Toyota Kata, Team Kata, and Levels of Complexity

Posted on Posted in Coaching, Corporate Culture, Leadership, Lean Culture, Lean Management, Toyota Production System

_LMD3983Implementing lean management, or any other change in the culture of organizations, requires a zoom lens to see the different levels of complexity affecting organization performance. Toyota Kata, lean tools, and other methods operate at some focal lengths and not at others. The well informed manager will have a zoom lens, the ability to understand the long view and the associated complexity, and to use simple methods when appropriate. If you are photographer with only a 300mm lens you will miss a lot of great photos you would get with a wide angle.

Perhaps the only useful meaning of the “corporate ladder” these days is that at the top of the pyramid you should have a wider horizon, a longer term view, and that means an understanding of the complex forces on the horizon and within the organization. A focus on the simple and here-and-now is most useful at the first operating levels of the organization. But, organization performance requires more than that. It requires the long term view of complex dynamics.

Our global society is complex. It overlays national borders, religions, ethnicity, ideology and global systems of commerce and communication that largely disregard national boundaries. It is a characteristic of the popular culture to seek simplicity in false dichotomies of left and right, good and evil, my team versus the “other guys” team. We are seduced by the simple. These simplifications blind one to the reality of how cultures and economies function. Solutions are not always simple.

The Toyota Kata

Mike Rother has done an admirable job in his Toyota Kata of defining a core process of coaching performance improvement at Toyota. It is a very direct and simple focus on “what’s the performance, what are you doing about it, and what are you learning.” Rather than deal with larger principles or complex organizational systems, it focuses on what you can control right now. You might compare it to “blocking and tackling” in football. A lot of competition is won by the consistent execution of fundamentals.

The five questions of the Toyota Kata are the following:

  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 and which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step or experiment and what do you expect to happen?
  5. How quickly can we find out what we have learned from taking that step?

The direction of these question is not bottom-up, but clearly top-down, with an assumption that the leader has a clear goal and the subordinate should be improving performance to meet that goal. It is not participative management.

Mike argues that the same questions should be asked, even though they will seem repetitious, over and over again. There is certainly value in repetition and asking these same questions over and over again will get folks focused on what they can do immediately to improve. That is all good.

However, if your goal is to build skills, to change patterns of behavior in the culture, for how long is it sensible to ask the same questions over and over again? Building skills is different. It requires a progression from the simple to the more complex.

Imagine that you are training young boys (or girls) to play baseball and assume they start by knowing nothing. Your first questions to them may be “Where’s your glove, where’s the ball, and where’s the bat?” You might then ask about the role of the pitcher versus the catcher versus the shortstop. You might then ask the shortstop what he does in different play situations – bases loaded and a bunt, for example. Now imagine that you just kept asking the question “Where’s your glove, where’s the ball and where’s the bat?” I suspect that the player would walk away mumbling that his coach was insane.

As skills develop, the behavior becomes more complex and the appropriate guidance and questions change given the level of skill or the nature of the task. In my early behavior modification days there was the concept of “shaping behavior” – reinforcing successive approximations toward a terminal skill; and the concept of “chaining behavior” in which you break a skill, typing for example, into small component parts such as the movement of the two index fingers, practice those repetitively, then chain them together with other specific practiced responses into a chain that comprises a more complex skill. In other words, there is a series of simple katas (practice patterns), leading toward a more complex skill.

Toyota Kata is not about building complex skills. It is about developing a mindset of improving immediate performance. Necessary, but  not sufficient. Lean culture involves both simple patterns and complex skills. The skills implied in the lean problem solving methods are not simple. The skill of analyzing data, trends and statistical meaning, are not simple. And, the skills of working well in teams, facilitating, resolving conflicts, and building positive team dynamics are not simple skills. They are all, however, comprised of a chain of simple skills. Plotting a graph is a relatively simple skills. Plotting standard deviations is a bit more complex. Understanding control limits and causation are again more complex.

Cycles of Learning
Click to see more clearly

 The Team Kata

The Toyota Production System, or any high performing culture is built on the effectiveness of small groups. The effectiveness of a society is built on a foundation of cohesive families that are the first learning organization where we learn to work together and solve problems. Teams serve the identical purpose in organizations. They are the foundation of lean organization and the team is where the culture is embedded.

Team Kata1My goal in Team Kata is to break the complex skills, within a culture of high performance, down into a series of relatively simple skills and chain them together to form that high performing culture. This is in no way contradictory of the Toyota Kata (Mike Rother and I have discussed this and agreed on this point). It is different and dealing with a different level of complexity of both skill building and complexity of cultural behavior.

