Articles February 22, 2019

Reflections on Toyota Kata

Graham Canning, coordinator of the LERC Kata Research Network Group, draws on his experience of Kata and reflects on its take up by organisations and poses some questions on the research task ahead.

Early Exposure

I first became aware of the process of Kata in 2004, when I was a Group Leader at Toyota’s Assembly Plant in Derby in the UK. Except I don’t recall it being called ‘kata’ or even that I was being coached through a structured process – it was just how things were done there!

Jumping forward a few years to 2009 I read (positively devoured, in fact), Mike Rother’s seminal book, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. In the book, Rother describes how – using two structured practice routines – Toyota teaches its people to navigate through a series of improvement cycles towards a vision or goal.

These practice routines, or ‘Katas’, are designed to give people inexperienced in using the Scientific Method for improvement activity, a guide or prop, to assist them until such a time that their new habits are ingrained and effectively second nature.

Since Rother first published his first book on Kata, it strikes me that Kata is still on the periphery of lean thinking, and that its adoption is quite sporadic – in my experience, even in organisations that consider themselves to be quite ‘Lean mature’. I started to think why this might be the case and began to do some research into factors that might be contributing to the less than over-whelming adoption rates.

Poor take up

Empirical research I did (for the assignment I submitted for my LCS Level 3 certification) found that only 9% of respondents said their organisations were actively using the Kata approach in support of improvement activity.

So what could be the reasons for such poor adoption?

Lack of awareness could be one, but the counter-argument for this is that as far back as 2008 (before Rother’s book was published!) in their book, Toyota Culture: The Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way, Liker and Hoseus described the Toyota Production System to be akin to a DNA helix with a clearly defined Process Value Stream and a People Value Stream. In the People Value Stream they describe in great detail the specific processes Toyota uses to support the development of its people. Tellingly they say:

“They (Toyota Sensei) realise that most ideas for improvement are simply good guesses and need to be verified through experimentation, so they want many experiments to be run by many people working in the process who are constantly monitoring the results of experiments and learning”.

Perhaps another reason that the Kata approach is left ‘on the shelf’ by lean practitioners is because they know that senior managers have little appetite in allowing teams to experiment – to use Scientific Thinking – to help understand and solve problems.

My survey results suggest that, when asked if their company promoted a culture that encouraged a ‘trial and error’ or experimental approach to improvement, respondents scored their organisations 3.6 out of a maximum of 10. A tendency towards risk-aversion and blame culture were given as reasons that inhibit this approach.

Another thought I explored was how ‘western’ leaders differ in their approach to problem-solving than those in ‘eastern’ regions. This complex picture can be summarised in such key differences as a ‘western’ tendency to be more results-oriented (especially in the short-term), and a belief that lean implementation is a defined pathway of tool acquisition and execution. This may be a significant factor in why ‘linear thinking’ is prevalent in the application of ‘Lean’ in the West, resulting in a greater focus on the ‘tools’ than on the human elements of the approach. And perhaps explains why Kata isn’t seen as a core principle in many lean deployments?

Kata Research Group

So, what do we want to learn and develop through the LERC Kata workstream?

  • What is the level and nature of the use of Kata in organisations?
  • What are the barriers and enablers to Kata’s adoption in organisations?
  • What are the critical factors that need to be present in an organisation for Kata to be successful?
  • Are those enterprises currently using Kata finding that it is more effective than previous attempts at deploying Lean principles?
  • How should Kata be positioned in a wider framework of Lean Thinking tools and techniques? Is there overlap / conflict with other approaches?

I’m delighted to be able to help facilitate this research with the LERC team. Whether you are a self-proclaimed ‘Kata Geek’ or not, please join us as we develop a deep understanding of the effectiveness of Kata, and the conditions required to make it thrive!

I will let Mike Rother have the final word…

“Does the way ahead for developing improvement Kata behaviour in your organisation seem unclear? Are you unsure about what you will need to do to achieve successful culture change? Well, that is exactly how it should be, and if so, I can assure you that you are already on the right track. We cannot know what the path ahead will be, but the improvement Kata shows us a way to deal with and perhaps even enjoy that unpredictable aspect of life!”

Planned Kata project >>>