Improvement KATA

There’s a damn good chance that coaching and improvement KATA are the missing ingredients in your Lean or Continuous Improvement recipe. KATA comes from the martial arts world as an approach to building skills through practice and repetition. Over time, this practice leads to the rapidly development of continuous improvement capability and has produced incredible results across industries.

I have personally used this process to drive a 25% increase in productivity in 6 months, including a 40% reduction in quality defects at a leading global CPG company.

Lean’s AHA Moment – How Lean Met Improvement KATA

Lean thought leaders, Mike Rother and others, have identified that the leading reason that over 70% of Lean and Continuous Improvement initiatives fail is due to a lack of development of improvement skills and understanding within the workforce. Coaching and Improvement KATA addresses this shortcoming by transforming every employee into an agent of improvement and every leader into a coach, whose role is to develop CI capability into their teams. This multi-layered approach engages employees from the shop floor up, where the true culture work is done.

In the Improvement KATA framework, each process owner (the person executing the process every day) is issued a challenge, for which they need to develop the target condition. The challenge should be aligned with the broader business strategy and target condition should be the next performance goal the learner, or process owner, is trying to achieve. The learner and coach should also agree on a target due date for either the result to be achieved or for the next experiment to be completed.

Learners run a set of controlled experiments to drive progress against their target condition and 1st level leaders provide coaching on established intervals. 2nd level leaders provide coaching to 1st level coaches. This helps build coaching capability into the organization as well and engages multiple levels in driving improvements.

In this model coaches don’t provide learners with the “just go do this” answer, but help the learner find the answer for themselves; which in a sense, teaches the learner how to learn on their own. Over time, learners begin to take initiative to resolve issues that exist in their work areas instead of waiting for management, who also have limited time and resources available to work on issues. They key for management is to ensure that all employees understand and keep their improvement work aligned with the company strategy.

At the end of it all, the workforce builds the skills and capabilities to drive Continuous Improvement in their work area, resulting in more rapid progress against the company’s goals. This method, in combination with an effective strategy deployment process, enables greater speed of improvement in the direction that can help the company excel in the market.

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So, here’s the Coaching and Improvement KATA process:

  1. Deploy Strategy
  2. Assign a challenge to each employee in alignment with the strategy
  3. Each employee should develop a target condition
  4. Collect data to understand the current condition
  5. Experiment with changes to see what difference they make to performance (here’s where many other Lean tools fit into the puzzle)
  6. Collect data to measure the impact made
  7. Review the findings with 1st level coaches to determine what should be done next
  8. 2nd-level coaches work with 1st level coaches to improve coaching capability

This is very much like the PDCA process with a slight twist, placing more focus on the skill-building than on actual results, which are a product of developing the right skills.

For coaches, there are 5 Kata Questions that help the learner progress to their desired future state:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the current condition?
  3. What obstacles are preventing your from reaching your target condition?
  4. What is the next step (or experiment)?
  5. When can we go and see what we have learned?

This cycle is repeated on some frequency agreed upon by the coach and learner until the desired result is achieved and sustained. In this model coaches are most likely to be the learner’s (or executor of the process) direct supervisor, who’s 2nd level coach is their direct manager. This model supports deployment of continuous improvement through the direct chain of command instead of being owned and driven by a support function.

We are now learning that this is the secret sauce in Toyota’s CI success. Toyota has generously opened their doors on the tools and methods they used to rise to sustained market dominance. However, many have copied and pasted these tools verbatim without putting in the work to develop the workforce. As a result, leadership ends up pushing changes that the workforces are not capable of sustaining, leading companies to be further behind than where they started.

Improvement KATA turns the focus of CI from tools and methods to coaching and experimenting to solve problems through the application of the scientific method. Coaching and Improvement KATA are not viewed as a tool or process to be implemented but more of a behavior to be practiced so that the skills to solve problems of ever-increasing complexity can be solved. Over time, a true culture of continuous improvement develops as people become conditioned and skilled at overcoming the challenges they see all around them. This approach can be combined with cross-functional engagement in the application of Lean tools such as Root Cause Analysis can produce powerful effects.

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