Creating a Lean Culture with the Improvement Kata

July 1, 2013
By Darren Dolcemascolo

Last week we released the cartoon video below, a humurous attempt to get people thinking about the concept known as the improvement kata. The improvement kata is a patterned approach to solving problems utilizing the Toyota Business Practices (or, as it is more commonly known as today, A3 Problem Solving). The Japanese word kata means pattern or routine. For example, a kata might be a routine that is done in music or sports (such as repeatedly playing a set of musical notes on a guitar). Why can't the same idea of utilzing routines be done in business? Apparently, Toyota already does this. This is essentially how they embed their problem solving culture into the organization.

The improvement kata was first written about in Mike Rother's groundbreaking book, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. This methodology centers around the use of 5 key questions that a coach or mentor would be utilizing with his/her mentee or learner:

    1. What is the Target Condition?
    2. What is the Actual Condition now?
    3. What Obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?Which one are you addressing now?
    4. What is your Next Step? (next PDCA / experiment) What do you expect?
    5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

A mentor, usually a direct supervisor, would utilize the 5 questions to coach his student in solving a problem. As this approeach is used over and over again, the problem solving method becomes second nature to the student. Eventually, he or she can teach this to others. The Toyota Business Practices include the following problem solving steps:

    1. Define the problem.
    2. Investigate: Break down the problem into manageable pieces
    3. Identify the root cause
    4. Set a target for improvement
    5. Select appropriate solution among alternatives
    6. Implement the solution.
    7. Check impact.
    8. Adjust, standardize, and spread.

This approach is based on PDCA, Plan Do Check Act, or as some might prefer, PDSA (Plan Do Study Adjust). What most of us knew to be PDCA was the overall approach to solving problems and implementing solutions or countermeasures. Mike Rother had us rethink this approach to consider that there are many rapid PDCA cycles within the entire problem solving process. Each experiment, whether that experiment is testing a countermeasure or simply investigating through observation or data collection, includes a PDCA cycle.

I believe that this improvement kata approach will revolutionize the entire approach to doing kaizen. Making lean improvements has always been presented as either doing a kaizen event or gathering ideas from employees through some sort of idea program. Both of these approaches are good and should continued to be taught and utilzied, but the improvement kata approach is one that changes the culture by making problem solving a habit. When problem solving becomes a habit within a company, they truly will have "daily kaizen."

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