What is Kata?

Mike Rother (lean guru and author) defines Toyota Kata as “a skill-building process to shift our mindset and habits from a natural tendency to jump to conclusions, to a tendency to think and act more scientifically”. This definition is based off his many years of studying the Toyota Production System. What Rother found is that Toyota follows a management approach that truly teaches its employees to achieve results. The entirety of Mike Rother’s research is available in the public domain at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother/Homepage.html. For those of you that don’t have the time to wade through the information, let me summarize it.

In simple terms, Toyota Kata is a structured way to create a culture of continuous learning and improvement at all levels. You may be thinking – “I thought that is what lean manufacturing and kaizen was” – and you are partly correct. I like the way one contributor at shmula.com described it; the difference between Kaizen and Kata is that Kata involves a mental approach focusing on critical thinking and problem-solving skills as opposed to physical changes in the environment. Anyone with a lean background has learned that Kaizen is loosely translated as “change for the good”. Complementary to that is Kata – “small routines that allow us to continually improve”. Kata is the continuous improvement aspect of Lean Manufacturing.

How many of you have gone through lean training, maybe done some value stream mapping, some 5S, and kaizen events? How well have you sustained the gains? For most people, the answer will be “not well” or “not at all”. We often interact with companies that have “done lean or done 5S”, but during a plant tour none of the benefits are obvious. Instead, we see old productivity boards, remnants of tape from 5S activities, and employees that are still “fire-fighting” to keep production going. The missing element of lean manufacturing is the routine that helps people continuously improve and evolve. While we can’t control the ever-changing pace of production, we can control how we respond to the changes.

The Kata methodology is grounded in two fundamental routines; the Improvement Kata (IK) and the Coaching Kata (CK). The IK is the routine that helps your employees improve, adapt, innovate, and evolve and is the context in which lean manufacturing tools are applied. The CK allows leaders and managers to develop their skills for helping someone learn the IK process. The CK is important as it gives leaders the opportunity to understand the teams thinking and help guide them toward activities that will achieve the target condition.


Improvement Kata


Any type of improvement starts with two things: understanding where you are now and knowing where you want to be at some point in time. The Improvement Kata starts the journey with four steps:

  1. Get the direction or challenge – set the vision for the project, typically achievable in six to twelve months
  2. Grasp the current condition - where is the process in terms of the vision? Document as many facts and metrics as needed to capture the current condition
  3. Establish the next target condition – what can you achieve in a one to four-week period? Establishing a target condition provides the ability to focus on measurable results rather than random improvements
  4. Conducting experiments to get there – what obstacles are getting in the way of achieving the target condition? Use experimentation cycles to remove one obstacle at a time

Now that your team understands the direction, how do you keep them on the right path? The Coaching Kata teaches a way of thinking and acting within "the Kata corridor". The CK allows you to guide the team back on course if they stray too far from keeping the focus on the agreed-upon Next Target Condition. The CK sessions should only take ten to twenty minutes and should be scheduled as soon as the results from an experiment are known and can be demonstrated. Normally, the next day, as part of a regularly-scheduled daily coaching session. Coaching sessions take place as close as possible to where work is being performed – go to Gemba!


Coaching Kata UT CIS



The Coaching Kata utilizes a set of 5 questions (see the nice graphic from traccsolution.com) at each session. The coach uses the same pattern of questioning in every coaching cycle providing a structured routine for the coach and the team. Doing this ensures that the team learns by doing and creates a culture of forever striving and learning. Research is clear that striving toward a meaningful condition is highly motivating and fulfilling. The Coaching Kata gives managers and leaders a way to systematically strive toward target conditions by best use of people’s capabilities.

Toyota Kata (or Kata, as we like to call it) is not a new buzzword or the next big thing for manufacturers. It is, if applied, a way to lay a rich foundation to build a lean culture upon.


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