How Toyota Kata can transform your lean deployment

Toyota kata lean

The Toyota Way was defined in an internal 2001 Toyota document as continuous improvement and respect for people. People are the only source of ideas for improvement, so they should be respected and treated as a long-term investment in the team, not as a disposable resource. The assumption is that people will creatively think about ways to improve weak points in the system. Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, tended to start out his students with one lesson—stand in a circle on the shop floor and look, look, and look some more. He would stop by and ask what they saw and after they explained he would ask them to keep looking. This went on for an entire day, sometimes longer.

What was Ohno trying to teach with this first lesson? He was trying to teach his students to slow down and deeply understand what's really happening in the current situation before charging off and trying to change a bunch of things.

Slowdown is a frequent admonition when we are trying to develop any skill. I have heard it repeatedly from my golf instructor and guitar teacher. Slow down! Practice this specific skill this way, over and over, slowly, until you master it. 

Then move on to the next skill (also called kata, as discussed below).

Daniel Kahneman, in his bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow1, brings science to bear on the question of whether we naturally think fast versus slow. He defines two systems of thinking in our brain that often seem to compete in our decision making: 

  • “System 1” (FAST) thinking is intuitive thinking– fast, automatic and emotional – and based on simple mental rules of thumb (“heuristics”) and thinking biases (cognitive biases) that result in impressions, feelings and inclinations.
  • System 2” (SLOW) thinking is rational thinking– slow, deliberate and systematic – and based on the considered evaluation that results in logical conclusions.

Unfortunately, fast thinking wins most often. He posits the “law of least mental effort” which seems to be the brain's natural tendency to want to get to the conclusion as fast as possible with as little effort as possible.

Brain scans support this. When we draw on existing routines in the hidden parts of our brain—hidden from conscious reasoning—and respond rapidly and successfully the pleasure centers of our brains light up with delight. Fast thinking feels good! 

When we are learning something new in a careful and deliberate way our pain centers light up—it hurts to think deeply. It turns out this is evolutionary—fast reaction using existing routines was rewarded in prehistoric days—with food and life. Those slow thinkers were more apt to die out and their genetic lines with them.

Why is PDCA so hard?

Kata and thinking types

Now let’s return to lean thinking. In the lean manufacturing world, Japanese masters were known in frustration to call managers “concrete heads” when they discovered they could not see the waste that was right in front of their face. And worse they seemed satisfied to live with the waste surrounding them. 

The Japanese masters used various methods to break through the concrete and get the managers to think. These included extreme challenges, along with some drama. For example, they might demand that the managers operate production smoothly after getting rid of 90 per cent of their inventory. 

Sometimes they would dramatize this with a chain saw cutting down the racks that held the inventory and scattering the inventory everywhere demanding the managers clean up and get ready to run full production over the weekend. These were set-ups to get the managers to take action and tended to be very emotionally charged and memorable. 

Then the Japanese teachers could get to work challenging the managers to use a more systematic approach to create smooth flow without defects. Don’t analyze the problem to death, but rather think clearly and in detail, try something quickly, then learn from it leading to the next experiment.

The driving force behind continuous improvement is PDCA or, a little more broadly, what Mike Rother in Toyota Kata calls Scientific Thinking. Our plans are actually hypotheses that we test by running an experiment and learning from the results of the experiment only to plan the next experiment. This sounds an awful lot like slow thinking which is what drains our energy and causes pain.

Toyota Kata Thinking

So how do we get fast-thinking people, our natural heritage, to slow down and deeply plan and analyze and evaluate? The answer in one word—practice! We must practice slow, deliberate thinking. Since it is hard and unnatural most of us need help, from a coach. 

Rother introduced some Starter Kata, or practice routines, to help learn scientific thinking fundamentals. This takes time, deliberate practice, and patience. He recommends 20 minutes of coaching a day and then some time spent practicing your current Starter Kata. So how do we get fast-thinking people, our natural heritage, to slow down and deeply plan and analyze and evaluate? The answer in one word—practice! We must practice slow, deliberate thinking. Since it is hard and unnatural most of us need help, from a coach. 

The improvement Kata Pattern

Toyota Kata Pattern

Now, of course, none of us are crazy about the idea of practicing something that ultimately causes us pain. Slow, deliberate thinking causes us pain. This brings us to the magic of Kata practice. 

The point is to make the deliberate painful process of following these steps an unconscious natural process that feels good. This happens over time.

We develop routines in our brain for fundamental, universal scientific thinking patterns, until they become so natural it feels weird to unscientifically jump to conclusions. By pushing scientific-thinking fundamentals from active reasoning into a faster, natural habit we free up the slow thinking part of our brain for focusing on the situational aspects of the problem at hand. Continuous improvement becomes a process of working toward goals driven by our built-in engine of scientific thinking. And it feels great!

If you'd like to find out more how to build a mindset of operational excellence, attend Jeff's Masterclass "Leading the Toyota Way"


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