The above graphic illustrates the increasing levels of complexity from the focus on individual behavior (Toyota Kata), to the focus on group behavior (Team Kata), to a strategic focus on organizational systems and structure (Whole-System Architecture). All three of them employ the process of experimentation and a focus on data. You can think of each one as expanding circles of PDCA. But their timeline and scope are very different.

If the goal is to change the culture we must understand that the culture is embedded in the habits, the katas, of small groups. Changing individual behavior alone will almost never change the cultural norms.

There is another, perhaps uncomfortable, fact that motivates my interest in the Team Kata. Just because Toyota does or does not do something does not make it necessarily right or wrong for your organization. Toyota is not God and it is not the world’s best model for quality of work life, engagement of people, or even their own respect for people. There are dozens of companies that are far superior at engaging employees, encouraging innovation and creating a high quality of work life. They are more likely to be found in technology and service industries where innovation and individual initiative are far more important to organization success, than in repetitive manufacturing. You need look no further than Apple, Google and Facebook. They are also much more reliant on the work of teams.

The Team Kata involves very direct simple tasks, and coaching questions, but the questions are not the same five questions. Rather, they are questions related to the level of skill development and specific to the task being learned. If you are training a shortstop to execute the double-play on the baseball field, you don’t ask him “where is your glove?” You ask questions about “if the ball is hit between you and third base, which way do you move, and after you have thrown to second, what position do you cover?” Those are questions related to the specific task to be learned at that time. Similarly, if a team has just completed the learning module in Team Kata on developing standard work and leader standard work, the questions are directly related to the assigned tasks.

You can see a complete picture of all the Team Kata tasks and coaching questions by downloading this PDF: Team Kata Coaching Map. One page of it looks like the following:

Learning-Coaching Map - 3Whole-System Architecture

Whole Systems2I have heard a lean thought leader express the idea that in implementing lean culture you should not address the structure and systems of the organization. In my view, you can’t get there without examining the systems and structures. Unfortunately, most lean change agents are not willing, or do not have the influence in the hierarchy, to address the reality that many systems work counter to the desired culture and many of the structures are legacies of the culture you are trying to change. The failure to change them assures that these systems and structure will pose resistance to the desired culture.

Neither Toyota Kata nor Team Kata are strategic planning processes. Neither is Hoshin Kanri which is an annual planning process and does not examine the fundamentals of the business or organization. They are concerned with improving performance within the context of the current organizational system and current capabilities of the organization. However, every organization lives on a landscape and that landscape is comprised of changing markets, technologies, and other external factors which are all in motion. The truth is that the automotive business is relatively stable compared to technology and even healthcare. Cars haven’t gone from a mainframe, to a personal computer, to laptop, and tablet, and now a computer disguised as a watch. Most organizations succeed by rapid adaptation to change in the external environment and then the requirement of aligning internal systems and structure to new requirements. Most lean practitioners completely and conveniently ignore these organization dynamics.

Whole-System Architecture (see Getting to Lean) addresses an entirely different level of complexity and the questions it asks are entirely different. For example: Do you understand how changes in technology and markets will impact your organization over the next five years? Do your work processes, technology and equipment meet the needs of your customers given the expected changes? Do your managers and employees have the skills they will need to make your organization competitive given future external requirements? Do your information systems enable managers and employees to perform at the optimum level? And, does your organization structure facilitate or enable the core work process, or does it create interruptions and waste?

You can probably imagine dozens of other questions that define both the technical and social systems of your organization. These are strategic, not tactical. They do not represent short term fixes, but strategic competitive advantage.

Many lean practitioners may think these questions are beyond the scope of lean management and culture. I disagree. On the contrary, I think they are the heart of lean management and culture. Toyota, Honda and others, have very different technical and social systems and these result in a very different economic system.

I believe that lean leaders and lean change agents must be able to think and act at all three levels of complexity. None are either right or wrong, but are rather complementary.

4 thoughts on “Toyota Kata, Team Kata, and Levels of Complexity

  1. On the Toyota Way LinkedIn group, Jeff Liker made the following comment in reply to my post above. It is worth reading:

    Jeff Liker
    Liker Lean Advisors

    Larry and I have had many discussions of his view of Toyota Kata. Larry comes from a whole system change background based on socio-technical systems and later learned about lean. Personally I have focused more on using Toyota as a case study to derive learning, combined with what I know from organizational studies and industrial engineering and did study socio-technical systems theory, which is based on open-systems theory, starting back in the 1970s. It is a rich and valid intellectual tradition.

