By Doug Russell

If you are a leader in an IT or product/software development organization, you are likely besieged by human dynamics issues: your team (and you) seemingly working 24/7, requirements changing and always increasing, and communication with others in the organization confusing and lacking focus. Toyota’s kata, from an automobile company normally associated with manufacturing excellence, is increasingly being used to address these issues.

The modern automobile has upwards of 100 million lines of code ( see IEEE article), likely giving Toyota a lot of experience with many of your technical issues. Part I of this blog set will explain what kata is. Part II will show a way you can use kata with technical IT or product/software development teams.

Many people in high tech know of Toyota’s Lean manufacturing process, often referred to as The Toyota Way, also called the Toyota Production System (TPS). The exact wording of the labels on the two pillars of TPS has changed a bit over the years, but a good way of describing the two pillars of TPS are as continuous improvement and respect for people.

Western management has long focused almost exclusively on the process and tools aspect of the continuous improvement pillar, often winding up frustrated with a lack of immediate results. This has occurred even as others have questioned Western management’s singular focus on process (tools and techniques) over people. Masaaki Imai, from his book, Gemba Kaizen: “TPS is a human system that works only when it is people-centered.” And, “Western management worships innovation: major changes in the wake of technological breakthroughs…Innovation is dramatic.” Managing people is not.

Lost in a cloud of implementing “the process-of-the-month,” organizations can lose sight of the importance of building and maintaining systems for people, the most valuable resource in this knowledge-worker world. Mike Rother – already well known within the Lean community for what is considered the best book on the value stream mapping process, Learning to See (co-authored with John Shook), came to the realization that “In many organizations there is a gap between desired results and what really happens.”

Rother understood that “We have known for a long while that Toyota does something that makes it more capable of continuously improving than other companies.” He then spent six years understanding the people management approach used inside Toyota. What resulted was the seminal book Toyota Kata, which shows simply and clearly the powerful people approach that enabled such outstanding results.

It seems no Japanese word used in continuous improvement processes has just one meaning. Toyota Kata shows three aspects to the word kata :

  • “The word stems from basic movements in martial arts, which are handed down from master to student.”
  • Inside Toyota, “Kata are thinking and behavior patterns – that when repeated over and over in daily work – lead to the desired outcome.”
  • Digging deeper: “
    [Kata is] a way of keeping two things in alignment or synchronization with one another.”

There are a few more concepts that are key to how kata is used within Toyota.

First is long-term vision, also referred to as the organization’s “True North.” For Toyota, Rother says, True North is “zero defects; 100% value-added; one-piece flow, in sequence, on demand; security for people.”

Your organization’s long-term vision may be nowhere near as detailed as Toyota’s. That’s ok, long-term vision is used in kata as more of a compass direction than as a destination.

Second is defining current conditions, where a standard lean process value stream mapping (VSM) – with data furnished by the team actually doing the work – is the approach of choice. Many organizations will start with the VSM “process,” but will then struggle with how to effectively use VSM with the next concept.

Third is target conditions. In Toyota Kata, Rother writes that Toyota’s employees “learn to set and work toward successive target conditions in the direction of whatever vision is being pursued. This [target] condition typically represents a step closer to the vision and a challenge that goes somewhat beyond current capability.”

Finally, what ties all this together are improvement kata and coaching kata.

Improvement kata, per Rother, “is a continuously repeating routine: (1) in consideration of a vision, direction, or target, (2) with a firsthand grasp of the current condition, (3) a next target condition – on the way to the vision – is defined. When we then (4) strive to move step by step toward that target condition, we encounter obstacles that define what we need to work on, and from which we learn. It serves as a basis for culture change as work continues, creating better results as go time goes forward.

Coaching kata is how the overall improvement kata approach connects with individual employees and their challenges. Coaching kata engenders a leadership style that is different from traditional management, the difference being in how the manager and employees interact. That is, the Toyota manager is charged with teaching, not merely directing.

Coaching kata helps each employee continuously improve those key items within their area of responsibility. In this way many small steps are taken to achieve the desired future state, even as that desired future state may change over time.

In conclusion, the gradual change of conditions that come about through coaching kata, and the learning that occurs as the organization fully defines and works towards a future vision, is powerful stuff. It’s important to note that improvement and coaching kata are “scientific approaches,” and thus should be applicable in many organizations and for many situations.

Part II will discuss how to use kata to improve your technical team’s performance.

Re-posted from The Bridge Level View

About the Author

Doug Russell has over 25 years of successful business results empowering teams by blending Agile techniques (Lean/Six  Sigma/Continuous Improvement/KANBAN/Scrum) in PMOs, operations, engineering, and business teams. He has headed PMOs at Intel Corporation, Crane Corporation, and Motorola Inc in Arizona and Austin, TX. Doug’s qualifications includes certified Prject Management Professional (PMP), Certified Scrum Master (CSM); early Six Sigma adopter/Malcolm Baldrige Examiner, Six Sigma Black Belt; Lean Kanban Practioner (LKP); Lean Green Belt.