Flipping Tires

A couple of weeks ago I was talking listening to the owner of a medium-sized manufacturing company as he shared his experience of various “lean” consultants, books, etc.

One of the stories he told was about a kid at football practice. (For my European readers, this is about “American Football.”) The coach had the linemen doing drills that involved flipping over large tractor tires.

Over and over. Wax on, Wax off.

Of course, they weren’t just doing it to flip over big tires. They were learning to get leverage, use the strength of their legs, and the motions of managing momentum.

The kid, though, was complaining about flipping tires and wondering why they just didn’t play.

The danger here is we have people doing the equivalent of sitting in the bleachers watching this football practice. “Ah – they flip tires. We need to flip tires too.”

Right thing, but no context.

What this business owner was, correctly, objecting to was consultants coming in and putting people through tire flipping drills without giving them context… the why? of doing it.

Worse, they had not distinguished between flipping tires and playing the game.

Of course in our continuous improvement worlds, we have to play the game every day, and usually work on our development at the same time.

Still, we need to be clear what things we are doing to facilitate practice and learning, and what it looks like when we are “just doing it.”

Here is a test: Which of these is different from the others:

  1. Hoshin kanri
  2. Kanban
  3. Toyota kata
  4. Standard work
  5. Value Stream Mapping

This may be controversial, but I don’t think “Toyota Kata” belongs on this list.

Toyota Kata is flipping tires. Yes, we are practicing on the field, usually during the game, but it is a method for practice.

The book Toyota Kata and most of the materials out there describe that practice in the context of production systems and process improvement. That works because these are physical processes, and we can see and measure our results.

But Toyota Kata is about learning a habitual thinking pattern. It is the same thinking pattern behind Hoshin kanri. And standard work. And Value stream mapping. And kanban. And leadership development itself.

It is the same thinking pattern behind successful product development, entering new markets, and taking on personal growth and challenge. It is the same thinking pattern behind cognitive therapy.

Don’t confuse Toyota Kata with part of the system. It is how you practice the thinking behind any system (that works). (The same thinking patterns are behind Six-Sigma, Theory of Constraints, TQM, pure research, Toyota Business Practice, Practical Problem Solving, the list goes on.)

The confusion comes in because, in practice, Toyota Kata looks like a tool or part of the system itself. We teach people the theory behind it standard work; we teach people the theory behind Toyota Kata. We go to the shop floor and put it into practice.

The difference is that the standard work is intended to stay there, as a work environment where it is easier to:

  • Define the target condition.
  • See the current condition.
  • Detect obstacles as they occur.
  • Quickly implement isolated changes as experiments and see the results.

Standard work gets into place out of necessity because batching and arbitrary work cycles would be an early obstacle to seeing what is going on.

Kanban does the same thing for materials reorder and movement.

Value stream mapping is a structure for applying the thinking that TK teaches a higher operational context.

Hoshin is a structure for applying the thinking that TK teaches to a strategic context.

I could go on listing just about all of the things in the so-called “toolbox.”

The kids were flipping tires to develop the fundamental skills and strength required for blocking and tackling.

Toyota kata is a structure to develop the fundamental skills required to use any of the “lean tools” correctly.

Hopefully this generated a little thought. Comments anyone?

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