Often Skipped: Understand the Challenge and Direction

I’ve been practicing, teaching (and learning) the Toyota Kata for about four years now, and I’m seeing some pervasive patterns that are getting in people’s way of making it work.

The one I’d like to address today is skipping over “Understand the Direction.”

As designed by Mike Rother, the Improvement Kata has four basic steps:


Graphic © Mike Rother  (click on the graphic to download the Improvement Kata Handbook)

This fact (that there are four steps) is often lost on beginning practitioners. They tend to associate “Toyota Kata” only with the “Five Questions” of the Coaching Kata, which guide Step 4 (above). On the surface, that is understandable, because we hear the coaching cycles a lot more frequently, and they are a hallmark of the kata principle.

But we (hopefully) wouldn’t think of jumping right into the Five Questions until the answer to “What is your target condition?” is something more definitive than “To improve this process.”  (We only used to do that, right? hmmm.)

One of the reasons to set a clear target condition is to get away from general “waste safari” improvement efforts, and focus the improver’s attention on what must be done to get to the next level.

Without a sense of direction, it is easy for the improver to see every improvement opportunity (or none of them), and get locked up trying to find a way to fix them all.

It’s frustrating for everyone, because little progress is made, and those improvements that are made have a tough time finding their way to any higher level meaning.

Someone, long ago, pointed out to me that the geometric figure “frustum” seems to have the same Latin root as “frustration.” This is the graphic that comes to mind:


Though the concept of a clear target condition is fairly easy to get across, organizations seem to get locked into a cycle of Steps 2, 3 and 4 without ever going back to Step 1, except in the most general terms.

Here’s what I think happens:

When an organization is just getting started, we’ve commonly told them to pick an area to practice, based on quick cycles and other practice criteria, and get to learning the improvement kata, striving toward a general challenge like one-by-one flow.

That pattern of seeking improvement opportunities gets engrained, and it is hard to shift off it and start to set clear direction and challenges. Further, it is very similar to the “old way” of planning kaizen events where the goal is to “implement lean tools” … like one-by-one flow.

Setting that direction also seems to run counter to the idea of empowered workers are in the best position to know what to work on. (It doesn’t, in fact direction is required for this to really take hold.)

In another sense, though, the Challenge for one level is, in reality, the Target Condition (or at least a major obstacle) for the level above. If I am asking the VP-Operations what his target condition is, I am going to hear things that sound a whole lot like a Challenge for the next level down.

And if the senior leaders don’t have a clear sense of where they are trying to take the organization next… what is their scope of their responsibility?

What to do differently?

(It might help if the leadership team themselves got a coach.)

1) Be clear that your initial sessions are practice drills. You are not yet playing the game, or even a scrimmage. You are flipping tires. Be conscious that this is a transitory learning stage.

2) Establish a target condition for proficiency you are striving for in your practice. Check it weekly against your current condition. This is the job of the advance / steering team.

Challenge Light

For the first pass, it isn’t necessary to dig headlong into hoshin planning, and in many cases, you can issue a compelling challenge with a theme.

Look at what is bugging your customers about your current operation, and challenge yourself to fix it.

For example, one client had lead times and response times that were getting longer and longer, so the challenges issued by the leadership team revolved around lead time and removing “sources of delay.”

Another company had rework and quality escapes going out of control. Their first step was to “grasp the current condition” and identify where these problems were happening.


Each dot represents the origin of a defect or rework. (The colors don’t mean anything, they ran out of red, then orange, then yellow dots.) (You can see exit cycle run charts taped up there as well.)

This gave them a quick picture of where to focus their attention, and which leaders they needed to challenge, and then coach, through the process of improving their quality.

Note that for these guys, integrating the flow of material and information though the plant isn’t a target condition, or even a challenge yet. It is in the vision, but the first priority is simply to ship what the customer ordered, and then to only make the product once to do so.

By the way, profit is measurably up, rework instances have been cut by about 3/4 from the starting point, and they are well on their way.

3 thoughts on “Often Skipped: Understand the Challenge and Direction

  1. Thanks for your many excellent posts Mark. I would love to see some explanation of the differences of Hoshin Kanri (HK) and Toyota Kata (TK). HK seems to suggest I reach long term objectives (vision) through short term initiatives/projects as if I can (should?) know the steps. TK says I don’t know the way to reach my long term vision, so I limit focus to next target condition and experiment (repeatedly) toward the vision.

    Seems contradictory to me. What am I missing?


  2. Good post!

    Every time I think I might write something, like say how people get focused on the coaching questions and forgets the four steps, I find that you have already written a great explanation.

    Shared and liked!

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