Toyota Kata: Meeting the 21st-Century Management Challenge

Toyota kata

Here's the big idea in 81 words:

Competitive conditions favour organisations that adapt, improve and innovate quickly. Despite all efforts, many fall short in becoming a true "learning organisation."

Sustaining a learning culture requires an essential attribute: a shared mindset of scientific thinking and exploration that governs the way we work together.

The bad news: This is not our natural mode of thinking. Our brain quickly and unconsciously jumps to conclusions.

The good news: We can change that by establishing a dedicated coaching habit on all management levels.

The 21st-Century Management Challenge

In the newly-released second edition of his famous book "The Toyota Way," Jeffrey K. Liker writes: "The beginning of the twenty-first century has continued the turbulence, uncertainty, and intense competition that marked the end of the twentieth century.

Long gone are the days when a company could set up shop, make a product or offer a service well, and then milk that product for years, hanging on to its original competitive advantage.

Adaptation, innovation, and flexibility have knocked this old business approach off its pedestal and have become necessary ingredients for survival as well as the hallmarks of a successful business." [p. 255]

Since there is no roadmap for many of today's challenges, having managers, supervisors and team leaders develop their people's navigation skills is an increasingly crucial factor in reaching challenging goals, adapting, innovating and achieving continuous improvement at scale.

That turns developing the scientific-thinking ability of individuals and teams into one of the core management tasks of our time. As a result, coaching ability is becoming an essential skill for any manager. However, developing excellent coaching skills is a challenge and needs practice and therefore, time. Thus, it often develops too slowly, haphazardly, or not at all.

This article is all about how you can establish highly effective coaching on all management levels that enables and empowers teams to reach challenging goals and achieve superior results despite uncertainty and change.

Successfully Navigating the Unknown Territory

These are challenging times for individuals and organizations alike. When faced with new and unknown territory, humans base their judgement, decisions and actions on a limited number of mental rules of thumb (heuristics).

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls this the "law of least mental effort". It is our brain's natural tendency to make a decision and find a solution as soon as possible with the least possible effort.

In short, we quickly and unconsciously make assumptions and jump to conclusions based on our experience; thus, doing more of what proved to be successful in the past.

That approach has served humankind well when fighting for survival in prehistoric times. Likewise, implementing and scaling proven solutions and best-practices created immense efficiency in the 20th century.

While these heuristics can be quite useful, they can lead to severe and systematic error in the 21st century's changing environment, where past experiences lose their validity and today's prescriptions are unlikely to fit tomorrow's problems. Whether it be for our products, processes, business approaches or even the way we run our organisations, we face the challenge of thinking anew.

So the question is this: How can we compensate for our natural tendency of jumping to conclusions and acting prematurely?

Our best bet is to deliberately practice in our team's universal means: a meta-skill for navigating unknown territory and continuously developing new solutions.

Mike Rother puts it nicely: When conditions are complex and dynamic, practical scientific thinking may be the best approach we have for navigating.

Scientific thinking means knowing that any idea should be tested. It means learning to compare what we think with what actually happens and adjusting based on what we discover from the difference.

It's a way of thinking that makes us better at reaching challenging goals despite an unpredictable and rapidly changing environment.

We can develop such a mindset through deliberate, high-frequency practice with a coach. That is what Toyota Kata helps us to establish and sustain as an organization-wide process.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. - Will Durant.

What is Toyota Kata?

Toyota Kata, developed by Mike Rother, is a skill-building process that shifts mindsets and habits from a natural tendency to jump to conclusions, to a tendency to think, work and learn in a more scientific way.

It also provides a way for managers to initiate and deliberately coach practice of these scientific-thinking skills in their teams.

At its core, Toyota Kata provides two patterns or platforms.

  • The Improvement Kata – A four-step platform for scientific thinking.
  • The Coaching-Kata – A five-phase platform for deliberate coaching.

Practicing with and building on these two platforms gives you a way to develop and mobilize your team's adaptiveness and creativity, thus increasing their confidence and ability to handle tough goals.

The Improvement Kata

The four-step pattern of the Improvement Kata provides a framework to develop a scientific mindset and way of working through practice on real-world problems.

Jeffery K. Liker explains:

The IK is designed to be more fundamental and less complicated—more meta— than specific problem-solving methods. It represents the underlying pattern of thinking. The IK is not intended to replace problem-solving methods, but to teach a fundamental scientific pattern of thinking with the result that any method will be used in a more effective way.

