Impruver Toyota Kata - Missing Cog

Nowadays, there is no shortage of Continuous Improvement approaches to choose from. Between Lean, Six Sigma, TPM, TQM, RCM, and all the others, one can fairly easily find the tools and methods for driving some quick wins in performance results. However, there are certain challenges with the methods listed here. Among those challenges are that they are traditionally driven using projects, action lists, and other unscientific methods; ultimately leading the the failure to sustain those gains over the long-term. The forefathers of Lean, for example, developed a catalog of tools that they observed Toyota using at a snapshot in time, from which many companies have tried to copy almost verbatim. The consequence of this approach has been a piecemeal of management tools that often make no sense for the company trying to copy them. This is partly because the copycats probably don’t have the same goals and ambitions that Toyota had in the 1960’s when those tools were first studied, recorded, and distributed. This post discusses how Toyota Kata brings an aspect of talent development through experimentation that might be missing from traditional approaches to CI.

As those of us who paid attention during 4th grade chemistry class learned, the scientific method is an iterative process that gradually discovers truth through experimentation. The learning process begins with the learner’s current threshold of knowledge and develops deeper understanding through the process of forming hypothesis about an idea, then changing one variable at a time to prove the hypothesis true or false. After each successive test, the learner definitively knows more about the process they are seeking to improve. Then the learner continues to make changes until the target condition is reached. Copying and pasting management processes from other companies is unscientific at best and at worst, outright dangerous. However, the scientific method is universally applicable and is the diamond that can be extracted from the lump of coal.

What makes Toyota Kata Different?

The term Kata, from Japanese martial arts, means practice and mastery through repetition. Toyota has learned to apply the scientific method to solving problems that hinder business performance. Toyota Kata is simply the repetitive practice of the scientific method toward a pre-defined target condition. The more reps that a person is able to execute with proper technique, the more proficient they become with the desired behavior and thought process. This is the method Toyota has deployed to solve problems at all levels within their enterprise using both Coaching and Improvement Kata, which has led to the development of many of the beautiful Lean tools that we know and love today.

What’s wrong with action lists?

If you’re like me, you have used action lists for a long time; maybe you’ve even grown quite fond of your lists as I once was. Having managed a few projects in my day, its natural to take a “project management” mindset into Continuous Improvement. When managing a project, the punch list is a powerful tool to make sure all necessary work is getting done on time and under budget. However, Continuous Improvement is a little different from project management. While a specific result or outcome is expected from a well delivered project, one of the most important outcomes from CI is learning; and talent development. The results are a product of learning – and learning is achieved through thoughtful and disciplined experimentation with the process. In project management, there is an assumption that if you complete this punch list, you will get the result. In Toyota Kata, each idea is a hypothesis that needs to be tested and proven true (or false) before moving to implement the next idea. Changes are made one at a time with data, or evidence, being observed to validate results between each subsequent change. This gradual and persisting process, combined with larger step-change projects, produces a perpetual series of changes that result in dramatic and sustained improvement over the long haul.

What all the other approaches to CI are missing

Okay so here’s how it typically goes. The company says “oh, if we do this CI thing, we can trim costs off of the bottom line”. Then they go out and hire Lean or CI ninjas who they believe will go in, start training people, and leading projects that trim all of the fat out of operations. This doesn’t even get into those companies that just start cutting headcount in the name of Lean, which almost always has a tragic ending. Anyway, what actually ends up happening is that these CI ninjas are expected to roam around the company looking for improvement opportunities and are measured on how much cost savings they’ve generated – often times against the will of Operations people and with no regard for the overall company strategy. The more people-savvy CI ninjas will go out and ask “what can I do to make your job easier”; but that’s about as good as it gets for most.

Toyota Kata approaches CI in a way that gives ownership of results to the people performing the work on the value stream from day to day. These are the people who understand the process best and are in the strongest position to develop winning solutions for improvement. Instead of having an outside consultant or support resource “driving” improvement projects, managers or coaches have regular coaching check-ins with the process’s owner(s) to understand what they’re trying to achieve (target condition), what’s the current condition, challenges, next experiment, and by when. This series of questions creates an expectation that everyone is leading improvement in their area of ownership and further develops the thought process for effectively applying the scientific method. This conversation is done at what is often called the “Kata Board” , usually located at the gemba, where the learner posts documentation to answer the 5 coaching questions alluded to above. The key here is that more frequent coaching and improvement cycles are better because it accelerates both learning and business results.

Impruver helps develop scientific thinking by providing a set of tools that automatically collect, manage, and report the information needed to execute Toyota KATA and the scientific method across the enterprise. This enables remote coaching, a knowledge base, and real-time communication of what’s happening from the gemba to the C-Suite. Impruver also accelerates the learning process because it reduces administrative waste, enabling more frequent improvement cycles.

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