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What Is Kata and How Is It Different from Lean?

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what is kata - kata definition on whiteboard

As continuous improvement and Kaizen specialists, we’re often asked similar questions by clients. What is Kata? How do Kata Coaching and the Improvement Kata work? How are they different from other lean concepts? With so many different terms and improvement practices out there, it’s easy to see why there’s sometimes confusion. Knowing which technique is the best one to address a specific business goal or challenge is crucial. Some are well suited to training employees and developing in-house skills whereas others are ideal for streamlining operational processes and increasing profitability. So, if you’re looking for ways to improve organizational practices, resolve a problem, or achieve a step-change in your business, then read on. In this article, we explore the kata definition and how it differs from lean concepts, both in theory and in practice.


What Is Kata?

The term ‘Kata’ means a structured way of doing things or practice. It has its roots in Japanese martial arts where learners spend much of their time practicing drills to improve specific moves. By repeating a movement on a consistent basis, the correct technique is gradually mastered. It becomes ingrained in muscle memory until it happens by reflex. This kata definition then developed into a mainstream business practice when Toyota adopted it as part of its lean production system.  

The term ‘Toyota Kata’ was first used by Mike Rother in his book of the same name. In it, he outlined the core routines that he had observed at the Japanese automotive manufacturer which contributed to its continuous improvement efforts. Rother’s book explained how organizations could implement and benefit from Toyota’s improvement concepts by following structured habits or ‘Katas’.

In the business world, there are two main Katas or practices: the Coaching Kata and the Improvement Kata. These can both help businesses to develop a culture of improvement and innovation. By practicing Katas on a consistent basis, routines are developed which become habitual for employees and the organization as a whole. Repeating these structured routines helps individual staff, departments, and entire companies to progress and improve.

Benefits of Kata

Practicing Katas helps companies to develop skills and habits that lead to important shifts. They impact individuals and entire organizational cultures collectively. Katas provide a structured framework to follow in the quest for continuous improvement. Ultimately, this leads to greater efficiency, waste reductions, and increased profitability.

What’s really powerful about the concept of Katas is that they give you the ability to stay ahead of the game. When Toyota first became famous for its lean manufacturing processes, many other companies followed their lead. They implemented the same solutions and saw some improvements in business performance but didn’t enjoy the same level of success. Rother returned to Toyota in an effort to learn more and was surprised by what he saw. Toyota was no longer implementing the same solutions that they had done a few years earlier – they had continued to innovate and improve on what they were doing. They had found newer and better ways to solve issues and continue to streamline their operations.

It struck Rother that he had been asking the wrong questions. Toyota’s success wasn’t simply down to the tools they were using. It was due to the skills they had developed in their people which meant they were able to innovate and problem solve on a consistent basis. They had implemented Katas that educated and empowered their employees to seek continual improvement. This had enabled them to maintain the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ that most companies lose over time.  



The Kata method provides a structured process that’s easy to follow. Implementing it is a matter of working through the steps in order so that you can continually improve and build capabilities within your team. The Improvement and Coaching Katas involve similar processes but need to be addressed individually since they have different purposes. In this section, we’ll look at how to apply each of them in an organization.


Improvement Kata

A common question we get from clients is this – what is kata used for? The most concise answer we can give is that it’s used to drive continuous improvement. By focusing on habit development at an organizational level, it helps to drive incremental changes that lead to large gains. But how do you know which habits or routines to develop? This is where the Improvement Kata comes in. It’s designed to help companies identify their improvement goals and develop strategies for achieving them.

Kata process improvement involves four stages which are then repeated to achieve consistent gains. 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.

This iterative approach allows for testing and experimentation within an organization. It removes the taboo around failure which empowers employees to be more creative with solutions. The fear of making a mistake can severely limit the innovative potential of a company. When people are scared to try new things, they will continue to do them ‘the way they have always been done’. But by taking calculated risks, teams can dramatically increase their improvement results and achieve true innovation.