    As Larry says, operational excellence is not a strategy. It can enable a strategy which has to be developed at the whole organization level. Hoshin kanri is a means of translating the strategy into concrete actions that get distributed to different parts of the organization for leadership and accountability. Toyota has a global vision for each decade, driven by a long-term overall vision for the company. That is broken down into 5 year business plans, an annual hoshin kanri process, and ultimately objectives and plans for achieving those objectives for every manager in the company down to the supervisor.

    We need vision for where we are headed, concrete directions which are measurable, the breakdown to goals throughout the company, and ultimately individual leaders with clear objectives. As a number of blogs on this site have noted, there is a difference between management by objectives and hoshin kanri. MBO is cascading of objectives and then managers work to make the numbers. HK is a more detailed planning process to think not only about the desired outcomes but also the process of getting there. Some have called this management by means. That translation process and then the execution of how we achieve the objectives is what Toyota Kata focuses on.

    What Mike Rother observed, and I agree, is that people are remarkably bad at it. They go after the objectives with quick solutions that they implement and then somehow strong managers manage to make the numbers. But if you look at their processes they are broken and not followed. If you look at their people, they are working in many directions fighting fires and not being developed. If you look at the leaders themselves they have anything but a systematic process of working toward the desired objectives

    The Improvement kata is to teach a mindset of improvement. How can we take a general direction based on broad goals and turn it into an actionable process of learning our way to the goal through experimentation. The reason for the experimentation is because the world is complex enough that we do not know how to get from where we are to the desired outcomes–referred to by Rother as the Zone of Uncertainty. If we think we have the solutions and implement them we will be wrong almost ll the time. We will be making assumptions without evidence and experience at the gemba.

    Since most people are bad at systematic improvement baed on a scientific process, they need to unlearn bad habits and learn good habits. We know that unlearning and learning require a lot of repetition especially when unlearning bad habits. The IK is designed to give us the practice routines that we can practice for a short time every day to begin to change our neural pathways and learn a scientific approach to improvement. As beginners we cannot see our own weaknesses in following the scientific method so we need help which comes from coaching and there is a kata for them as well so they can learn systematically how to coach.

    When you have the basic mindset and the improvement kata becomes natural then you can begin to advance toward mastery. That will take years and few organizations have gotten seriously started on this journey. Eventually even at the level of strategy for the whole system we will think scientifically and recognize the limitations of our current knowledge so your strategy will be tested and verified. Impatience will stop our progress.

  2. Lawrence M. Miller
    Team Kata & Transformational Change Management

    I agree with everything Jeff said in his comment. I think this discussion represents a maturing of the field of lean. By that I mean that in the early days of discovering a methodology it is often taken as a new Gospel, with disciples who see it as the one and only way. Then, with experience, a lot of trial and error, the wisdom of integration becomes evident.

    I think we are all learning and integrating lean with different methodologies and this can only strengthen lean practices. In my graphic of levels of complexity I see the entire continuum pointing to the implementation of the Toyota Way.

  3. Jeff Liker

    Larry, I agree that the early stages of applying lean focused on copying Toyota solutions, often with religious zeal. People often would ask me if they are copying correctly. The truth is that they should not have been copying at all but rather improving themselves and their processes through a sound scientific method. The Toyota people always told me that problem solving was at the heart of TPS and by that they meant PDCA to systematically improve and become a learning organization. There also is a lot of confusion about the connection between operational excellence and strategy and efforts to eliminate waste are typically disconnected from any strategic priorities. On the other hand those who jump to whole system change, like mapping the enterprise and trying to make enterprise-wide change, without the skills to systematically improve anything get lost often building complex models and then through edicts trying to get people to fall in line with their vision.

  4. Lawrence M. Miller

    Jeff, I agree. Both the skills of continuous improvement, the PDCA process of experimentation at both the individual and team level, are required. When to address systems and structure requires some assessment. I have had cases in which the basic processes and structure around those processes was so broken that it was truly a “burning platform” and the organization would not survive without significant redesign. But, that is not normal. Most organizations can ask system questions like “do the right people get the right information in the best way” after, or as, they are developing the habits of PDCA. I haven’t come up with a scientific way of judging when the most appropriate time is to address systems and structure issues. It is a judgement call.

    Your last sentence above gets to a very critical issue which is “how” you address those more strategic factors. Too often it is consultants who come up with enterprise wide changes, recommend new systems and structure, leave behind a three-ring binder, and nothing happens or there is not the internal understanding and ownership to make those changes stick. Then senior managers issue “edicts” and it becomes a mess. This violates the basic idea of PDCA, which is that those who “do” must “own” the experiment, must be willing to try it, and then make rapid adjustments or improvements. This can only happen if those “with their hands on”, at the Gemba are involved in designing and implementing those changes.

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