There’s a damn good chance that Toyota KATA is the missing ingredients in your Lean or Continuous Improvement recipe. KATA comes from the martial arts world as an approach to building skills and “muscle memory” through practice and repetition. Over time, practicing Toyota KATA leads to the rapid development of continuous improvement capability and has produced incredible results across industries.
I have personally driven a 25% increase in productivity in 3 months, including a 40% reduction in quality defects at a leading global CPG company using Toyota KATA.
Lean’s AHA Moment – How Lean Met Toyota 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 coaching ability among leaders and improvement skills within the workforce. Toyota KATA addresses this shortcoming by transforming every leader into a coach and every employee into an agent of improvement. This multi-layered approach engages employees from the shop floor up, where the true culture work is done.
In the Toyota KATA approach, each process owner (the person executing the process every day) is issued a Challenge, for which they need to understand the Current Condition and develop the Target Condition. The Challenge should be aligned with the broader business strategy; the Current Condition describes the way the process is currently performing; and Target Condition should be the next state of process operation that the Improver, or process owner, is trying to bring into existence. The Improver and Coach should also agree on a target due date for both the Target Condition to be attained and for the next experiment to be completed.
Improvers run a set of controlled experiments, one after another, to drive progress against their Target Condition and 1st Coaches engage Improvers frequently, often daily, to help avoid jumping to conclusions and making assumptions. 2nd Coaches help 1st Coaches to keep the Improver learning and avoid “giving direction” as opposed to “asking the right questions” to maximize learning, testing of assumptions, and developing bias for a certain solution.
In this model, coaches don’t provide Improvers with the “just go do this” answer, but help the Improver find the answer for themselves; which, in a sense, teaches the Improver how to learn on their own. Over time, Improvers 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 improvement. 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.
So, here’s the Improvement KATA process:
- 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.
- Conduct Experiments to Get There – Conduct a series of experiments, one after another, to test hypothesis, validate assumptions, and discover the truth about the process / organization
This is very much like the PDCA process with a slight twist, placing more focus on the skill-building and learning along with actual results, which are a product of developing the right skills.
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 Improver (often daily) until the desired Target Condition is achieved and sustained. In this model coaches are most likely to be the Improver’s direct supervisor, who’s 2nd Coach is their supervisor’s manager. This model supports deployment of continuous improvement through the direct chain of command instead of being owned and driven by a support function or outside consultant.
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.
Toyota KATA turns the focus of CI from tools and methods to coaching and experimenting to solve problems through the application of scientific thinking. Toyota KATA is 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 and adaptability is increased. 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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