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Toyota Kata – Improvement Kata to Drive Results

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The Toyota Kata methodology is a fantastic tool for driving continuous improvement through coaching and problem-solving. It provides a structured process for creating a culture where innovative thinking and a learning mindset are at the core. If you’re striving to be a lean enterprise, want to improve elements of your organization, or have business transformation goals, then this is an invaluable tool.

In this article, we explore how the Toyota kata concept can be applied to a business and how the Improvement Kata, in particular, can drive bottom-line results.


Toyota Kata – Overview

The term ‘Toyota Kata’ was first coined in the book of the same name by Mike Rother. In it, he described the key routines observed at the Japanese automotive manufacturer which drove continuous improvement. Rother was able to adapt Toyota’s improvement concepts into structured habits for other organizations to replicate.

The Toyota Kata consists of two main Katas or practices: the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata. Each of these provides a concrete process that companies can use to create an innovation culture. When practiced consistently, they lead to the formation of routines or habits which become ingrained into the everyday activities of an organization. It’s this consistent practice and structure that helps individuals, teams, and entire businesses to progress towards their end goal.


What Is a Kata?

The term ‘Kata’ refers to a small routine or daily practice that is clearly structured. By practicing a Kata consistently, the routine becomes second nature to the teams that use it. Over time, this leads to skill development and process improvement, both of which increase quality and efficiency.

However, practicing Katas isn’t just about memorizing a fixed process repeatedly. It’s about developing habits that lead to continuous improvement and lean operations. The structured approach to thought and subsequent action creates a type of ‘muscle memory’ that can be applied to any situation. So, rather than just improving a specific process or business area, it teaches employees to think more openly. It helps staff to develop problem-solving skills and action-oriented behaviors that make a meaningful difference to your organization.


The Toyota Kata Process

The beauty of the Toyota Kata approach is that it provides a structured process that’s easy to follow. It involves four stages which are then repeated to achieve consistent improvement. These steps are;

  1. Understand the desired direction – what’s the goal or target condition?
  2. Grasp the current condition – what is the status or situation right now?
  3. Set the next challenge – to progress along the desired path.
  4. Run small experiments – that allow testing of ideas towards the next challenge.

Let’s look at how each of these stages can be used as part of the Improvement Kata to drive results.


1 – Understand the Direction

Before undertaking any kind of project, it’s vital to identify the end goal. What is the purpose and what do you want to achieve? Begin with the end in mind and you’ll have a much greater chance of delivering superior results. Understanding the direction ensures that the team remains focused and doesn’t get side-tracked or distracted. Having a clear purpose also aids motivation as the team can quickly understand why they are doing something.

Define the direction by aiming for greatness. What’s the vision for how things should operate in an ideal world? Define it in terms of processes rather than outcomes – this way you’ll be in a stronger position to make actionable changes. Consider what your ideal state is and then articulate a direction that encapsulates it.


2 – Grasp the Current Condition

The next step is to grasp the current condition. What is the situation and how are things operating right now? This involves documenting processes and workflows to get a clear understanding of how things work. Use diagrams and flow charts to visualize how the different steps in a process come together. It’s important to document how things actually work as opposed to how they ‘should’ work. You need to be open and honest about the current situation (even if that means exposing issues) in order to really improve them.

During this step, it’s also important to collect metrics that quantify how the process is working. These usually come in two formats: process metrics and outcome metrics. The former describes the process itself whereas the latter refers to the results. For example, process metrics might include cycle time, queue size, or Takt time. Outcome metrics can refer to things like lead time, quality, and throughput.


3 – Establish the Next Target Condition

The third stage of a Toyota Kata is to set the next challenge. In the case of an improvement Kata, this involves establishing the next target condition. This is where you define how a process would operate when in the desired state. As with the direction, this should focus on the process rather than the outcome itself. If you get your processes right, then the outcomes will be achieved as a natural result.