Coaching Kata

This improvement policy isn’t just about processes – it’s about people too. This is where the Coaching Kata comes into play. The second Kata is what helps employees to develop the skills and capabilities needed to continuously improve. It trains the mind to think outside of the box and hones their problem-solving abilities. They receive feedback from a coach or mentor on a daily basis which enables them to improve quickly.

There are five key questions at the heart of the Coaching Kata. They provide a structured framework that makes the approach easy to implement, repeat, and scale. The coaching questions are one of many continuous improvement tools that can aid your lean transformation efforts. Here are the five questions that need to be asked as part of the coaching process: 

  1.       What is the target condition or challenge?
  2.       What is the actual condition now?
  3.       What obstacles are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing right now?
  4.       What is your next step?
  5.       When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

When employees understand the direction or challenge, they are better able to focus their efforts on it. Establishing the next target condition gives them a clear goal to work towards so that they can approach the project in bite-sized chunks. Introducing Kata coaching cycles is an effective way to achieve process improvements and attain manufacturing excellence. It’s this capability building that really gives organizations a competitive edge. When staff develop the ability to innovate, they can easily find solutions to problems, think up new ideas, and deal with changing market conditions that are out of their control. These habits lead to a cultural transformation that is practically impossible for rivals to match.


What Is Kata Useful For?

The Kata methodology can be used in many business situations and is popular with a range of industries. Any organization that wants to continuously improve can use it as a tool to do so. Although it came from the automotive industry, it can be applied to other manufacturing operations or even unrelated fields.

  •         Industrial manufacturing for automotive
  •         Food and beverage
  •         Heavy machinery
  •         Airplane design and manufacturing
  •         Healthcare


How Are Kata and Lean Different?

Kata and Lean are different in many ways. The former is a tool and the latter is a philosophy or practice. Although they both contribute towards continuous improvement goals, they do so in varying manners. Kata isn’t something that will compete with or replace Lean – it will support it. When you combine these two concepts into a unified approach, it produces powerful results.  

 Kata is one tool that can be used in your lean efforts. However, it won’t provide a replacement for other Lean or Six Sigma techniques including:


  •         Value stream mapping
  •         Kanban
  •         Root cause analysis
  •         5Ws


Each of these serves a different function in the improvement process. What Kata can do is develop employee skills in practicing each of these techniques. It can help to establish the habits and routines needed to embed them into an organization and develop a culture of innovation.

 Using Kata concepts provides your staff with the support they need to learn new approaches and master lean techniques. It enables them to practice and repeat a specific element until they have nailed it and can move on to the next. This multiplies the effectiveness of any lean tools you may already be using or want to introduce. Kata provides employees, managers, and leaders with a structured process for implementing lean concepts. So, when considering ‘what is Kata useful for’ we can also add employee training and cultural change to the list.

 The Improvement Kata specifically incorporates a scientific approach to addressing obstacles or goals. It uses the PDCA (plan-do-check-act) model to test ideas while mitigating against risks. This logical format allows staff to test and evaluate possible solutions, then come to well-reasoned conclusions. This enables improvement ideas to be executed and implemented at a rapid pace so that businesses enjoy the benefits much faster than they otherwise would.

 Ultimately, Lean is something you implement whereas Kata is something you practice. The Improvement and Coaching Katas will support your lean efforts and multiply the results that you achieve. They will help you to adopt lean practices faster and enable staff to master the techniques more quickly so that you see results even sooner.


Principles – Overview

Kata training has its roots in traditional martial arts but has expanded into the business world. The concepts teach the fundamental skills of scientific thinking and acting, as well as a consistent practice. They provide a structured approach to what may seem an overwhelming challenge or goal. The Kata improvement process forms the backbone of the practice by providing questions that facilitate PDCA cycles. By adopting a scientific thinking process, you increase the likelihood of success for new ideas and solutions. Using the Coaching Kata training method helps employees to improve their skills and shake bad habits by providing continual feedback. They learn to establish target conditions, identify obstacles, and devise the next steps to address them. Educating and empowering staff enables them to take the initiative in problem-solving situations and contribute to the innovation of an organization.


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.

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

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