Become a better coach, teacher or facilitator

Ever Kata in Secret?

If you practice the Improvement Kata or the Coaching Kata in secret – or you did so in the past – we are interested to hear your story.

Why? We are learning about the obstacles learners and coaches face.  Where there is secret improvement, there are obstacles!

Here is link to a podcast I did with Gemba Academy on my interest in why people learn and practice the Improvement and Coaching Kata in secret – and what that means to me.


GA 312 | Practicing Kata in Secret with Tracy Defoe



Waiting to see what happens with Toyota Kata?

Illuminated instructions for pedestrians at the pedestrian crossing at Oxford Circus, London

Waiting to see what happens with Toyota Kata?
Ask yourself why.

 Blog post by Tracy Defoe, TLFI The Learning Factor, student of the Kata

You may have noticed an increasing number of webinars, workshops and blog posts about Toyota KATA (TK) and wondered about it. Maybe you even bought Mike Rother’s 2010 book, Toyota KATA, read it and then went on doing what you were doing. I have talked to Canadian lean experts who say they’ve read the book multiple times and still not changed their practice a bit or even talked to people about TK. They just aren’t sure about it.  They aren’t ready.

If you are in that camp, I aim to change your mind.

Wait and see?

Dan Bergeron of Sigma Point Technologies and I talked about why so many good Canadian companies, dedicated to Lean and CI, are on the sidelines watching the first wave of TK implementers achieve results they didn’t know were possible. Six people from Sigma Point attended KataCon2 in February to share their experiences. This experience, and their results, are so positive, that we couldn’t help but wonder where all the Canadians are.

Sigma Point Technologies is one of three Canadian companies I know of who implemented TK without any outside help, after reading Rother’s book.  People who said, “Let’s try this. I think it is the structure we need. I think it will help us.”

Some reasons for KATA resistance

So what’s up with TK lurkers? Dan Bergeron is a CEO, and his explanation starts in the Executive offices.  “The leaders need to lead with humility,” says Bergeron. “I wasn’t afraid to say that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”  “And I think, because we want to expand,” (and we weren’t sure how exactly to do it) “that is why we got on board. That is in my opinion, the whole underpinning of Kata. It’s going to accelerate the results because that is the mindset that we have. Let’s try it. Let’s try it.  So we read the book. Then we just started.”

My frame of reference is learning.  I see three places where TK runs into predictable resistance from the very people we might expect to want and need it the most.

Who, me?

First, it calls into question managers roles, competency and past results. There is a bit of an ego bruise. What, me change? This is exactly the same resistance managers complain about from front line workers who resist a change like a new workbench or a two-bin parts supply system.  ‘We are good at what we do. We were good enough yesterday, now you want to make this change and call it an improvement?’  Rother makes it clear that the way we have gone about Lean in North America didn’t always get us the results we were looking for, because we didn’t get the people development part right.  Leaders were acting like experts and commanders, not like coaches or teachers of scientific inquiry.

TK methods are all about moving ahead in the direction of a big dream, experimenting toward a nearby milestone on the way to that big dream, when you don’t know how to get there.  When you get to the edge of what you know about a process, about a value stream or well, just about anything, you can ‘Kata’ that situation.  For leaders, TK operationally ends the ‘command and control’ security where they know more about everything than the people who report to them.  Is that scary?

Hey, coach!

Think of the TK routines as daily Standard Work for managers to develop and coach the people who report to them. Everybody on a lean journey knows they are all about people, and ideas and empowerment, except for when they aren’t.  No one likes to admit they were inconsistent or contradictory.  You won’t move if you are afraid of being exposed as, well, whatever you don’t want to be seen to be.  If the status quo is good enough, or comfortable, or tied up in your worth, resistance is predictable.  For those hypothetical resistant workers, I would say, respectfully acknowledge that they did their best work, with the information and the process, and the management system that we had yesterday.  Thank them sincerely.  Respectfully ask them to help find a little bit better way to work, with a little bit better information, and a little bit better relationship today.

Now do that for yourself.  Process your experiences until you can you get to a learning frame of mind.