The target condition needs to get you one step closer to achieving your desired vision. It’s a hypothesis of what needs to change or improve in order to get there. The best way to approach this is to make a copy of your current condition including the process and metrics. Then identify one single change in the process that can get you a bit closer to your goal. It’s also crucial to set a deadline or expiration date so that you have a limited timeframe in which to test the hypothesis.

One of the key features of the Toyota Kata methodology is its focus on learning. It encourages people to learn more about processes in order to make relevant improvements. With this in mind, it’s important to set a target condition that stretches your knowledge or existing comfort zone. It needs to move you or your team beyond the current threshold as that’s where significant improvements occur. But it shouldn’t be so difficult that it’s unobtainable as that will just demotivate people before they’ve even started. So, try to settle for somewhere in the middle that pushes the boundaries in a realistic and achievable manner.


4 – PDCA Towards the Target Condition

The fourth step is to run small experiments that allow the testing of ideas or hypotheses. In the case of the Improvement Kata, this means using the PDCA method to move towards the target condition. This concept will be familiar to those who know about Kaizen program management. It was first implemented as part of Toyota’s now-famous lean manufacturing processes. The PDCA approach is a structured process that stands for plan-do-check-act. This four-step methodology makes it easy to run experiments or pilot test changes that can help to achieve the target condition.

The PDCA cycle employs scientific thinking in order to test your ideas. It allows you to iterate and adjust based on results so that you can eventually achieve the desired outcome. By following the four steps when executing the final Kata stage, it maximizes effectiveness and long-term success. The simple acronym makes it easy for staff to remember and implement on an on-going basis. Plus, it can be adopted by any type of business and by every department in an organization (no complex training workshops or lengthy webinars needed).

The PDCA approach is broken down into the following four steps:

  • Plan – identify objectives and how best to implement the project.
  • Do – carry out the activities to implement it.
  • Check – Once executed, check the results to ensure they align with expectations.
  • Act – If any improvement areas are identified then implement them.

These steps enable you to carefully plan the activities that you’ve identified in the previous stage. It provides a framework for implementing and testing them on a small scale to see if they are effective. It also supports on-going evaluation and improvement so that when the final implementation happens, it achieves its full potential. Repeating this cycle should lead to the target condition being achieved. But if the expiration date passes before you’ve reached the target condition, then it’s time to go back a stage and identify a different change that could bring about the desired outcome.


Implementing Kata Principles

Implementing Kata principles isn’t difficult thanks to their structured, step-by-step format. They are relatively short and simple processes that can make a real difference to a business. However, according to the Lean Enterprise Institute, sustaining progress on a consistent basis is where organizations often struggle. They can execute a single improvement project as a one-off but find it more difficult to make larger-scale changes to processes or culture. This is why continuous improvement software is such a crucial component of long-term transformation.

Digital platforms make it quick and easy to implement the Kata management approach. Modern technology allows you to capture ideas for transformational projects, filter out the best ones, communicate how to implement them, and measure their results. They provide a repository for project information, aid management, and streamline cross-functional collaboration. Using Kaizen software also allows companies to capture, record, and share best practices throughout their organization, leading to widespread change. These types of tools support on-going learning and improvement that are at the core of Toyota Kata’s philosophy.

As companies use the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen to achieve their desired condition, it can be helpful to leverage digital tools that support it. Grasping the current condition, recording process diagrams, and tracking metrics are all easier with a software platform. PDCA project management test hypotheses can be replicated and scaled when it’s all stored in the cloud and transferable between teams.

Companies that continuously improve have a distinct competitive advantage that others will find hard to match. Understanding the Kata improvement process will help your Kaizen program management to be successful. Adopting this approach can benefit every area of an organization, from product development to the supply chain. It supports collaborative innovation, project planning, and outcome measurements. By applying these processes, your business can accelerate growth, reduce waste, and maximize profitability. If you’d like to learn more about Rever’s innovative improvement tools, then get in touch with our friendly team.

