_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.