Kata: Toyota’s Kata Karate Concept for Continuous Improvement

5 Min Read
Kata: Toyota's Kata Karate Concept for Continuous Improvement

Finding lean methods that work for your company is one thing. However, maintaining their effectiveness is a whole different ball game. This problem is a common one across organisations. Continuous improvements don’t come easy, and this is why most enterprises end up with failed lean. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though. 

Toyota is one company that proves that. For years, the enterprise has posted successful outcomes that have made it a blueprint in lean methodologies. Kata is one of the principles Toyota uses that other organisations can adopt. The approach encourages skill and team growth, which provides various benefits for companies in different industries.

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What is Kata?

Kata  (型 or 形)  is Japanese and translates to a way of doing.’ The term can refer to patterns, routine or training for constant daily improvement. Using a scientific thinking process to focus on and establish problem-solving patterns.

Kata practices aim to help develop a new habit or skill. 

It has its origins in Karate. Kata in martial arts is used to instil patterns of movement, to be practised alone but also in groups. The concept defines the act of repeating certain moves until they become second nature vital for mastering the methodology.

Toyota Kata Continuous Improvement

Kata evolution into the business world and continuous improvement began with the automotive manufacturer, Toyota.

Mike Rother came up with this definition after observing Toyota for six years of learning how to embed continuous improvement and implementing it into processes.  He documented in his research Toyota Kata Research and published a book (2009) called Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior based on  – putting the “principles” of the Toyota Learn Manufacturing and Production System (TPS) into action.

After WWII, Toyota enjoyed great success at a time when most companies were failing. So, American experts went to study how the corporation was able to do it. They then applied those lessons to American companies. However, after a while, the methods were not effective. 

Surprisingly, Toyota was still succeeding, and that is because it adjusted its processes to solve the same problems. This is what the Toyota Kata Karate principle is all about. Whether used in martial arts, or in business, the principles of Kata remain the same.

Once a company finds a working solution, it needs to adjust it to suit the evolving circumstances. Continuous improvement is about flexibility. It requires you to leverage the lessons learnt along the way to create better methods. The system had two-forms – improvement and coaching.

Understanding The Kata Principle

The Kata improvement type involves scientific thinking where an organisation focuses on established problem-solving patterns. 

Toyota Kata focuses on making small changes over time by encouraging team members to take action when they feel required. This empowers everyone to make continuous improvements to business processes and incorporates learning as a daily habit.

Kata is broken into two components, linked behaviours “Learner” and “Coaches”.

Two behaviours:

Improvement Kata: Learner
Coaching Kata: Coaches

Learners work with a set of practice and routines and then review results with a Kata Coach. Identifying what has been done, what has been learnt in the process, and what are the next steps and potential improvements until it has become a habit.

Learners are crucial to applying improvements in the process for which they are responsible but without the help of coaches a learner may not be following the right way, the correct pattern, so practising ineffectively. 

Kata Scientific Thinking

What is the scientific thinking process? Scientific thinking is the intentional coordination between:

Theory: What we predict will happen
Observation: What we observed that actually happened
Adjustment: Making adjustments based on what is learned from the difference

Summarising scientific thinking withing its four-step model the Improvement Kata. Giving you the steps to identify a baseline of knowledge by experimenting, learning, and adapting.

Neuroscience explains that our thought patterns become set with repetition and why learning something new often feels difficult, slow, and inefficient. We need to learn how to do it and then practice it over and over again until it becomes a new habit.

Kata Improvement Process

Kata improvement process is about developing solutions rather than specifying the solution using a scientific approach to problem-solving.

It is broken into a number of steps to work through to complete the cycle. It has a planning stage where you need to determine goals and review your current position. 

Then moving on to execution where you put the plan in motion. The execution might require various experiments. During this time, you will learn what works and what doesn’t. Establishing the next condition of the process allows for learning and iterative experimentation without the pressure of the next step demanding to be “right.”

