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What Is a Kata?

Kata: a pattern or patterns one practices to develop a skill. 

In Japanese, the suffix “-kata” means “a way of doing something” when added to a verb (a way of singing, a manner of speaking, etc.). The term “kata” is also used in martial arts, where it refers to a pattern or set of movements that one practices until it becomes second nature.

In business or industrial settings, a kata becomes a pattern for learning, practicing and implementing new skills, methods and processes. Kata are an essential piece of continuous improvement, as they illustrate that large changes begin with short-term, incremental movements. A kata helps workers practice new patterns until they become an ingrained part of every workday.

In organizations big and small, kata help develop:

  • Practical, on-the-job skills
  • Learning and training habits
  • A rich culture of continuous improvement at all levels of operations

Any kata tends to incorporate Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA), the scientific approach to assessing the need for change and taking action.

A typical kata follows these steps:

  1. Practice a kata (pattern) consistently and deliberately to form a new habit
  2. Forming a new habit develops new skills
  3. Confidence in one’s abilities increases
  4. One is able to recognize opportunities for improvement and make small changes accordingly
  5. Repeat

The J Suite of Training Within Industry programs — Job Instruction, Job Methods, Job Safety and Job Relations — are all examples of kata.

In order to become ingrained, a kata must be practiced, not shown. If practiced sufficiently, the resulting habit never ends.

What is Toyota Kata?

Kata can be tailored to a specific skill one wants to develop (see Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata below). The “Toyota Kata” patterns develop scientific thinking. Scientific thinking is at the core of Toyota Corporation’s specific continuous improvement philosophy.

Toyota employees at all levels are trained and encouraged to make daily improvements to work processes. Even when changes are made, they are so incremental that the overall success and performance of the company is not disrupted. Every employee is imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit, taking calculated, short-term risks to improve operations in the long term.

The term Toyota Kata was coined in 2009 by Mike Rother, a business and management researcher who sought to help American manufacturers understand and replicate Toyota practices in their own companies. At Toyota, Rother observed the frontline workers’ systematic, scientific way of thinking and acting, with their supervisors acting as teachers.

After studying operations at Toyota and some of their Tier 1 suppliers, Rother developed two research questions to help him translate Toyota’s style to other companies:

What are the unseen managerial routines and thinking that lie behind Toyota’s success with continuous improvement and adaptation?
How can other companies develop similar routines and thinking in their organizations?

Rother subsequently published Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results (McGraw-Hill, 2009), along with a practice guide for organizations that wanted to adopt Toyota Kata for their own purposes. Rother was by no means the first person to identify the methods within the Toyota Production System (TPS), but he was the first to challenge other companies to resist copying Toyota and instead develop their own way of thinking.

“If he had left it at that [first question], nothing would have happened, or he would have sold a few books,” says Oscar Roche, Master Trainer in Toyota Kata and Director of TWI Institute Australia and New Zealand. “And what sold the books is not the answer to the first question, because we sort of knew what the answer was. It’s the answer to the second question — that’s what sold the books.”

However, Rother’s guide is anything but an exposé of Toyota’s secrets to success. Readers won’t find answers to their organization’s issues unless they put in their own work.

“People think that the answer to Question Two exists within Toyota. It doesn’t,” Roche explains. “The answer to Question One is what exists within Toyota. Question Two doesn’t [even] exist within Toyota, because it doesn’t need to.” In other words, Toyota already has their answer — and the answer to their unique challenges will not help to address another company’s likewise unique challenges.

Related video: Mike Rother speaks about his experience observing and learning from Toyota Kata. Watch now.

Roche says that a common reason kata don’t “stick” is that companies lack the patience to develop their own solutions to their problems. Leadership and management teams can also have short-term expectations for success, which kata likely will not help to achieve. While not a costly initiative, effective kata practice requires a significant investment of time.

“It’s not a one-year view; you’re going to need to practice this for a while to allow it to embed,” Roche says. “It’s not a method, it’s a practice pattern. The word ‘practice’ implies we’re going to need to do it more than once. So there needs to be a commitment that is longer than a month or two.”

Improvement Kata

The patterns can be divided into two categories: Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata.

The definition of an Improvement Kata can sound a bit metaphysical: an Improvement Kata is a routine of improvement one practices until they develop the skill of improvement.

“That’s a starting point of understanding,” says Steve Medland, a coach and trainer with the TWI Institute. He gives examples of other skills one might develop similarly: typing, guitar, piano. Repetition of any one of these will eventually turn it into a skill. “Once people do it long enough, they kind of make it their method if they keep doing it that way. But [improvement] starts as a pattern.”

Roche agrees. “If you practice [improvement] enough, you’ll develop a systematic, scientific way of thinking about it.”

When broken down into steps, an Improvement Kata follows a four-phase approach to problem solving:

  1. Understand where you want to be and why
  2. Study and document where you are right now
  3. Establish a series of incremental conditions to act as your guide forward
  4. Experiment to remove obstacles along the way that prevent you from achieving each incremental condition.