The following diagram visualizes the four steps of the Improvement Kata platform: 

Toyota Kata_Graphic1
Source: The Toyota Kata Practice Guide, Mike Rother, 2018


Each of the four steps of the Improvement Kata platform aims to develop an underlying mindset:

  1. Understand the Direction or Challenge - What is the long-term goal we are striving for? Daily business confronts us with an overwhelming amount of information and requests. Often we try to do everything, believing that more is better. We have a great need to learn, focusing on what is wildly important. A clear long-term goal will also align efforts across the organization, giving purpose and fuelling motivation when things get difficult. Underlying mindset: Establish and strive for a longer-term challenge.
  2. Grasp the Current Condition - Avoiding assumptions starts with getting actual facts instead of relying on beliefs, experience, and the opinions of others. Do this first, do it always, and do it firsthand. Go and see. Underlying mindset: Get the facts before anything else.
  3. Establish the Next Target Condition - As inspiring as a long-term challenge may be, it can also be demotivating and keep us from getting started. Slicing the challenge into smaller pieces, called Target Conditions, will help. It is also about understanding aend choosing the right levers to focus on to get closer to our challenge. A good question to get started is: Where do we want to be in four weeks regarding our long-term challenge? Underlying mindset: Break significant challenges into smaller Target Condition and focus on moving one lever at a time.
  4. Experiment Toward the Target Condition - To successfully navigate unknown territory, we have to go step-by-step, deliberately testing our ideas by experimenting, learning from what happens and adapting our approach accordingly. This approach of proving — or more often disproving — our hypothesis about how something works will not only help us to get things right but will also lead to a better understanding of cause and effect and thereby generate sustainable impact and innovative solutions. Underlying mindset: Test every idea, learn quickly and adapt step-by-step.

Although this might look like common sense, keep in mind that it is not our default mode of thinking. However, we can learn this way of thinking and working in a scientific way through repeated practice while being coached.

The Coaching Kata

Coaching has become a trend and imperative for managers in many organizations. However, establishing a scientific mindset, and thus developing a learning organization through a permanent process of coaching on all management levels, requires a specific type of coaching: coaching for a scientific way of thinking and working, with the purpose of developing the mindset and a meta-skill within individuals and teams.

The Coaching Kata provides a model as well as a platform for doing exactly that.

The following diagram visualizes the five phases of the Coaching Kata platform.

Built on Toyota Kata's five coaching question categories by Mike Rother, The Toyota Kata Practice Guide, 2018

The five phases of the Coaching Kata Platform can also be seen as stepping-stones for navigating the coaching conversation. Following this pattern will help to coach people's practice with the Improvement Kata platform.

Despite undergoing intensive training programs, managers often lack the ability to truly coach in a non-directive way. Coaches should have the ability to distributed decision-making throughout their team and at the same time ensure superior results as peoples adaptiveness and creativity increase.

Coaches often focus on challenging the content by using their own experience, giving advice, feedback and even orders. That still might create impact but will not develop a shared mindset and meta-skill of scientific thinking and learning.

There is something missing: Professional athletes hone their skills on the training court and pilots frequently practice in flight-simulators. Where do you and your managers hone your coaching skills?

That is where the Kata Coaching Dojo comes in. The Dojo provides hands-on support with a quicker and more effective approach to develop coaching skill with individuals throughout all management levels of an organization.

The Kata Coaching Dojo

A Dojo is a Japanese word for the place of practice in martial arts. It also translates to: the place for finding a better way.

The Kata Coaching Dojo setup allows coaches to practice specific situations and responses in role-playing, providing more frequent guided coaching practice than would occur in daily work life.

It provides a safe space and a sports-like approach where managers can repeatedly practice a series of specially designed training exercises.

Establishing a Kata Coaching Dojo in an organization is useful in two ways:

First, it speeds up the learning process for managers starting to use the Coaching Kata platform. The repeated practice in the Dojo will support building deliberate coaching ability and developing a coaching habit. It also helps managers to transfer classroom coaching knowledge into real-world mastery.

Second, having a permanent Dojo allows for individual sessions for a single manager or small group who are struggling with a specific situation. With a sparring partner to help, they can repeatedly go through challenging scenarios they face when coaching or communicating with their teams.

 A permanent Kata Coaching Dojo offers a deliberate way to develop new powerful coaching skills at scale, while improving the ability of established coaches.

Imagine your organization having a permanent training space for managers, supervisors and team leaders where they can hone their coaching and communication skills.

Executive Summary

  • The turbulence, uncertainty, and intense competition of the 21st-century challenge organizations in their ability to adapt and innovate at high speed. Developing and sustaining a true learning organization is one of the core challenges for top-management today.
  • Changing organisational structures and roles is important, and so is introducing new tools and methods. These are all necessary in attaining the main make-or-break quality required to be a learning organisation: establishing a shared mindset of scientific thinking, exploration and learning.
  • Toyota Kata is a skill-building process for developing such a mindset through repeated practice. Managers must deliberately coach their teams on all levels.
  • Developing the necessary coaching skills with managers throughout the organisation is a challenge, as they often develop too slowly or not at all. Managers often lack the ability to coach in a non-directive and empowering way.
  • Establishing a permanent Kata Coaching Dojo, a flight-simulator for managers, enables organisations to develop powerful coaching skills at scale and improve the ability of established coaches on all levels.
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