Isn’t it all PDCA? An easy misconception

The second way I think TK has met resistance stems from its deceptively familiar pattern.
Both the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata can be seen as a specific variation on the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) pattern. Lean experts and leaders get that far and think, “I know this. I don’t have to learn it.”  That is an easy misconception, a trick of the mind. In his book “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School,” John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, explains in non-technical ways the findings of replicated studies of brain science on how the mind reacts to and organizes information.  Medina says that evolution has programmed six questions into us that have helped us survive and learn.  Two of these questions are about patterns. Humans are designed to instantly recognize and match patterns.  When confronted with a stimulus, after danger, food, and reproductive opportunities, our brains consider:  Have I seen this before? Have I never seen it before?  If you think you’ve seen it before, you default to what you know about the pattern.  Curiosity isn’t automatic.

Missing the point

If we dismiss TK as “it’s PDCA” and we already all know PDCA, we are missing the whole point of changing the dynamic of the interpersonal management relationships in the workplace. Within the Kata, the point is learning. If you are the coach, you learn about the learner. The coach also learns about her own area of responsibility, sure, and hones listening, questioning and other skills.  If you are the learner, you learn about the process, the team and about how to document and study your process. That is a revolutionary transformation of workplace culture. Ask Dan Bergeron. You only “create an army of scientific thinkers connected to True North” by deliberate practice and coordinated daily effort.  Unless you are already someone inside the organization who every day manages your reports as learners, and acts as a coach who guides and teaches by asking focussed predictable questions of a process-owner learner, you don’t know PDCA the way it lives in TK.  That pattern that you know looks like this pattern, but TK has so many different features that it is worth paying attention to and learning.  So adopt a naïve mind. Allow yourself to not already know.  Be curious after the automatic reaction that you know this.

A good disruption

One last thing that may be a factor in a ‘wait and see’ reaction to TK.  It’s disruptive in a good way.  You might find out that you can stop doing some kinds of training. The first place I went to really see TK in action, was Cascade DAFO in Washington, where lean guru Hal Frohroich transformed the company from the edge of extinction by establishing a mission and a direction, setting a challenge and then teaching Kata. He didn’t teach lean basics, or even 5S. They TKed their way forward daily, and learned methods and tools as they needed them. A year or so on when I visited there in 2013, their moto was still “Kata Kata Kata” and everybody obviously knew so much about studying and improving a process that ‘teaching lean’ was unnecessary.  TK might just change your entire learning plan.

Don’t try to be Toyota, be you

In our conversation, Dan Bergeron summed up the learn-and-try advice this way.  “ If you think about it, everything that Mike Rother tries to coach and teach is:‘Don’t wait, start small. Start now. Read the book, talk to someone. Don’t try to be Toyota, be you.   Know your direction.  Know what is the big dream for your company. Move in that direction with the Kata.’

Learning and practicing the two practice routines of TK, the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata, is the next big step on an organizational CI journey. If your lean transformation stalled after a time, if you think supervisors or leads are an obstacle to progress, if you are not sure how to really engage employees, and you are ready to be part of the solution, have a look at TK. You and your peers will learn to leverage and focus the brain power of individuals at every level so you don’t have to have all the answers.  You will know when to ask questions and when to get out of the way. You will see the benefit of consistently showing up with consistent tools. As learners (including you!) run experiments to see if what they expect to happen is confirmed, when they try a series of carefully planned, but quickly executed incremental changes in their process, knowledge and ability grows. Change is work. New habits take effort, and new habits can change the culture of your workplace for the better.

Still waiting?

In the words of Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.”

I encourage you to ask yourself why are you waiting to learn more about Toyota Kata.  Are you holding on to the idea that you already have Lean figured out?  Do you not have a big dream for your organization?  Not curious?  Do you maybe think you won’t be able to act scientifically? You can learn. Mike Rother says that TK isn’t for everyone, nor for every organization and that is fair. You certainly will never know if you don’t learn about it and try.

Following up on the web:

For more on Sigma Point Technologies and a link to their presentations

Mike Rother shares all on The Toyota Kata website

A earlier version of this post was published on Dave Hogg’s Accelerating the Journal newsletter. Find it here


What is Toyota Kata?


In his book Toyota Kata, Mike Rother sets out how to manage people for improvement. He asserts that learning and practicing a scientific mindset in the structure of a routine or ‘kata’ will change your view of management, teamwork, coaching, education and what it takes to fuel a culture of improvement. There are two complementary kata routines, the Improvement Kata (IK) and the Coaching Kata (CK) that work together as a combined cultural enabler for rapid focussed change toward strategic challenges.

