The Improvement Kata PDCA Cycles Record

The improvement kata has four major steps:

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Those steps provide a structured pattern to enable consistent practice until they are unconscious and natural.

In the fourth step, “Iterate Toward the Target Condition” we have a form, called the PDCA Cycles Record that provides an additional level of structure for the improver / learner and the coach.

This is the PDCA Record form from Mike Rother’s Improvement Kata Handbook (click the link to go to his download page):

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The columns in the form correspond with the “5 Questions” that are part of the Coaching Kata.

The intent is that as the coach asks the questions, the learner points to and reads his answers. In the 5 Questions, it is the “Reflection” (on the back of the coaching card) and question #4 that address the PDCA Cycles Record.

Let’s look at how this form structures the learner’s process.

The very first experiment or trial that the learner sets up is based on his understanding of the current condition and the obstacles he is facing. He selects an obstacle, decides what he should do first, and fills that step in Column 1 “Date, step & metric.”

He must think a bit and also fill in “What do you expect?” and describe what effect he expects to have on the process (or what he expects to learn) as a result of taking that step.

Then he hits the yellow bar in the middle of the form. It says “Do a Coaching Cycle.” Do not pass this point without checking in with your coach.

The coach, this time around, is going to ask the 5 Questions, but skip the reflection step, because there is no previous step to reflect on. The coach is (or should be) looking for things like (these are by no means inclusive, rather they just came to mind as I’m writing this):

  • Is the obstacle actually something which must be worked out, or something which must be learned to reach the target? Or is it just a “to do” item? He may ask some follow-on questions to clarify the connection.
  • Is the “Next Step” actually something which addresses the obstacle? Does it reflect a step into “unknown territory” that includes learning?
  • Is the expected outcome a logical consequence of taking the step being proposed? Does it have something to do with the obstacle?

By having the learner write down his intent prior to the coaching cycle, the coach can see how the learner is thinking without biasing that process. He can see if the learner is off track. If so, it’s pretty simple to erase, or even scratch out, the planned experiment and revise during the coaching session.

But either way, as  coach, I want to see the learner’s best effort before I influence or correct it. That is MY process for “grasping the current condition” and even checking the result of a previous experiment on my part by emphasizing something specific during the last coaching cycle.

Once the learner is good-to-go, the NEXT yellow bar says “Conduct the Experiment.” This is the “DO” of PDCA.

Once he is done, the learner is expected to write down his observations in the “What Happened” column, then reflect, and write down what he learned in the “What We Learned” column.

THEN, based on what he learned, plan the next step. So, move down a row, and fill in block #1 with the next step, and block #2 with the expected result.

Then he hits that yellow STOP bar again. This time the coach is going to ask the reflection questions on the back of the card – reviewing the last step and expectation, and then covering the new information: What actually happened; What did you learn; Based on that, what is your next step; and what result do you expect from taking that step?

My job as the coach is to make sure the learner can connect the dots. I want him to write all of that down before I talk to him.

I have to see the learner’s “actual condition now” before I can effectively coach him.

Why Am I Talking About This?

I have run into a few cases now where I have gone into an organization with some prior training or experience with Toyota Kata. They have asked me in to do some additional training, or coach them to the next level because they think they are “stuck.”

In a couple of those cases, I have observed a deliberate* practice of filling out the blocks on the PDCA record during the coaching cycle. Their intent seems to be for the learner to be guided by the coach as he fleshes out what actually happened; what was learned; the next step or experiment; and what is expected and writes those things on the form.

This is very effective if the intent is for the learner to “get it right.”

But from a coaching standpoint, I feel (and this is my opinion) that this practice deprives me of information I need to ascertain how the learner would do it on his own.

I also believe it runs the risk of building a dependency on the coach, and shift the psychological responsibility off the learner – it is easy to fall into the “tell me what to do” trap unless the coach is experienced enough to avoiding “leading the witness” during the coaching cycle.

In most organizations, the hierarchy that likely exists between the coach and the learner has a deeply seated habit of the boss having the answers. I want to avoid reinforcing this dynamic.

A Caveat for Brand New Beginners

When the learner is going through the Toyota Kata steps the first few times, he won’t know what to do. It is completely appropriate for the coach to demonstrate, and guide, the learner through his steps. But the organization should not confuse this effort with the intended pattern of the improvement kata.

As soon as the learner has shown that he understands the intent of the process steps, it is time for the coach to step back and let the learner try it on his own. “Take a few swings” to use a spots metaphor.

That gives the coach the best opportunity to see where he needs to focus his effort. And the PDCA record may well be scratched out, revised, or rewritten in the process. It’s OK for it to be messy. That’s what learning looks like.

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*This is different from a case where the learner simply isn’t prepared for the coaching cycle and hasn’t filled in the forms or even thought about what to put on them.

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