Removing that “fear of failure” from the process and encouraging experimenting and improvement will stop people from only taking steps that they are certain to succeed.  Shedding this limit changes peoples mindset about themselves so stops severely limiting capability for innovation and continuous improvement.

Then comes the adaptation where you take everything achieved in the previous stage and adopt it for the next cycle and conditions.

Four-step Kata model “Improvement Kata.”

Improvement Kata is about repeating four-step process:

Four-step Kata model “Improvement Kata.”

  • Determine direction, vision or challenge: What are you trying to achieve and where do you want to be? Understand the direction needed, what the longer-term vision is, and be clear on what the challenges are.
  • Understand the current condition: Where are we now? Establish where you are at now and define the current situation based on facts. Document business processes and analysis of key process metrics.
  • Establish next target condition: Determine next step goals. These need to stretch and provide a challenge to where current capabilities and knowledge are and where you want to be to move towards the challenge. Set a time frame and date when the challenge will be accomplished.
  • Conduct experiments to move forward: Conduct experiments scientifically and methodically to establish your goal.

Coaching Kata 5 Foundation Questions

The coaching system is where you have a coach helping learners implement solutions correctly and prevent them from reverting to old methods.

The coach observes, reviews and directs accordingly. This approach offers a way of mentoring team members for personal improvement. Therefore, it requires them to ask questions to gauge where different team members are. 

Five Kata Questions “Coaching Kata.”

  • What is the target condition?
  • What is the current condition of the process? What was your last step? What did you expect? What actually happened? What did you learn?
  • What obstacles are preventing you from reaching the target goals and conditions? Which are you addressing now?
  • What is the next step?  What do you expect? (PDCA cycle)
  • When can we see what you have learnt? 

An important part of the cycle is to offer feedback so others can know where to improve. The coach gives input, corrects where needed, and the learner continues using information and new input.

Enabling learners to later move on to becoming coaches and helping others improve. The coaching principle promotes individual growth.

Kata Lean Six Sigma

Kata doesn’t compete with Lean six sigma but actually supports and strengthens the effectiveness of the tools and technique. Both offer powerful methodologies for developing the skills of problem-solving and using scientific thinking.

Because the method doesn’t compete with other lean systems, you can easily pair it with other approaches. 

The improvement part strongly incorporates the scientific problem-solving method of PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act)–sometimes known as PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) to help with the continuous improvement process to incorporate into a daily routine or form a habit.

The Benefits of Kata Approach in Business

It equips every individual to facilitate continuous improvements and develop lean management behaviours. Hence, the responsibility doesn’t fall on the management alone.

Fine-tune Operations: Employees at all levels can implement solutions to improve daily processes. As everyone at a company does this, habits form and after a while, continuous improvement becomes second nature to the entire staff.

Collaboration and Motivation for Change: Another advantage of implementing this lean methodology is that it drives workers to leverage opportunities. As employees look for ways to improve, they will watch for any available chances. Therefore, a company will reduce wasted opportunities and increase innovation.

Skills and Knowledge: The system allows employees to acquire valuable skills that they can apply in multiple scenarios. It is what qualifies as a ‘meta skill.’ Your knowledge is not restricted to a specific problem or situation. Therefore, workers can apply it successfully in different areas.

Cost Reduction and Efficiency: Lowering costs whilst still delivering high value is critical for businesses.

Research into the business methodology in a clinic situation. Pediatric Urology: Optimizing value utilizing Toyota Kata methodology in a multidisciplinary clinic. Where they achieved a reduction of 69% in clinic preparation costs. 

These results show what can be achieved by implementing Toyota Kata methodology to enhance operational efficiency and how it can be used in health and hospital as well as business settings.

Kata Continuous Improvement

Kata requires deliberate, repetitive practices applied, again and again, to learn and eventually master. Helping businesses and organisations improve and adapt.

Kata facilitates improvement in every process every day. It has no limits as every employee from management to cleaners are encouraged to make daily improvements.

If your company is struggling with continuous improvements, kata is one approach that can make a difference. It can help your company get where it needs to be. The beauty of the system is that it can fit into any sector.

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