In the last 3 years alone, they’ve been recognised as a top place to work, and their share price has now grown to $211 dollars.

So how can a leader get started and focus on results and people? Let’s learn from the Japanese culture, originating from martial arts.

What Should Leaders Focus on? Use “Lean Kata”

The best thing to start with is to get out of your office, and embrace the culture that the world-class companies in Japan have been adopting for the last 40 plus years.

These businesses know, aswell as the current crop of large successful firms like Google, Wagmans and NVIDIA, that focusing on results is critical to success.

They also understand that they can only achieve these results by respecting and nurturing people.

In the lean and continuous improvement circles, the platform that they use to get this right has been referred to as lean kata.

Lean is a set of tools that managers can implement and use to eliminate wasteful processes,  therefore improving productivity, quality and efficiency. It ultimately means that customers can get more of what they want, when they want it.

Kata means a system of individual training exercises. It comes from martial arts, whereby each student regularly practices their technique until they master them.

What Lean Kata teaches, is the ability to practice results and people focused disciplines every day. It’s a recipe to follow to allow you as a leader to constantly implement your leadership kata and perfect it over time.

What’s the one key foundation to this? Well, it’s to manage your team by walking about.

To live and breath your team’s work environment and to avoid managing and directing.

The Components of Lean Kata

In order to practice lean kata, you need to implement a few key things:

  • Know what you’re measuring;
  • Make it visual, so you can see performance quickly;
  • Go to the workplace regularly and coach your team to make improvements;
  • Keep moving your target along as you improve and celebrate successes.

Know What to Measure

Before you can improve and work on output, you need to understand what the end goal is for your team. What does success look like? How do we know if we’ve had a successful day?

Often the answers to these questions give us a clear indication of what to measure. Here are some examples:

  • We need to process quotes within 30 minutes to win more orders;
  • We need to ensure that our lead time to our customers is less than 6 weeks, which is where are competition sit;
  • We need to be able to offer next day delivery on all of our orders placed before 4:00pm;
  • We need to improve our conversion rate from 25% to 60% to be world class.

When you’re clear of your main goal, it’s now time to measure it.

Make the Objective Visual

In the grand scheme of keeping things simple, we need to be able to measure these goals quickly and simply.

Here, it’s a case of tracking this performance in a simple way, which you can update by hand.

For instance:

  • What’s the current average turnaround of quotes?
  • What’s the current lead time to our customers?
  • What’s the percentage of orders we’ve delivered the next day?

Measuring these can be simple: Create a blank chart, and get the team to record this on a daily basis.

It’s not your task to do this. It is your team or team leader’s role. You need to ensure it’s being done.

Go to The Metrics Board Regularly and Discuss With your Team

It’s your responsibility to lead the discussion. The magic of this step is to engage in quality coaching and allow your team to spend time out of their processes, to make improvement ideas happen (It’s a similar approach to Google’s 20% policy).

Your aim is to never direct or control.

It’s to listen, observe and look for ideas to improve from those you’re reviewing it with.

This works well, when you empower and just reflect.

The questions to ask here are very simple. When at the board, ask the following in sequence:

  1. What is the current condition? Your team should answer by reflecting on the graph, where they currently are performing. E.G. “We are currently turning quotes around at an average time of 60 minutes”;
  2. What is the target we are aiming for? They should then reply with what the target they are working towards is. E.G. “ Our target for the next 4 weeks is to get to 50 minutes turnaround time.”;
  3. What Challenges are in your way, which are preventing you from achieving this?  At this point, we want to identify things that are preventing us from achieving our goal. The team should then list them down and pick the top issue(s) they think are cause the gap to plan;
  4. How are you going to overcome these challenges? Get them to define what actions they’ll try, to see if they can overcome the challenge and get closer to the target;
  5. When can we go and see this action implemented? Get them to agree a target date of completion and when to return to discuss if it worked or not. Focus on short term actionable tasks (E.G. a few days or a week).

These 5 steps repeat with every coaching cycle. It doesn’t matter if the idea didn’t work per se. What’s important is the ability to step back, and coach your team to be autonomous and self empowered, around this continuous improvement system.

The trick is to get them to agree little actions and improvements, not huge steps that are outside of their control. These little steps may well last a day or two, and can be implemented quickly.

The more you coach them in this cycle, the more you address several things that Google, Wagner and the like do.

That is, 

  • To give a small proportion of time to your team to work on improvements (remember, Google allows 20% of time on this);
  • Do not direct, manage or dictate – People centric managers coach and endorse reflection and empowerment. Their teams come up with ideas under their guidance;
  • It’s ok to get things wrong. These are small improvement ideas, so if they don’t work, try something else until you get to your next short term goal.

When they achieve this new target (which should really be achieved within 4 weeks), and through several coaching cycles, simply agree a new target to go after and repeat this daily process of tracking where you are against target, identifying barriers, choosing ideas and seeing if they have worked.

This is plan-do-check-act in motion.

Make the coaching kata a daily habit, and you’ll soon be embedding a team ethic of trust, openness, self empowerment, and troubleshooting. All of which, get results as they go.

What Should Leaders Focus on – Additional Points to Consider

  • Practice your active listening skills, so you can just listen and reflect. It’s so important to avoid coming up with answers and directing. You need to listen to their problems and then ask how they can overcome them, without forcing your views;
  • Ensure you give your team time away from their general work, so they can make these small improvements. It doesn’t have to be hours. MErely 10 minutes a day might be all it needs;
  • Add coaching kata to your daily diary. Block book time slots, so you always ensure you go through this process with your team, without fail. Make it a daily habit;
  • Encourage the team to make quick improvements. This way, you can coach more regularly and build a habit across your team of reflecting, improving, and collaborating;
  • Reward your team and acknowledge their work and efforts. This could be a dinner somewhere after work, even a few drinks, too. It could also be work half day on a friday, or a later start on a monday. Show them that you value their input. You could even let them choose the reward they want;
  • Let them make errors. This is the whole idea of coaching and learning. It also practices the subtle art of not being afraid of getting things wrong.

Make this a habit, and you’ll quickly be focusing on leading your people AND getting results in equal proportion.