5 in 5. Who would have imagined that the secret to a thriving Continuous Improvement culture could be boiled down to 5 questions in 5 minutes? Toyota KATA has introduced us to several breakthrough concepts but none more ubiquitous than the 5 Toyota KATA questions, otherwise known as Coaching KATA or The 5 Questions. The idea is that these questions can be used to coach to help a person develop scientific thinking patterns, especially when done frequently, more or less daily. Why these questions though? What are their deeper meanings?
The Toyota KATA questions are modeled after PDCA, which is modeled after the scientific method. Mike Rother developed these questions after spending 6 years studying Toyota’s operating practices to better understand what was the invisible hand that made them wildly successful with Continuous Improvement. This led to the publishing of best-selling book, Toyota KATA, which introduced us to the Toyota KATA questions. It should be noted that Toyota does not use these questions or any formalized approach in they way managers interact with direct reports. These questions were created to help other’s who do not have a culture of improvement and scientific thinking to develop this thought and behavior pattern. This post explores the secret meaning behind the 5 questions to better understand how they remap the human brain to think more scientifically.
Toyota KATA Questions #0: What is the Challenge?
Even though this one is technically not one of the 5 Coaching KATA questions, a good coach will always start a coaching cycle by asking “what is the Challenge or Direction?” On the surface, this question is asked for 2 main reasons:
1) to help the coach understand the North Star that the learner is working toward and
2) to validate that the learner has contemplated, gained alignment, and understands their own North Star
However, there is a deeper purpose for asking this question. Many people have a misconception that any “improvement” is good improvement. In their efforts to create a Lean culture or just run a better company, they have adopted a culture of random improvement. Although this could be better than no improvement, its usually a very ineffective way to run a company. Real improvement is aligned with the needs of the customer or market. For a company that is only selling enough product to justify half it’s production capacity, it makes no sense to focus on reducing cycle times. In this case you’re investing your limited company resources in creating more capacity that you don’t have the sales to fill – all in the name of Continuous Improvement. It’s the same idea as polishing the doorknobs on the Titanic. Who needs great looking doorknobs on the bottom of the ocean. It’s smarter to put those scarce resources toward patching the holes in the ship so that lives can be saved.
Toyota KATA Questions #1: What is the Target Condition?
There is a difference between a Target and a Target Condition. A target is a fixed quantity such as: make 10,000 units. A target condition is a predictable state of operations. For example: make between 2,000 and 2,500 units every single day. This is something you can promise to a customer in order to win that next contract. Simply adding the constraints such of per hour, day, week, etc. makes it a condition. Other conditions can be set based on temperature, compliance, binary (yes it exists or no it doesn’t), color, sound, smell, speed, headcount, etc.
On the surface, a KATA Coach would ask this question to understand what the learner is focused on improving next given the broader Challenge. The coach is also checking that the learner is clear on what exactly they are working on.
Here’s the hidden meaning behind this question. Notice that the first set of questions are future-oriented. Many leaders approach management from a “tell me what’s on fire so that I can go fight it” mindset. This is reactive management, otherwise known as Crisis Leadership. Toyota KATA seeks to help people shift to a culture of Proactive Improvement. The goal is not to get better at staying the same – it is to increase value to the customer while minimizing the resources consumed in the process. Likewise the goal of Continuous Improvement is not to focus on whatever can be improved; but to focus on what needs to be improved. This usually means innovating and iterating on every aspect of the company continuously to keep up with or lead the market, which is a constantly moving target.
Toyota KATA Questions #2: What is the Actual Condition?
When a KATA Coach asks this question, of course they want to know if the learner has done the diligence to understand what’s really happening with the process they are working to improve. The Actual Condition may be a collection of measures such as safety, quality, productivity, cost, delivery, service levels, and morale of a given area. A coach who is also a consummate learner will also ask this question because they are curious about what’s happening for their own understanding.
But there is a deeper meaning behind this question. One cannot improve a process they don’t fully understand. Many managers and advisors have developed a behavior pattern of spending a few minutes in an area of the business and leaving a laundry list of “things to do” without a basic understanding of the Current Condition. They send the learner on a boondoggle fixing things that end up having absolute no impact on the business results that the company may be struggling to achieve. Further, they could seriously hurt themselves, their peers, and/or their customers. Likewise, the better understanding that a person has of the current condition, the more obvious the obstacles to the Next Target Condition become.
Toyota KATA Questions #3: What obstacles are preventing you from reaching the Target Condition?
At first blush, this question is designed to get the learner to brainstorm every known obstacle so that the “most likely suspects” can be selected and experimented against. It is akin to performing a Fishbone analysis to figure out why the Current Condition doesn’t match the Target Condition.
Here’s the deeper meaning behind this question. This specific one highlights a key distinction between a coach and a consultant. While a consultant wants to tell you what your obstacles are, a good coach wants to develop within you the capability to see and eliminate these obstacles for yourself. In fact, a coach believes that there’s no way they can see and understand your challenges better than you can yourself. Obstacles are inherently assumptions, and the learner has the right to assume here. The next step will be to start testing the assumptions through experimentation. This question is partly to train Leaders (who should be the coaches) to give the learner the privilege of expertise, or the right to assume and then test. It should also be noted that Toyota managers do not typically ask their direct reports for a list of obstacles.
Additionally, the coach may ask: “which one are you working on now?” to set the expectation that the learner should be actively working to improve something at all times.
Toyota KATA Questions #4: What will you try next?
This question helps the coach to understand the learner’s thought process and what direction they will take their experimentation journey. It is also the learner’s declaration of “this is what I don’t know yet but need to learn next”. By asking this question, the coach is setting the expectation that the learner should have already thought about and decided their next experiment for themselves.
But there’s a deeper meaning here. Many companies have adopted a behavior pattern of waiting for management or doing kaizen events as their means for driving improvement. This question shifts the mindset of outward projection of “they need to fix it” to “I need to improve it” or even better, “I need to improve myself first”. The true spirit of Kaizen is the one where people take personal responsibility to improve things that aren’t working well within their scope of responsibility, starting with self-discipline. By asking the learner “what will you try next?”, the coach is inviting the learner to step up into the role of a leader. Doing this at enterprise scale creates a culture that cannot be matched by counterparts.
Toyota KATA Questions #5: When can we go and see?
On its face, the coach is asking this question so that they can set their schedule to return to the scene of the experiment to see the results for themselves. Part of the coach’s job is to keep the learner from jumping to conclusions, and in doing so, accept the facts of reality. Experiments leave evidence. The coach needs to confirm that the experiment work has been done and see what difference it has made.
But yup, you guessed it, there’s a deeper meaning here. When you ask someone when something is going to happen, you’re implicitly increasing the sense of urgency for the work to be done. When someone gives you an expected delivery date, they are also committing to be held accountable to their promise. When a pattern of daily experimentation is developed, which can become daily improvement, the rate of advancement becomes exponential.
The 5 Toyota KATA questions are a great resource to help reinforce Improvement KATA and scientific thinking. It keeps people from falling into a pattern of “random improvement” or “no improvement” and helps them transition to purpose-driven kaizen. These questions may seem simple and basic on their surface, but they all have a hidden meaning that helps rewire the learner’s brain for scientific thinking.
Impruver helps leaders to facilitate Improvement and Coaching KATA at enterprise scale by integrating in the regular 1:1 conversations that many leaders already have with their direct reports. Impruver provides the structure to deploy the 5 Questions with all the power that comes with modern technology.
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