Thinking about thinking and how to get better at it – Kata Curiosity

Engineer Working With Apprentices On Factory Floor

[fruitful_dbox] Kata Curious?
Thinking about thinking at KATACON [/fruitful_dbox]

In his book Toyota Kata, Mike Rother sets out how to manage people for improvement. He asserts that learning and practicing a scientific mindset in the structure of a routine or ‘kata’ will change your view of management, teamwork, coaching, education and what it takes to fuel a culture of improvement. For the link to Mike Rother’s homepage for up to date Kata information and resources, click on the book icon.


People around the world who are implementing and practicing the two kata routines Rother describes as the Improvement Kata (IK) and the Coaching Kata (CK) call themselves “Kata Geeks.” In February 223 people, kata curious and Kata Geeks, gathered in Fort Lauderdale Florida for the first ever Kata Summit conference, also known as KataCon.  I went out of more than Kata Curiousity. I went to get connected with this generous community who are rallying around the call that we should encourage, and coach curiousity and scientific thinking at work.  More than that, we should practice controlled experiments, every day. And that the way to do that is to thorough kata routines that make the coaching conversaton a predictable, positive and focussed daily part of work.  The KataCon resources, including presentations and audio recordings are available to everyone.  Generous Kata Geeks want to share. Click the Kata for Good photo to visit the KataCon resource home page.


[fruitful_dbox] Kata is a routine you practice  [/fruitful_dbox]

I have been learning about Kata but I hadn’t tried it before KataCon. I have visited companies doing the IK and CK, complementing and strengthening their lean improvements by developing people through the structure of daily routine coaching in scientific experimentation. For me, when people want to demonstrate that good managers are teachers who use questions to teach people how to think about and tackle problems, I am there.

And at it’s simplest, that is the Coaching Kata. CK is a routine to ask a series of standard questions to set the learner / worker up to learn about a work process that is important to his work, to the manager and to the organization.  I love that about workplace learning: it’s real, it’s important and engaging.  As the learner / worker goes through an improvement inquiry cycle of planning and experiementing, analyzing and reconsidering a work process, the parallel supporting Coaching Kata cycle is a question and answer process whereby the Coach listens and observes to understand the Learner’s thinking – and nudge the learner along what Rother calls “the learning corridor.” This routine interaction isn’t about solving the problem. It’s about focussing the coach on listening and observing while developing the inquiry skills of the learner / worker.  The CK also controls the coach. No side comments, no opinions, no advice.  Just ask, clarify and follow up with questions to get the learner in the inquiry zone.  One of my early teaching mantras was “Set up and get out of the way.”  The CK makes a manager set up the front line supervisor to try out a small change, get fresh data and reconsider accordingly.  The IK is PDCA or Plan Do Check Adjust.  That is plan your experiment, do it. Then check results against your expectations and adjust your process and plan again.


[fruitful_dbox] The Coaching Kata Questions [/fruitful_dbox]

From Mike Rother, Toyota Kata

The Five Coaching Kata Questions

  1. What is the Target Condition?
  2. What is the Actual Condition now?
    About the actual  condition now – What did you plan as your last step? What did you expect? What actually happened?  What did you learn?
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?  Which one are you adressing now?
  4. What is your next step? What do you expect from your next step?
  5. How quickly can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

Some people add a ‘Questions Zero’ and ask, What is our Challenge? A challenge is a bigger goal, something the organization is striving for that this kata is serving at the greater level for the organization.

Many people add a Questions 6 – How can I help you?  or What can I do to help, what help do you need from me?  Remember the learner reports to the coach. They interact all the time outside the kata and for many managers, asking what support people need is already their routine.


Five Coaching Questions for planning and for less technically-minded scenarios

If you aren’t immersed in the Lean movement for Continuous Improvement, this IK CK can seem really out of your orbit.

From what I understand, Bill Constantino and his colleagues at W3 Group worked out the CK wording below for those situations.

These questions are used when

  • developing a challenge
  • the Target Condition is not set
  • the learner is studying the Current State.

The wording of these  questions is often friendlier service or office work.

  1. What are you trying to acheive?
  2. Where are you now?
  3. What’s currently in your way?
  4. What’s your next step and what do you expect from that step?
  5. When can we see together what you’ve learned from taking that step?

