Why talk about Toyota Kata?
"One story has often come up in my career: that of a boss who, after hearing about the benefits of Kaizen , the success of Toyota and many other companies that have used this management method, decided to apply it in his own company. To do so, he hires a consultant who comes to do a training with improvement activities and sets up pilot projects with employees. At first, everything went well and everyone was delighted with the new processes. Then the consultant leaves, and unfortunately the initiative slowly disappears. A very classic scenario in the field of Lean
Yves LeBrasseur, Senior Expert at Proaction International
What is Toyota Kata?
In Japanese martial arts, the Japanese word "kata" ("form") designates a series of codified and coordinated movements performed as part of a training exercise, which, through repetition, become reflexes, second nature. These exercises, when practiced continuously, become perfectly mastered routines and lead to an improvement in technique.
The Toyota Kata comes from a management book written by American researcher Mike Rother "Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results" (McGraw-Hill Education Edition). In it, the author draws on the methodology of the Toyota Continuous Improvement Model and explains how the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota manages both continuous improvement and employee know-how, using improvement katas and coaching katas. Indeed, in studying Toyota's way of doing things, Mike Rother found that the organization's managers could naturally install a method of thinking and acting within their team that aimed to achieve the desired objectives and solve problems.
It is to this same practical method that he gave the name Toyota Kata. In his book, he develops its findings and helps to understand why some companies do not manage to use the full potential of Lean and make only minor progress while other companies (like Toyota) manage to achieve much higher levels of performance by integrating improvement and adaptation into the daily lives of their employees. It also demonstrates that the model proposed by Toyota applies to all processes and all types of companies.
To summarize, the Toyota Kata is a method of creating a culture of learning, knowledge transfer, and continuous improvement in the company by implementing these famous routines at different levels.
According to Mike Rother, this management model includes two distinct routines:
- The Improvement Kata - Routine and Implementation
- The Coaching Kata - Coaching
The Toyota Kata includes at least three interlocutors: a learner (coachee), a coach, and a second coach.
Our expert's point of view on the Toyota Kata
After studying the Toyota methodology for a long time, Mike Rother realized that kaizens exist, but their functioning depends mainly on the corporate culture. Indeed, the company must be ready to put the processes in place, and making kaizens must become a reflex for the organization. Thus, for these reflexes to be made and in the right way, three elements are necessary:
Knowledge of the Kaizen method
To carry out an improvement project, it is necessary to precisely define the team and the objective, to proceed step by step, and to have a structured analysis methodology. The latter can be quite simple, but it must have a well-defined framework and allow trial and error.
Training and especially coaching of teams are essential. Mike Rother's studies have shown that field coaching is significant at Toyota with much repetition. To be successful in an activity, practice routines, and coaching cycles are key factors. So, to be good at kaizens, you have to do them often, a lot, and get expert coaching to make sure that everything goes well. The organization will therefore need people who know and master the methodology to guide the employees in a constructive way.
When we want to implement Kaizen methodologies, we are making a change in a company. This is called change management. One of the main points for the organization is to start by defining why it wants to embark on a Toyota Kata approach and its goal. Then, they need to have a clear vision of where they want to go and how far they want the method deployed. So that requires particularly strong support from management.
"In companies that have been very successful with Toyota Kata, it was often the higher-ups who would go out and coach in the field to show the importance of the process, but also to get directly involved, because that's how you get a culture of improvement in place."
How to implement the Toyota Kata model
The improvement kata consists of 4 key steps
The purpose of the Improvement Kata is to create and anchor continuous process improvement (Kaizen) habits within the teams, to learn more about how the company works, and to use this better understanding to optimize the way of working by trying new routines. It, therefore, focuses on learning and exploring new ways of doing things.
The improvement kata consists of 4 major steps.
1. Define the company's direction - Target Condition
You need to understand the organizational goal, the vision of the company (link to visionary leader article), the direction it wants to take, or the challenge to be met. Identifying this end goal will allow you to stay focused on it and not lose focus, but also to motivate employees towards this goal.
