GUIDE 2024

How to Use Improvement Kata to Support Lean?

There’s a well-known term in Japanese martial arts called ‘Kata’. Martial artists use it to memorize and practice various choreographed patterns of movement to develop muscle memory. The idea is to keep practicing a routine until it becomes a habit.

In lean management, the Kata methodology refers to the way organizations adapt, improve, and maintain processes using routines and steps. 

The Toyota Motor Corporation runs on a continuous improvement process through practiced patterns called Improvement Kata. 

In this article, we go over Improvement Kata and its uses in lean management. 

Let’s get started. 

What is Improvement Kata? 

Kata is a Japanese word that translates to form (or way of doing). The term Toyota Kata comes from Mike Rother and his book of the same name. 

Improvement Kata Framework

Credits: Lean Enterprise Institute

The gist of the book is to take note of Toyota’s improvement kata pattern. Companies have the power to make continuous improvements by empowering employees and following structured habits.

Kata is the process of using scientific thinking and consistent practice to enable employees to make incremental improvements every day.

In addition to that, in lean management, there are two behaviors – improvement and coaching.

The improvement kata process is a four-step routine based on continual improvement. The four steps are: 

  1. Determine the direction
  2. Get a grasp on the current condition
  3. Establish the next target condition
  4. Experiment against obstacles (PDCA) 

Coaching kata, on the other hand, is a complete set of routines that allow people to learn improvement kata. 

1. Determine the Direction 

The four-step pattern of Toyota’s success begins with teams developing a clear understanding of the direction or challenge. It starts with a strategic vision that allows the company to better serve its customers.

The challenge needs to have numerical and quantifiable targets and a quantifiable visual description.

To grasp the larger current condition, companies use Value-Stream Mapping, VOC processes, and Gemba Walks.

That helps in establishing an effective challenge and direction.

This challenging goal offers a shared objective for improvement efforts. The strategic vision ensures that such targets at every level of the organization help contribute toward the larger goal. 

Teams then break up the challenge into smaller goals. At each individual level, the challenge translates to a target condition. 

2. Grasp the Current Condition 

After determining the direction or challenge, companies have to paint a picture of their current condition. That includes the current mainstream business practice and the current process of operating.

This requires a process analysis that helps people understand the details of the entire process at each level. Since you have to establish target conditions, it’s imperative to know where you’re starting from. 

Here’s how you define the actual condition: 

  • Utilize Gemba Walks by going through the entire process.
  • Talk with the workers and experts who have the necessary fundamental skills.
  • Define the current condition in quantifiable terms and visualize it. Get an idea of the speed, flow, quality, and simplicity of the processes and capture what’s happening.
  • Utilize kata coaching cycles.
  • Review your results using visual tools.

Engaging in a kata coaching cycle and going through the steps above help the lean readers and learners look beyond any biases. 

3. Establish the Next Target Condition 

Knowing the current conditions allows you to set up achievable and measurable target conditions. It includes three things: 

  • Process Metric: The rate of the task completion 
  • Outcome Metric: The performance outcome of the process you want 
  • Pattern of Operating: The way you want process operations to run to achieve said target conditions 

The target condition must be beyond your current skills and knowledge threshold.

When you have a target condition, all the obstacles you face to reach it become apparent. They are the basis for your rapid experiments in the final phase. 

4. Experiment Against Obstacles to Reach the Target Condition 

After the planning phase, the last step calls for continuous iterations to get to the target condition under a scientific approach. It uses a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) methodology and a structured approach using experimentation.

You test hypotheses, discover new knowledge, go through structure routines, and commit to random improvements.

Every process doesn’t follow the same pattern. At times, new obstacles show up while you’re experimenting.

However, you add it to the list of obstacles. Avoid working on multiple obstacles at the same time to improve efficiency and minimize complexity.

In the end, the achieve-by date of each target condition helps reassert focus. It ensures that processes don’t revert to a default mode, and fosters a scientific problem-solving method, along with a structured routine.

As you conduct experiments and tackle calculated risks, it helps further develop scientific thinking, improve problem-solving skills, and improve manufacturing excellence. 

Supporting Lean with Improvement Kata 

The lean production system makes use of improvement kata and coaching kata for developing skills and meta skills.

It allows people to practice scientific thinking; Kata also strengthens the efficiency of Lean Six Sigma tools and techniques, including: 

  • Value Stream Mapping
  • 5S
  • A3
  • TPM
  • Kanban
  • Standard Work 

Mike Rother’s research shows that continuing with kata routines makes the A3 process more effective.

Furthermore, the Toyota practice guide provides ways of developing logical solutions and discussing them with others.

That said, simple practice routines allow employees to utilize a management approach to daily tasks.

Seeking opportunities for improvement in a random manner seldom works. An organizational culture with a systematic approach to continuous improvement always trumps others. 

Benefits of Using Improvement Kata to Support Lean 

From the starter kata to the final phase of improvement kata, your organization benefits because: 

  • Kata Makes Organizational Operations Efficient: Since Kata refers to and fosters continuous improvement of routines and processes, it makes operations more efficient over time. 
  • Opportunities: Using subtle changes over time, Kata identifies opportunities for growth and helps employees develop new habits. 
  • Costs and Improves Value: Incremental improvements in processes help reduce costs and efforts while optimizing value. 
  • Scientific Thinking: Aiming to problem-solve in a more creative manner allows the practices to become second nature.
  • Motivation: Kata motivates employees to move toward lean solutions and positive change.

Improvement Kata: Final Thoughts 

Improvement Kata is a proactive business approach where organizations improve lean systems. It’s supported by coaching kata where lean leaders and managers teach employees the improvement kata process.

It’s a valuable tool that supports lean philosophy and adopts a goal-oriented approach. 

In doing so, organizations empower themselves to drive positive change and maximize productivity with limited resources. 

Think of Lean as something you’re implementing and Kata as something you’re practicing. When combined, improvement kata drives lean efforts to be more efficient, improving your results. 

Meanwhile, improvement kata also allows you to adopt lean practices faster and empower employees to drive better results. 

Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter is the co-founder of Product HQ, founder of Technical Writer HQ, and founder and head of product of Squibler. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.