If one follows this pattern of the Improvement Kata for addressing every challenge, they will start to develop the skill of scientific thinking, no matter the setting.

Coaching Kata

Much like the Improvement Kata, the Coaching Kata is a routine in which the coach leads the learner until they develop the skill of scientific thinking. The “coaching” in question is helping the learner think scientifically about problems and processes in need of improvement. The Coaching Kata helps coaches learn to gauge how the learner is thinking and assess the learner’s progress.

Anyone in a leadership position, once proficient with the Improvement Kata, can benefit from practicing the Coaching Kata, whether they are upper-level managers or frontline supervisors. As they coach a learner in improving a process, the Kata Coach asks the learner a series of questions:

  • What is the target condition?
  • What is the actual condition now?

Reflect as you experiment toward the target condition:

  • What did you plan as your last step?
  • What did you expect?
  • What actually happened?
  • What did you learn?
  • What obstacles are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
  • What is your next step? What do you predict?
  • When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

A Coaching Kata is not a one-time instruction; if practiced correctly, it will become a routine, an ongoing dialogue between the Coach and the learner. Much like in sports or dance, a Kata Coach continues to correct learners as they practice their new patterns. When practiced by supervisors and workers in tandem, Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata establish a shared culture of thinking, working, communicating and problem-solving.

How to Find Success with Kata

Successful Toyota Kata patterns practice require a proactive, adaptive approach. Too often, Kata is introduced as a reaction to an issue in the hopes that it will be a quick fix. Kata is not a band-aid solution.

“That’s why we avoid calling [a kata] a ‘project’ because it has a beginning point — but if you do [a kata] right, there’s no end point,” Medland says.

In an effective adoption of Kata, a Coach and a learner might meet three or four days in a row, at the same time every week, until it becomes a pattern. Just as a worker might take their lunch break at 12:30 p.m. every day, a kata coaching session becomes a regular part of the work routine. The activities that take place fall under Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata. Activities might include the Kata Coach leading the learner in developing a new process or improving an existing one, making a current process safer, or developing a solution for communicating with a coworker or manager.

This kind of kata can be divided into two phases:

Kata Planning Phase

  1. The Kata Coach plans the coaching cycle
  2. The learner, with support, works through steps 1–3 of the Improvement Kata:
  • Understand the goal
  • Acknowledge the current condition
  • Establish the target condition

Kata Executing Phase

  • The learner performs small, rapid experiments using the PDCA cycle to work toward the target condition
  • The Kata Coach executes coaching cycles with the learner, supporting and guiding the learner’s scientific thinking

As the learner completes each PDCA cycle while making a series of rapid, incremental improvements, they move steadily toward their target condition.

If these PDCA do not seem to generate positive results overall, chances are the approach is addressing the symptoms rather than the root cause of an issue. Kata should never look like:

  • A focus on specific tools and methods
  • Exclusive training for a handful of employees
  • Hunting for waste
  • Overly long learning cycles that get interrupted by budget changes, employee turnover, etc.
  • Troubleshooting

How Do the Toyota Kata Patterns Relate to Lean?

Practiced by organizations worldwide, Lean is an organizational mindset in which thinking is unified and all workers practice repetitive behaviors like PDCA. Lean is perhaps the best-known approach to continuous improvement in manufacturing, and often comprises various combinations of Training Within Industry (TWI), Standardized Work and kata tools.

As a component of Lean, kata helps workers develop scientific thinking that permits ongoing problem solving and continuous improvement no matter the problem or opportunity. Kata strengthens continuous improvement frameworks like Lean, Six Sigma and Training Within Industry by grounding them in a pattern of thinking rather than a suite of solutions.

Toyota Kata Programs Available

Kata are nothing without practice and repetition, so their success relies on the actions of the coaches and learners. However, if an organization and its people are not familiar with the concept or philosophy of Kata, a certified trainer can introduce the patterns and help facilitate successful practice of the Improvement and Coaching Kata.

A common mistake organizations make is assuming that continuous improvement can be a one-time event. Companies will introduce their workers to continuous improvement initiatives in single events or “blitzes,” during which they will run through exercises and simulations to change process. However, once the event is over, too many companies fail to sustain the improvement. Thus, the resulting changes are forgotten or deemed ineffective until management schedules another improvement event.

“They call that ‘continuous improvement,’” says Medland. “But that’s what I call ‘occasional improvement.’”

At the TWI Institute, we take an active and iterative approach to continuous improvement training. Our Introductory, Foundational and Management Kata programs are designed to immerse learners and coaches in real-world simulations that demonstrate how kata can benefit an organization. Best of all, our trainers show management how to sustain a long-term habit of scientific thinking and improvement.

To learn more about adopting kata in your organization, start a conversation with TWI Institute today.


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