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What is a kata?

A kata is a small, well-structured protocol or routine that becomes second nature through practice, and brings about the development of a particular skill. The point of the kata is not the memorization of the routines, but rather is the habits of thought and action that practicing them leaves behind.

In other words, a kata is a means for the acquisition of new cognitive and behavioral skills, such as process improvement. Furthermore, a kata make these skills transferable to others - an essential part of developing a sustained culture of continuous improvement within an organization.


How does Toyota use kata?

Toyota’s improvement processes arise from two fundamental kata - the first is for improvement or problem solving, the second for coaching.

The Toyota Problem Solving Kata

A common, but flawed, strategy for problem solving involves taking on complex problems and tackling many issues simultaneously. This approach makes it difficult to understand which strategies and techniques worked and which did not, as too many changes are made simultaneously.

Conversely, the Toyota problem solving kata encourages working on single issues and single countermeasures in rapid succession. Operating this way increases the organization’s profound knowledge and understanding of that process.

The goals here are twofold:

1.  Learn about the system itself and come to fully understand the situation

2.  Observe the situation, applying only one countermeasure at a time so that cause and effect becomes apparent.

What's more, as each countermeasure is applied, it reveals the next problem and the improvement process can quickly proceed.


The Toyota Coaching Kata

Most companies have some version of a performance management system in which a team member develops a set of goals with his supervisor and is evaluated at the end of the time period on his performance in meeting those goals. However, this is more authoritarian than collaborative, leading with pressure rather than coaching.

At Toyota, a process of mentoring replaces this outdated leadership style. Leaders offer guidance for solving problems in the correct ways, helping to develop employees’ problem solving skills. In this way, it is the team members, not the supervisors, who find the solutions to problems.

With the Toyota coaching kata, most improvement efforts are “bottom up,” relying on and improving upon each employee’s knowledge base. Additionally, the entire operation is reliant on problems being flagged immediately. This allows most problems to be discovered and solved when they are still small, rather than waiting until they set off a chain of failures and subsequent problems.


There are two main duties of a leader under these kata:

  1. Respond

    At the first sign of an issue, a leader must respond and take ownership of the problem. The first response is to institute a short-term countermeasure - this allows work to continue unimpeded while a more permanent solution is identified and implemented. It is during this pursuit of the best solution that the coaching kata becomes invaluable.
  2. Understand

    An organization relies on its employees fully understanding their work processes. When a problem arises, it reveals some missing information about the process. Understanding the origin of the problem and its effect on other areas of the organization will enable better problem solving and increase the profound knowledge of the organization as a whole.


See how KaiNexus customer Michael Lombard uses the Toyota Kata in his organization:

Michael Lombard

Director of Operational Excellence at a Hospital in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Area

In this video, Michael says... 

When I came in as Director, we were kind of starting with a blank slate, so we had the opportunity to do some research. We started looking at some videos by John Shook of the Lean Enterprise Institute, and he talks about two pillars of CI: one being process improvement, the other being developing the capacity of your organization - giving them skills and competencies, and you want to be able to do both at the same time.

We came across the Toyota Kata method to continuous improvement, and it really does help fulfill both of these pillars at the same time. So we adopted that about a year ago and we've been experimenting just to see what works and what doesn't, and it works really well. Clinicians love it, it appeals to their action oriented nature, it allows them to just try things and learn from it and take steps forward.

Really, our next step with the Toyota Kata approach is going beyond our initial cadre of coaches, and infiltrating all levels of the organization. We're starting so see a pretty good spread (we track that sort of thing - how many departments we're doing coaching in, how many departments we're doing PDCA cycles in). But we really need to take it to that next level and start engaging everybody in the organization, from the clinical staff to the physicians, to the nonclinical staff and the leaders. 


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