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You’re likely reading this because you’re interested in software and improving some aspect of your job or company. That’s wonderful because your head is already in the right place. Us in tech tend to think we’re special and don’t have much to learn from other industries especially those outdated brick and mortar manufacturing companies. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Modern software practices like automated testing, kan-ban, lean, all arose in other industries. We can thank Toyota for many ideas and practices. DevOps is culmination of many different ideas. DevOps is simply expressed in three principles: flow, feedback, and improvement. Successful tech companies apply all three. I argue that success in today’s market requires these practices. Companies will not be able to compete with out them. Companies need a different perspective to succeed in the age of software.

Mike Rother’s The Toyota Kata describes the invisible hand behind Toyota’s success: continuous improvement. The idea is simple: a culture of continuous improvement builds more successful businesses. The Toyota Kata guides the reader through third DevOps principle. It provides the tools to navigate uncertainty to improve any aspect of your business from lead times, error rates, revenue, or customer happiness.

Toyota’s Secret to Excellence

Researchers from around the world have studied the Toyota production system for almost two decades. During the same period, organizations have been copying its principles and practices. Yet few companies managed to achieve the same outcomes. Why is that? Mike Rother-an engineer, researcher, and continuous improvement expert-says that all these years we’ve been copying the wrong things. We know the tools and techniques that this automotive giant uses daily, but we ignore how they were developed.

What is the Toyota Kata?

Thriving companies and martial arts have something important in common. In martial arts, the term “kata” refers to a routine or pattern that enhances your practice. According to Rother, this approach underpins the routine that built Toyota’s continuous improvement culture.

The Toyota Kata demonstrates how two katas-called “improvement kata” and “coaching kata” denote the invisible managerial routines and the way of thinking-create the atmosphere of continuous improvement and adaptation.

Toyota’s success has little to do with tools and techniques; it is the result of the way people think and act. Rother challenges the way we implement lean manufacturing practices-such as takt time, heijunka, and pull systems (kanban)-and clarifies a number of key continuous improvement concepts, such as PDCA and mentor-mentee interaction.

The Toyota Kata is an invaluable introduction to the philosophy of process improvement. It is a guide on how to practice the improvement kata to enhance your work strategies and behaviors. It also offers a blueprint for mastering the “coaching kata” which guides your team to internalize these new patterns.

Toyota Kata in 5 Points

  • “Kata” means “routines” or “patterns” in Japanese. Toyota has its own katas in management thinking and behavior that promote continuous improvement. Rother calls this the “improvement kata.” The other “coaching kata” teaches the improvement kata to employees and executives.
  • The improvement kata is incompatible with existing management thinking and practice. It requires a profound change in how companies identify obstacles and develop solutions.
  • To initiate the change, a group of senior executives-who have mastered the kata-should be given the role of the “keepers of the kata.”
  • The change within the organization must be incremental. Define one “target condition” at a time, rather than meeting a vague “vision” directly. Don’t ignore “small” obstacles; work on any problem at occurs. Don’t change the whole procedure; change a single aspect at a time. Use PDCA “plan-do-check-act” cycles to get through the “gray zone” and reach a target condition.
  • Everyone in organization needs a mentor. The mentors use the coaching kata to develop the mentee’s abilities to overcome with obstacles.

Improve Your Process - Toyota Style

Workshops, to-do lists, “value-stream mapping” etc. don’t create process improvement. Toyota’s remarkable success is fueled by invisible routines and management techniques. The idea that companies can implement a prescriptive solution on top of an existing system is misleading. The sooner we abandon the “implementing mode” thinking the better.

Implementing Mode Vs. Problem-Solving Mode

Companies typically face a large gap between their targets and what really happens. Even though they defined their desired results-and often the entire path to achieve that outcome-change just never happens. Instead of blaming the leaders and managers for poor decision making, Rother argues that the prevailing management system does not permit constant improvement and adaptation.

An effective management system adapts an organization to dynamic conditions. Implementing specific solutions will not make an organization adaptive nor continuously improving. Following even the most detailed and accurate list of Toyota’s principles and practices won’t help either. That’s because an effective management system arises from invisible routines and habits in thinking and acting.

Toyota’s greatest competitive advantage is their ability to understand ever-changing conditions and develop new solutions. The key is not some preconceived implementation steps or solutions. It is understanding the logic and method for how to proceed through the unclear territory.

Rother argues implementation modes obstruct an organization’s progress and inhibit employee development. An organization needs to adopt a do-it-yourself problem-solving mode by practicing the Improvement Kata.

The Improvement Kata

Typical everyday management tasks are improvement. Production is improvement. Continuous improvement is an irreplaceable step in the process.

Continuous improvement is defined as “moving toward a desired state through unclear territory by being sensitive to and responding to actual conditions on the ground.”

