Formal Definition of Kata
Kata is a term used to describe how Toyota uses a formal approach to train its employees (AKA 'learners') improve their continuous improvement (CI) skills. This article addresses 5 questions to use when talking with people on the shop floor to use the kata approach to improve processes without all of the formality.  It steps the learner through the process of improvement  in a natural easy-to-use way that helps them build their skills.


The term 'Kata' is a Japanese word often used in martial arts to describe patterns of movement that are practiced in order to make them ingrained in the individual.  Mike Rother, a noted Lean thinker, uses the term ‘Kata’ to describe how Toyota trains its people in CI thinking - always looking for a better way to set up a work area or to perform a particular task or reduce errors and improve the velocity of the process.   The diagram below shows the basic steps of Kata as a CI tool.  The idea is that once you get to step 4 you start all over again to strive for CI.

The Overall Flow of Kata


Each person using Kata is considered a ‘learner’ and there is a formal approach that a ‘coach’ or mentor would use with each learner during a coaching session to strengthen the learner’s skills in CI. It starts with defining a current condition, a future state ,or “target” condition, and then identifying obstacles preventing us from reaching the target condition today. The formal approach uses forms to be filled out and displayed on a project display board that is regularly updated and reviewed with the coach to drive continuous improvement.

Kata in the Real World
 Rother has plenty of material available for download on his website to help implement a formal Kata program in any company.  However, I have delivered Kata training to several companies and it seems to fizzle out after an initial period of enthusiasm.  Often people say they do not have time to to follow the formal process. Of course, the reality is that Kata can reduce the “whirlwind” of daily activity that everyone sees in business these days.  The whirlwind includes meetings, reports, emails, and other problems that all must be dealt with “urgently”.

Additionally, when talking to operators about Kata and trying to implement on the shop floor, sometimes people are suspicious that they are being watched and assessed, something most people don’t like so there can be resistance, as well as lack of time or company commitment for the formal approach.

Instead, here is a series of 5 questions that utilize the spirit of Kata, but is much less formal, gets people’s buy-in faster and is easier to use.  Especially for use with people without much formal CI training who are doing the job regularly, these questions are ones they have probably thought about and have answers to.  It enables us to take advantage of the expert knowledge being wasted by the people doing the job on a daily basis.

The questions are as follows:

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if we could……?
  2. What’s stopping us from doing it today?
  3. What if we tried “x” to make the situation better?
  4. How did the change work out?
  5. What should we work on next?

Question 1:  “Wouldn’t it be great if we could……?”

This question is a simple one for imagining a target condition or future state.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could set up a machine in half the time, or improve first pass yield to 95% or reduce cycle time to produce a product?  It helps set a target or a filter that can be used to see if proposed activities actually achieve the purpose of this first question.

Question 2:  “What’s stopping us from doing it today?”

This questions acknowledges that there may be obstacles to prevent setup times from being what they are now.  Some obstacles could be that needed hand tools are not adjacent to the work center, or the perennial hunt for the right tooling or clamps or fixtures because they could be anywhere in the facility - usually the last place somebody else used the tools.

A simple listing on a flip chart of the problems or ‘obstacles’ can lead the discussion in a logical manner, rather than becoming just a list of complaints with no solutions.  The outcome of this question would be a list of all the obstacles currently preventing the target condition laid out in the first question.

Question 3: “What if we tried ‘x’ to make the situation better?”

This question helps spark a discussion on potential countermeasures to overcome the obstacles listed in the previous question.  We work on one obstacle at a time by using common sense and Lean principles to reduce the waste inherent in the obstacle.  Once the obstacle is overcome then we move on to the next one and work to eliminate that.

The intent is to try one countermeasure at a time and see how it impacts progress toward the target condition. For instance, if hand tools or tooling are missing, 5S principles and dedicated storage locations will reduce the time needed to set up a machine.  Also, principles of setup reduction can be applied to reduce setup time in a variety of ways. Operators doing the job every day would be involved in planning and implementing the changes.  This is the way they learn the principles of continuous improvement (CI).

  Diagram of the Path of the Improvement KataImprovementKata

Question 4:  “How did the change work out?”  

This question is a variation on PDCA to see if the change got us closer to achieving the target condition outlined in the first question.  It enables frank discussion on the results of the change, ie, no effect, positive effect, or possibly it made things worse. Subsequent actions would depend on the answer to this question.  If the change helped, then we would see if there are other opportunities to completely eliminate the obstacle(s) listed in question #2. 

 The changes or countermeasures implemented are referred to as experiments in the diagram above.  We don't know exactly what will happen if we make a change.  The process could be better or remain the same.  Or, we might have introduced a different obstacle.  For instance, if we speed up one portion of a process, we may now have issues with feeding that process with WIP.  We might have to make other changes to make sure the improved process always has something to work on.  And we would continue applying countermeasures until that obstacle is overcome and then move on to the next obstacle.

Question 5:  “What should we do next?”  

This question allows us to evaluate if we still need to work on the obstacle under discussion, or move onto another obstacle and reapply Questions 3-5 until the next obstacle is removed.  We would stay on this cycle until the target condition is reached. We could then reapply the 5 Questions to create another target condition that gets us closer to the vision.

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