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 https://www.sigmapoint.com

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.

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