How to use Kata to develop scientific thinking

Toyota Kata Lean

Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) has long been recognised as a foundation of any successful improvement process. Nevertheless, most lean efforts tend to be characterised by a quick judgment of what the assumed problem is, followed by immediate attempts to solve the problem. Taking the time to reflect on what went wrong and draw conclusions for learning is rare.

Practice of Lean outside Toyota is rarely scientific, characterized more by a false sense of certainty about what is and how to do Lean than a constant acknowledgment and distinction between what we know and what we don't know. Perhaps many Lean practitioners, like us humans in general, avoid scientific thinking because scientific thinking means acknowledging and dealing with a lot of uncertainty; considerably more uncertainty than we may be comfortable with.

I would like to share a starting kit that you can use to help your teams create new habits and improvement capabilities.

Pattern and Practice of Improvement Kata

Kata are small routines practiced by the leader to a level of perfection. The improvement Kata is both a working pattern and set of structured practice routines used to develop scientific thinking and creativity in any organisation. The practice routines are critical, providing opportunity to build new habits. Adopting improvement Kata on a large scale in your organisation allows it to be more adaptive and successfully meet challenges.

It has been scientifically proven that occasional efforts to improve don’t result in the mindset change and true culture of continuous improvement. The solution that does work lies in daily practice of specific routines under corrective coaching guidance, along with the positive emotions that come from mastering a challenge. Changing the mindset required for a successful Lean approach involves forging new neural pathways instead of erasing old ways of thinking.

The logic underlying the Improvement Kata is that we can meet nearly any challenge if we practice together in a more scientific way. The path to any challenging goal involves experimenting and learning. The Improvement Kata makes dealing with the uncertainty of a challenge easier by giving beginners a structured routine for navigating a challenge and finding a solution, at the same time working on developing a new habit.

Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata
Practice of routines with Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata are key for developing a scientific way of thinking.

How to teach the Improvement Kata

The Coaching Kata gives managers a way of teaching the Improvement Kata in daily work. Together with the Improvement Kata, they constitute a management approach that makes scientific thinking teachable and transferable. They are both about goal-oriented creativity. As an organisation’s teams pursue goals they are united by a challenge, a method of working and a solution.  The purpose of the routines is also to make the initial practice deliberate and focused.

Coaching Kata involves the following roles: learner, coach and 2nd coach:

-Learner applies the Improvement Kata at the level for which they are responsible. The Learner grasps the current condition, designs the next target condition and works toward it by conducting experiments with PDCA and developing solutions to challenges, all in daily dialog with the Coach.

-Coach ensures the learner is working scientifically according to the Improvement Kata pattern, conducting coaching cycles daily using the 5 Coaching Kata questions. The coach’s task is to develop the learner by guiding the learner on Improvement Kata procedure.

-2nd Coach: observes coaching cycles between the coach and learner, giving feedback to the coach to help the coach develop their coaching skills.

There are two main Kata tools you’ll need to use, designated for different roles. For the Learner, the PDCA cycles record used for planning experiments and reflecting on the results. For the Coach, a five-question card. It’s their script for conducting the coaching cycles and it involves the following questions:

  • What is the Target Condition?
  • What is the Actual Condition now?
  • What Obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?
  • What is your Next Step? What do you expect?
  • How quickly can we go and see what we Have Learned from taking that step?

The pattern of thinking and acting, which is reflected in the 5 Coaching Kata questions, repeats up and down the organisation. The coaching cycles are a connecting element in a layered approach where a person at each level is a coach to the level below. It involves learning at the gemba and working on real problems, corrected by the thoughtful feedback of experienced coaches.

I also go over how to practice the Improvement Kata in this video.  

Don’t hesitate to ask me any questions you might have on this on the network.

I would like to share a starting kit that you can use to help your teams create new habits and improvement capabilities. (For more see Mike Rother, The Toyota Kata Practice Guide, McGraw-Hill, 2018.)

Make the Toyota Practice Guide a live link to:

Masterclass showing you exactly how Toyota uses Kata approach

For a very detailed explanation on how to coach your Lean leaders in an organisation and best-practice examples from Toyota management team, attend my upcoming Leading the Toyota Way” Masterclass. It’s a very popular course, places book up fast. 

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