So you’ve heard of Toyota KATA and want to know what its all about. Toyota KATA has introduced several paradigm shifts in the way we think about Lean and Continuous Improvement, especially as practiced by Toyota. This brief Toyota KATA Summary provides an overview of the instant classic book released in 2009 by University of Michigan professor and researcher, Mike Rother, author of the 1998 bestselling book “Learning to See.”
As with any summary, this briefing is meant to provide a general idea of what the book contains but is by no means meant to be a substitute for the real thing. We highly encourage you to grab a copy or get the audiobook to get the full experience that this transformative book has to offer.
Toyota KATA. Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results – Book Summary
The premise of the book was to discover what Toyota was doing differently that made them so successful with Continuous Improvement that other companies on the Lean journey could benefit from understanding better. After 6 years of studying Toyota’s culture, management system, and artifacts, Mike concluded that the secret sauce was with the way Managers interacted with their direct reports on a regular basis. Managers seemed to challenge their direct reports to solve their own problems given the direction for improvement that was most important for the company as a whole. As a result of this research, Mike Rother and Toyota KATA introduced several significant paradigm shifts that shook traditional management and those trying to copy Lean to their core. Some of the major paradigm shifts are as follows:
- Continuous Improvement should be driven by immediate managers instead of support departments (and / or external consultants)
- Managers should provide frequent coaching to direct reports, who conduct experiments toward a collaboratively-defined Target Condition
- Improvements should be implemented one at a time in series as opposed to creating large action lists, rife with unnecessary assumptions, from the start
- Managers should develop scientific thinking in their direct reports using 5-questions that keep the learner from jumping to conclusions
- Improvement should be directional and aligned with what is most important for the organization to improve
KATA is a Japanese term for mastery through repetition and deliberate practice. Bruce Lee once stated “I’d fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times than a man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once.” The idea behind Toyota KATA is that people can build scientific thinking mastery by practicing the application of the scientific approach frequently, which is basically PDCA, with the help of a coach. This “meta skill” can be applied universally across industries, sectors, processes, geographies, and people of all walks of life. If practiced frequently and deliberately, the result is an increased adaptability, accelerated learning, and superior results. In a time when businesses are being hammered by market volatility and unpredictability (ie. global COVID pandemic), the winners are those who can adapt quickly and establish a new normal while others are waiting for the good old days to return, which may never happen.
Here’s a video providing an introduction to Toyota KATA:
Toyota KATA Summary: The Improvement KATA
In this book, Mike introduces us to the Improvement KATA, which is a method of setting the direction of improvement, assessing the current state of operations, and experimenting toward a Target Condition, which is the next of series of conditions that lies within the learners threshold of knowledge and in the direction of the Challenge.
- Get the Direction or Challenge – Find out what’s most important for the organization to improve. More or less 1 year in scope.
- Grasp the Current Condition – Understand what the organization is currently doing, how processes are working, and current process capability and capacity
- Establish the Next Target Condition – Define a state of operation that is achievable in the short range and in the general direction of the Challenge. This should be done in collaboration between coach and learner
- Conduct Experiments to Get There – Conduct a series of experiments, one after another, to test hypothesis, validate assumptions, and discover the truth about the self, the process, and the organization
Here’s a video that explores the Improvement KATA in more detail:
Toyota KATA Summary – The 5 Questions
Toyota KATA also introduced the 5 Questions, which are used as “starter kata” to practice and reinforce the pattern of scientific thinking. These cards are used by coaches during regular experimentation and PDCA cycles, in many cases, daily. Coaching KATA should be a brief conversation, often no longer than 5 minutes. For coaches, there are 5 Coaching Kata Questions that help the learner progress to their desired future state. Here are the Coaching KATA questions:
- What is the target condition?
- What is the current condition?
- What obstacles are preventing your from reaching your target condition? What have you tried so far? What have you learned from what you tried?
- What is the next step (or experiment)?
- When can we go and see what we have learned?
This cycle is repeated on some frequency agreed upon by the coach and learner (often daily) until the desired Target Condition is achieved and sustained. In this model coaches are most likely to be the learner’s direct supervisor, who’s 2nd Coach is their supervisor’s manager. This model supports deployment of target condition-driven continuous improvement through the direct chain of command instead of being owned and driven by a support function or outside consultant. Experiments are conducted one after another, producing 2 possible outcomes, both are good for business. 1) The learner is right about the idea and results improve and 2) The learner’s hypothesis is false and they learn something new and important, setting them up for greater likelihood of success in the future.
Here’s a video that includes an example Coaching KATA cycle:
Toyota KATA Summary: The Learner’s Storyboard
The Learner’s Storyboard is an artifact invent by Mike Rother to help coaches and learners tell the story of experimentation toward a Target Condition
Coaches and learners meet at the Storyboard, which is ideally located near the process being improved, to conduct a Coaching KATA cycle. The contents of the Learner’s Storyboard include:
- Focus Process – Name of the process being improved
- Challenge – The broader direction of improvement as decided by company leadership with inputs from the market
- Target Condition – A set of conditions that describe how the process should be operating in a desired future state
- Actual Condition – A description of how the process parameters from the Target Condition are currently operating
- Experimentation Record – A log of experiments that have been tried so far and key learnings
- Obstacles Parking Lot – A list of obstacles believed to be keeping the process from operating in its Target Condition
Toyota KATA Summary Bonus Mention: Toyota KATA Culture
As an add-on to Toyota KATA, Mike Rother and Gerd Aulinger released a follow-up called “Toyota KATA Culture” in 2017 that helps to explain how to engage an entire organization in the practice of Toyota KATA. This book has many significant contributions to the TK discussion but one more prominent that all others. This prominent new addition is the concept of deploying challenges and target conditions throughout the organization, starting from the top with inputs from the market. Toyota KATA Culture suggests that a manager’s Target Condition could automatically become their direct report’s Challenge, after which the direct report would work with the manager to develop their own Target Condition. This pattern of deployment would work throughout the company to include every single employee, focused on improving something important every day.
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 companies have copied and pasted these tools verbatim without putting in the work to develop the leadership and 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 in many cases.
Impruver is the premier Toyota Kata software that helps companies practice at enterprise scale. Impruver links Challenges, Target Conditions, promotes daily practice, tracks experiments, suggests improvements and learning material and so much more.
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