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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.


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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