Toyota’s “improvement kata” is a new approach to management. In three points:

  • It leverages target condition thinking
  • It teaches problem solving and adapting (PDCA - Plan, Do, Check, Act)
  • It teaching people a situational awareness so that people respond scientifically in the moment

Target condition thinking is the crucial element of the improvement kata. It teaches practitioners to move quickly and resourcefully. A target is not a specific goal or outcome; it is a description of how a process should operate. It is similar to crisis management-dealing with constraints and overcoming a challenging condition-and it includes using all available resources and fast cycle time.

A target condition is not a vision. A long-term vision directs thinking and doing. Full stop. A vision (in Toyota’s case: “zero defects; 100 percent value added; one-piece flow, in sequence, on demand; security for people) is distant and often considerably vague. A target condition is an incremental step toward the vision. It answers the question “what’s next?”. It is more detailed and specific than the vision. Since it is specific-and realistic-it may not be easily changed.

If people take action before defining a target condition, then they will be inclined to come up with a number of opinions and ideas about where to go and what to do. At each decision point, they would shift direction or simply pick the path of least resistance. A target condition is different. It depersonalizes situations and aligns everyone’s effort.

Defining a target condition is only a part of the improvement kata. The bulk covers working through emerging obstacles on the path to the target condition. The most learning occurs there.

The path toward a target condition is a gray zone.

Making a plan and executing it seems like a great idea. However, reality is not linear and fully predictable, thus executing a plan may not be the best strategy to reach target conditions. We cannot control reality, but we do control our reaction. Much of the improvement kata covers working through the gray zone. It simply states: take small, rapid steps, make adjustments and learn along the way.

Toyota’s experimentation procedure is the well-known Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle with one important addition:

  1. Plan. Define your hypotheses and expectations.
  2. Do (or Try Out). Try to run the process according to plan, but do it on a small scale first. Observe any change closely.
  3. Check (or Study). Compare the actual result with the expected one.
  4. Act (What’s next?). If the process works as expected, standardize and stabilize it. If not, start the PDCA cycle again.
  5. Go and See. Toyota added “Go and See” to the center of the PDCA wheel because going and seeing the actual condition is critical in all PDCA steps.

No problem = a Problem

Being interested in what does not go as planned is central to the improvement kata. If there is no issue, or if there just appears to be no issue, then the company stagnates. Toyota’s management prioritizes noticing small problems and learning from them.

When we hear about Toyota’s accomplishments, we are not aware of thousands of minor failures that happen every day. These failures sow the seeds of success. Some companies hide small problems until they become too complex to manage. Successful organizations, like Toyota, use these problems to learn and move forward.

The Five Questions

The Improvement Kata comprises five “minikata” questions:

  1. What is the target condition? (The challenge)
  2. What is the actual condition now?
  3. Which obstacles are currently preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step? (Start of next PDCA cycle)
  5. When can we go and see what we learned from taking that step?

These questions define a mental pattern to address any process or situation.

The Coaching Kata

Let’s assume we’ve mastered the improvement kata. How do we teach other people? How do we ensure they use the improvement kata correctly day by day, that they set appropriate target conditions, and carry out the PDCA cycle effectively? How do we know whether the leaders grasp have “gone and seen” the actual condition? The answer is the coaching kata. The coaching kata covers teaching the improvement kata throughout an organization.

Leaders are teachers. Leaders are not HR or a training department. The leaders primary task is developing the improvement capability in people. Managers and supervisors at Toyota instill the improvement kata into people every day in every area. The manager is the mentor in this scenario. The mentee masters the improvement kata is learned through repeated practice with the mentor.

Everyone at Toyota-including high executives-has a mentor.

How to Get Started with the Improvement Kata

There’s still no proven blueprint that cultivates the improvement and coaching kata. Rother’s research does offer a couple of proven tips however.

Become an Experimenter

The Toyota Kata’s goal is to encourage experimentation, and by doing so, develop a management system that fits the situation. There’s no other way to change the patterns of thinking and acting in an organization. There is no approach that works for all companies. Furthermore, striving to understand the reality of your own situation is invaluable because it is where you learn. The path is a gray zone and as you’ve read in the previous email, there is a kata for working through it.

Avoid Known Missteps

Classroom training may provide intellectual knowledge. That by itself does not change habits or behavior. Similarly, workshops are not designed to develop new behaviors. Having consultants do it for you is wrong because it won’t teach your organization to learn and grow. Metrics, incentives, and motivators can’t replace the improvement kata, neither can reorganizing. A culture adaptiveness and continuous improvement cannot happen just by reorganizing. In fact, organizational structure is irrelevant. How people act and react determines success. Toyota internalized this realization by developing continuous improvement habits in its people.

How Do We Change?

The only way to learn habits and internalize a certain type of behavior is to practice repeatedly. The improvement kata is an amazingly effective way to learn new habitual routines. Last but not least, you must apply the coaching kata to develop the improvement kata in your organization.