2. Understand the Current Situation - Actual Condition
You need to examine and understand in depth the current state - i.e., how the company operates, what you know, but also what you don't know and could learn. You must list processes, workflows, and results using the relevant indicators to succeed. Then you need to analyze them and objectively understand how they work.
3. Determine the next target condition
Here you have to define the next goal to be reached or the challenge to overcome to get closer to the goal (company vision). Ask yourself what could be changed or improved to get to this next target condition, and then set a specific time frame for implementing that change. Focus on the process more than the outcome because a good process will lead to good results.
4. Experimenting to overcome obstacles
For this last step, you must conduct various experiments to overcome the identified barriers and learn from the results to see what works and what does not. To do this, use the PDCA cycles (Plan-Do-Check-Act) by applying the following small steps:
- Plan - Define project objectives, participants, timeline, barriers
- Do - Implement the project on a small scale, on a reduced cycle time
- Check - Check the results to see what went well and what needs to be improved
- Act - Work on improving the identified problems
This method will allow you to test the improvement measures on a small scale and remove the obstacles individually to better understand and adapt the work processes.
The coaching kata cards in 5 questions
Kata coaching supports and complements the improvement kata. Its goal is to ensure that company leaders and managers can accompany and guide their employees in the kata improvement process, transforming them into coaches themselves.
To help the learner overcome the challenges that arise and adopt a particular state of mind while acquiring the necessary confidence, the coach asks 5 kata questions that respond to the different stages of the improvement kata:
- What is the target condition?
- What is the current condition?
- What obstacles are preventing you from achieving the target condition?
- What is the next step? What do you think will happen?
- When can we see what we have learned by taking this step?
Four other questions arise to better answer this last question:
- What do you have planned as your final step?
- What did you expect?
- What actually happened?
- What did you learn?
This series of questions is essential to coaching Kata; they depend on each other. It is, therefore, necessary to answer them in order, with as much precision as possible (answer the first one well to better answer the second one and so on). They can be applied in all contexts and at all levels of the hierarchy.
Why is coaching so crucial in applying the Toyota Kata principle?
Coaching is a fundamental element of the Toyota Kata. For example, practice is essential if I want to improve in a sport. I will have to train as much as possible, ideally on daily practice, so that the techniques and movements of the sport in question become automatic. But I must also be guided and accompanied to do things correctly and efficiently. This is where the coach will fully play his role.
In the Toyota Kata, he will allow having the right methodology and the right tools. He will help to choose the right projects, not go too far into the details, and always keep the right structure. He will ensure a real follow-up because good coaching always includes a before (preparation of the coaching sessions), a during (coaching as such), and an after (possible points of improvement).
The Toyota Kata will be a key component here by having a coach who will closely follow the person who wants to learn the right methodology. And that's our expertise at Proaction International; it's part of our DNA: coaching managers and helping them improve in the workplace. This requires people to have the necessary training, skills, background, and experience. And let's not forget the tools that facilitate continuous improvement and follow-up. That includes UTrakk, an online management system platform that allows us to track our coaching rigorously.
The benefits of Toyota Kata for the company
The application of the Toyota Kata model has many benefits for the company. Here are some of them:
- Establish a solid communication base between the manager and his team on the objectives to be reached and the challenges to be overcome;
- Dealing with change in a more organized and efficient manner;
- Fostering transparent communication (transparency link in business) and collaboration;
- Encourage autonomy and initiative;
- Encourage learning and the use of scientific thinking;
- Identify areas for improvement;
- Develop innovative and creative solutions to challenges;
- Improve employee motivation, commitment, and satisfaction;
- Reduce waste and unnecessary processes by applying sustainable solutions;
- Increase productivity and, consequently company's performance in the long term.
The Toyota Kata method is a great asset for installing sustainable thinking and behavioral routines within the company to achieve the desired objectives and develop the necessary problem-solving skills. It emphasizes the importance of learning and practicing to keep improving in a constantly changing environment.
The application of Katas allows for the reinforcement of Lean management techniques and can even be associated with other Lean tools such as the Kanban method, Value Stream Mapping, 5S, Six Sigma, Kaizen, Gemba Walk checklist, etc... to allow the organization to maintain its competitive advantage by being ever more efficient and innovative