How Toyota Kata Can Enhance Your Business Environment

We have already established that all kinds of businesses can benefit from Toyota Kata principles. It can be very helpful in improving the workplace environment, which is very important to improve productivity and loyalty. 

Workers want to work in a productive environment that helps them grow and puts less pressure on them. Businesses spend a lot of money on understanding how to improve the workplace environment and provide employees a rich atmosphere to work in

Toyota Kata can be the answer to this question. This practice isn’t the same as other techniques. Unlike other options, Kata focuses mainly on continuous improvement. This is the main aim behind the Toyota Kata technique.

Businesses or individuals who follow this discipline are focused on one thing – to improve continuously. They focus on the benefits continuous improvement brings to them. 

In addition to this, Toyota Katas also focuses on coaching.  We must remember that solutions alone cannot guarantee success. It depends on how these solutions are implemented and to what extent.

In simple words, Toyota Kata isn’t about ready-made solutions. It’s about being smart enough to come up with solutions to new and complex problems. After all, one solution can not fit all because businesses, employees, and environments are different. What works for one person may not work for others. 

Now without much ado, let’s have a look at how this unique concept helps improve workplace environments.

The Benefits of Toyota Kata – Coaching Kata and Improvement Kata

Coaching Kata is centered on the concept of ‘learning from previous experiences and efforts’. 

According to the book, managers and leaders must work to “develop people so that desired results can be achieved.”

Let’s also remember how Toyota Kata defines management: “the systematic pursuit of desired conditions by utilizing human capabilities in a concerted way.”

It focuses on scientific thinking and does not neglect previous efforts. Here are some of the main benefits of Toyota Kata:

Reduces Friction

Toyota Kata is a slow process. It’s centered on gradual and subtle changes and allows for time to deeply analyze each individual change. This is important because changing too many things too quickly can cause workers to feel overwhelmed.

It can result in a feeling of negativity. Going slow allows managers to carefully examine the current condition and gauge if they may need to deploy a countermeasure. 

One must seize every opportunity and take immediate action if needed. 

Toyota Kata provides guidance and a clear picture of your business. It helps understand what employees need to work better and what changes must be brought to the business to make it a success.

Allows Managers to Understand Impact Assessment

It is surprisingly common for businesses to struggle to determine the right approach to bring improvement. 

Every change matters. It’s vital for managers or leaders to understand the consequences of their actions. When it comes to business, change does not solely affect individuals, it affects the business as a whole.

Hiring a new employee or getting rid of a seasoned worker, for example, will not only affect the workplace environment but also loyalty, finance, productivity, and other aspects of the business. 

You should thoroughly think about each change you intend to bring to your business and the kind of impact it will have on your revenue generation, client satisfaction, cost, etc.

It can take a while to study all these metrics, which is why managers often neglect them. Make sure to not make the same mistake. Give every decision the time it needs.

With the Toyota Kata principle, you will find it easier to understand your current positioning and intended position. Plus, it will also help you identify the path to success.

Helps Identify Areas for Improvement

It doesn’t matter how successful your business is today, it will never be able to stay afloat if it doesn’t improve or change with time. 

Businesses that continue to use outdated or redundant processes eventually get phased out. Many experts believe that companies like Kodak and Nokia failed due to their failure to improve.

Toyota Kata helps businesses identify areas for improvements and facilitates change. It can provide the push that one needs to change positively.

Humans are not very ‘excited’ about the idea of change. We get used to working in a specific environment and often fail to see the advantages of change.

This is why the introduction of new tools and policies is often met with boos. Employees do not always appreciate change and they need to be educated about how changes can make their lives easier.

Moreover, change has to be subtle. A major change will almost always receive a negative reaction. Slow changes, however, are easier to neglect and get used to.

Improvement Kata uses every employee and manager and ensures they’re on the same page. It allows staff members to learn from each other and improve.

Five Coaching Kata Questions

Regularly practicing Kata can strengthen scientific thinking and improve decision making. It must be mentioned that Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata go hand in hand. 