These are good questions for a leader to ask!

Ask open-ended questions and the responses will show the edges of what people know and which ideas go together in their minds.

With that information, and a clear direction of objectives, you can teach. The Coaching Kata is good teaching practice.


I’ll be blogging more about Kata as I prepare to introduce it to lean practictioners and my clients.

For now, I can say that it is exciting to be a learner!  I wake up raring to go and try a new experiment every day!

Kaizen Club – Learning at work in the news


Every second Wednesday, Kaizen Club meets at SeaStar Solutions in Richmond BC. I often describe learning at work as ‘pure learning, the front lines of adult education” where most of us learn things we really need to know, right now.

The people who come to Kaizen Club participate by choice, extending their work day before or after shift, to learn together. The time frame is slow and steady; the group membership is pretty stable. I have been co-faciliating Kaizen Club since it’s beginning and the people who come delight me.

They learn about the their work, the company and it’s products. They learn about the systems for production, and how to improve work by making it safer, easier, more stable, less frustrating and less stressful. And while they work on projects together, observing, working the problem-solving method, trying out ideas and reporting back, they also have practice in stretching their learning skills. They listen. They read and discuss. They write and explain. They present.  They ask good questions. They lead each other.  Kaizen Club is educational and inclusive.  I am glad to see SeaStar Solutions and Kaizen Club in the news.


Download the article on the Resources page here.


Become a better coach, teacher or facilitator


Become a better coach, teacher or facilitator; push and pull in workplace learning

“Sometimes you push and sometimes you pull, and sometimes you get out of the way.”
Tracy Defoe on the secret to inviting learning and participation at work.

Do you want to be a better coach or facilitator? Are you a team lead or manager who is always explaining over and over.? Are you frustrated by your peers?

If you want to be a better leader at work, learn when to push, and when to pull and when to get out of the way. What do I mean by that? “Push, pull or get out of the way” is one of my mantras, a touchstone that keeps my practice engaging. As an adult educator who specializes in learning at work, I find these simple fundamentals for supporting learning are often big news. To be teaching or coaching someone, you have to know where you are headed. You have to have objectives. Let’s imagine that you do.



Push might mean challenging the tired or disengaged participant to hang in there, or try again. Most often though, push is about content coming at the participant. Push can mean talking, presenting or showing something whether or not the other person is ready to receive the information. PowerPoint presentations are usually push, sometimes 100% push. And we know in most work processes, push most likely leads to waste. Lots of wasted time, and often some waiting, rework or duplication of efforts. Have you ever attended a presentation where you learned nothing new? Push will do that. I tell people that if they can do a presentation in the same way, and within the same time, whether or not there is an audience in the room, they’ve got push. If talking and telling are your only instructional strategies, you are going to be frustrated because you won’t be successful. People will be bored. You need to balance a little necessary push with some pull strategies.

Pull takes a little practice. You have to pay attention to people to get it right.

How do you pull a comment or an idea from a quiet participant? It depends. Is he quiet by nature, insecure about speaking up, or a little lost? A person of few words will usually respond to your question if you wait. How tempting to fill a silence with your own comment, or explanation. Don’t. Work the pause. Count in your head, to ten or twenty or thirty. Breathe and wait as the taciturn participant takes a turn to speak.

Now an insecure participant needs to feel safe in order to speak. Is it ok to not know the answer in conversation with you? Are you the sort of facilitator who says there are no stupid questions and then humiliates a team member who asks something you think they should already know? That strategy is probably sending them farther into their shell. Back up and ask a shy or insecure team member something you are sure they know. Watch your tone of voice. No sarcasm allowed. Then step him or her through to the edge of the learning zone, that place where their understanding drifts off course. That is how you will see where to start your intentional instruction.




What about the lost? If you suspect team members are lost in your session plan, reach out and help them get on track, don’t embarrass them with questions. Go back to your plan and show where you are now, repeat or summarize key points to get to where you thought everyone was. Time for a bit of push; lost team members can’t easily be pulled back on track although a question like might do it. “Where did I lose you?” Or “How can we get back to together on this, can you show me, or tell us the last bit that made sense?” Maintain respect for the lost, and you will retain the trust of the whole team.

Yours for better learning at work,