The Toyota Improvement Kata from the trenches

Part 1 — Progress through experiments

Evolution in the context of the workplace is for me the fact that you accept uncertainty and are prepared to adapt to changes in a way that gradually improves your situation, process, work or whatever detail you are looking at. I am a fan of evolutionary processes. For me, it means that we deliberately let go of long-term plans because we understand that these are changing all the time, very often dramatically. Some people say I’m obsessed with evolution. So I guess I’m not only a fan.

”Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”, Dwight D. Eisenhower

Lots of articles have been written about tools and thought models like systems thinking and Dave Snowden’s Cynefin-model which help to manage complexity. This article is not about the theory. I want to show you how we use experiments to improve our processes evolutionary, in small steps. The reason why we improve evolutionarily is that today’s recipe probably won’t work to solve tomorrows problems, and the future doesn’t need to be too far away to be uncertain. Many of the things we do are new to us and mostly we don’t even know what we don’t know. One practical method to tackle the uncertainty is the Toyota Improvement Kata. It gives us a clear understanding of what we are looking at, what we want to achieve and which are our current obstacles to improve.

This case study doesn’t describe a theoretical exercise but a very hands-on experience with tangible results. By the way, the word kata comes from martial arts. It is the repetition of a movement pattern to achieve perfection.

In our world, it is of course not standing up and trying to repeat a simulation of movements in a fight with an imaginary enemy. Our repetition pattern is about improving processes in a structured and repeatable way towards perfection. The Improvement Kata is a framework that contains a number of practices which can be a bit abstract or academic at first contact. I will try to avoid the academic explanation and instead show the practical usage of the framework in detail in this article. In order to do so, I will quickly walk you through the main concepts of the Improvement Kata.

Building blocks and tools of the improvement kata

At its core, the Improvement Kata is divided into two major phases, a planning phase and an execution phase. In the planning phase, we try to understand the current direction and challenge, grasp the current condition and establish a possible target condition. In the execution phase, we try to get rid of identified obstacles to achieve our target condition. We do this through true experiments.

Practically there are six building blocks to help us. They are by themselves not revolutionary. In fact, they are so simple that it’s almost embarrassing. What makes it special is the combination of them. Bear with me for this quick introduction to these building blocks. I’ll try to keep it as practical as possible and will introduce them through an Improvement Kata Canvas that is similar to the one in the picture below.

A visualisation of the improvement kata

1. PDCA cycle
2. Focus area description
3. Challenge description
4. Current condition
5. Target condition
6. Obstacles

PDCA cycle

At the core of the Improvement Kata lies the PDCA cycle. It’s a 4 step iterative management method. In some articles, it is diminished to help improve processes alone. We have found it to be a valuable tool for product and technology improvements too. If I would need to generalise, I would say it helps to improve anything with unknowns in it. The for letters stand for Plan, Do, Check, Act (sometimes Adjust). If you bother to look up the wiki page you probably don’t get much smarter. At best it makes you lose interest. Here is my own take on what to do with four letters.

Plan: Let’s say you have an improvement opportunity somewhere and plan in simple small steps how to tackle that. At a minimum, you would have an idea about what you want to improve, where you are today, and where you think you would be when you have implemented the small steps in your plan. In this step, you simply set up the stage with a hypothesis. It might look something like this: “I want to improve X by 10%. I believe that changing Y in the planned way will bring that.

Do: Simply try to implement the planned changes. This can sound trivial and at its best it also is. If it becomes complicated or even complex, try to slice down your problem more. Don’t try to swallow the whole elephant in one bite.

Check: When you think you have completed the previous step, you simply check, what happened after the implementation. Note deviations from the plan. What effect did your previous action have and is the outcome the expected one? You probably will find new improvement areas or obstacles to get rid off.

Act/Adjust: You take the learnings from the step before and feed them into the next loop, which starts again with the planning step.

Rinse and repeat until you have reached your goal. I will walk you through the practical application of this later on.

Focus Area or Process (where)

In the previous section, I have explained the core building block of the execution phase in the Improvement Kata, the PDCA cycle. In order to understand the mechanics of the Improvement Kata, we need to move up one abstraction layer. Typically, when we are not happy with the performance of something or face a problem we dive into solution mode and create a list of things that we want to do in order to improve the situation. After all, we are knowledge workers and paid to solve problems. What is often left behind is the explicit statement which tells us in what area or process we are trying to improve. This can be a very simple statement like “Release process” or a more complex one like “Communication patterns between actors in the product development process”. Personally, I like the simple ones more and when I see a complex focus area description, I try to coach the kata designer towards simplification. It is not that difficult. Just have a look at the statement and check if it is tangible. If it smells like academic mambo Jambo you should definitely have a look at it and refine it. A good practice is to test the statement by asking random people, not involved in your work, to see if they understand in what area you want to make improvements. If they don’t, you need to rework the statement. This is not only important because you want others to understand, it also helps you to understand and be really clear about where you are trying to improve. It gives you the needed focus, hence the name Focus Area.

Challenge (what)

Another point that is very often neglected is the actual challenge definition. In the previous section, I described the where. The challenge is about the what. We describe what we want to achieve. It is still without the details but it describes in a sentence where you want to be. It is easy to fall into the trap of being successful by numbers or any other achievement, often on a detailed level. I often ask the people I coach a simple “why?” and lead them to a higher abstraction level. When the answer becomes fuzzy and is not concrete anymore I might suggest to work with the last concrete level and investigate if that is really what the challenge is.

Current Condition

So now we know where we want to improve and what we want to improve. The next step is to understand how the what is performing. That can be a process a product or anything that we want to improve. Often we have only a feeling of things not being right or we have qualitative or anecdotal evidence for the need of improvement. That might be enough to give the impulse to look for an improvement but it is not sufficient to understand if our improvement efforts are going into the right direction. The current condition needs to be based on facts and measured evidence. It also needs to be something your improvement effort has influence over. The more isolated it is the better. It is, for example, difficult to make a structured improvement to a process if that process is changed constantly without your input.

Target condition

Once you understand your current condition and have established metrics for it, you can define a target condition. It simply describes the future *where*. My strong recommendation is to make it something you really can believe in and that you have at least some evidence for that it is achievable. This might be as simple as knowing that someone else has done something similar. Very often your improvement efforts need the support of others or even need to be implemented by others. If you aim too high, others will not support you. You yourself will easily get tired of not achieving your targets. We all love the warm satisfaction of having finished something. So why would you not give yourself the chance of doing this? Don’t get demotivated by aiming too high. On the other hand aiming too low makes work dull and boring. We all love a good challenge where we can learn new things. Something that guides us through unknown territories of knowledge. In other words, don’t make it too easy for you. The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has defined the ideal balance as being in the flow zone. The definition of flow can be applied to many things and I probably will write something about the practical application of it in another article.

Obstacles Backlog (how)

The obstacle parking lot is one of the simplest components of the improvement kata. It is a list of things you think might impede the progress towards improvement. You would prioritise the items in that backlog by criteria that make sense to you (impact, feasibility etc.). This list doesn’t need to be exhaustive and probably shouldn’t be. New obstacles will pop up as learnings when you solve earlier obstacles.

Now you have got a short introduction to the theory of the improvement kata. I briefly explained the different components of the Kata and you should be ready for part two of the series where I show you how we put in in practice.