You cannot improve without proper coaching. This is the basis of Toyota Kata. However, coaches and learners must get answers to the five Coaching Kata questions to be able to see true improvements.

#1: Target Condition

You must be clear about what you want to achieve. Merely wanting to ‘improve’ the business is not enough. The target needs to be clear and quantifiable.

The coach will typically ask the learner what goal they’re trying to reach. The learner should know exactly why they opted for a specific procedure.

Since Toyota Kata encourages scientific thinking and continuous improvement, the change must be subtle and the next step should be in the same direction. 

Many learners and coaches make the mistake of skipping this question because it appears quite obvious. This small mistake can turn out to be very costly in the long-run. 

It’s important to restate your target and be clear about the end goal and how you’re going to reach it. 

This simple question confirms a shared understanding between the coach and the learner and allows the coach to have a clear understanding of where the learner’s trying to go.

#2 The Current Condition

The learner and the coach need to be clear about the actual condition. They will never be able to know where they want to go and how they wish to achieve the desired results unless they’re not sure of the current condition.

The current situation can be measured in a variety of ways including process metrics such as work cycle times and outcome metrics such as cost and output.

The current condition has to be established before beginning any work. It creates a baseline and allows the coach and the learner to focus on the outcome.

#3 Obstacles

It is never easy to reach the target condition. The learner or business may face several challenges throughout the journey. 

Some of these challenges might be clear from the very onset and some may become clear as one progresses in the desired direction.

You should be clear about the obstacles that can prevent you from reaching your desired condition. Also, since you may not face all the obstacles at once, make sure to know which obstacles are being handled at any given time.

It is common for learners to experiment against roadblocks or obstacles. These issues are discussed in the initial phase but, as mentioned earlier, not all obstacles might be apparent in the beginning.

The learner must update the obstacle list as more information becomes available. The list should contain current, past, and future obstacles. 

It’s important to state obstacles as measurable and specific issues. The learner typically works on one obstacle before moving to the next one. 

#4 Planning What’s Next

A learner will eventually reach a point where they have no data or information. This is when they’ll most probably begin to guess. When this happens, you should know it’s time to move to the next PDCA cycle, i.e: experiment.

It is the duty of the coach to ensure the learner has access to a well-designed experiment. He or she should ask the following questions to have a clear understanding of where the learner stands

  • Current knowledge and what new information needs to be acquired
  • What’s the learner planning to do next and what the goals are (individual or business related)
  • What the learner thinks the upcoming experiment will help achieve 

#5 Get Ready for the Next Cycle

This is the last step in the Coaching Kata. The purpose of this last step is to push the learner to be faster and move to the next step.

The Toyota Kata technique puts heavy emphasis on the importance of time. This last step is designed to save time and make sure the learner and the coach are able to learn as much as possible.

The learner will not be able to gain new knowledge unless he or she moves to the next cycle.

Your Digital Continuous Improvement Tool

Rever is all about sharing and reusing, doing, and tracking. Continuous improvement becomes a hundred times easier with our innovative digital platform. Using Rever’s dashboard, you can monitor the performance of your teams, the summary of their impact, and easily identify the people making the biggest difference at your company.

Rever Cycle is our version of the PDCA methodology and guides your teams on the exact steps to follow to execute their own ideas. It allows them to capture the entire process, from identifying a problem to experimenting and implementing a solution. They can use it to capture the before and after with pictures, notes and drawings, making their ideas a reality in no time. The time of your team is too valuable to be wasted in handmade drawings and complex explanations.

At Rever, we believe that anybody can be a knowledge worker and thrive. What makes us human is the capacity to grow our intellect and will, and to use them for good. We observe, especially at work, that most people are asked to stop thinking and do as they are told. We want to change that. We enable people to achieve their full creative potential.

Interested in learning more about Kata approaches or discussing case studies? Then get a demo today with one of our friendly Kaizen continuous improvement experts.

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