KataCon 2017: Day 0

KataCon officially starts tomorrow as I write this but today was a couple of pre-events and I learned a few things worth sharing. These are from my notes.

Common failure modes for continuous improvement / kata:

Note that these titles and words are not necessarily what I heard in the presentation. They are my notes and interpretations, along with my own similar experiences.

Resistance from a support organization.

The presenter talked about a case where a manager was having great success applying the Toyota Kata thinking pattern, and improving quality in the process. However the corporate quality department didn’t see the records, paperwork, etc. in the format they expected and caused a lot of problems.

I have actually seen this myself in the case of a factory in a multi-plant company. A plant manager figured out good flow pretty much on his own and got there without kaizen events, and without the direct participation from the corporate “lean promotion office.” Very senior people from the LPO engaged in a subtle (and not subtle) campaign to discredit the success. Ultimately the plant manager ended up leaving the company for elsewhere.

In another case I counseled a local C.I. manager in a larger company to “make what you are doing look like what the corporate C.I. office expects to see.” By renaming some forms and using their jargon to describe what he was doing (even though it was a little different), he was able to protect his approach.

SHOULD anyone have to do this? NO!!! But sometimes it is necessary.

Key Point: Understand the political environment and develop countermeasures just like you would for any other obstacle. It doesn’t help to get made about it. Just deal with it.

Consultant as Surrogate Leader

In this “Fail” the external consultant was chartered to provide coaching to a couple of junior-level managers by the owner of the company who did not participate. Needless to say this can result in political problems as well, especially for the managers being trained when they start doing things differently than what the owner is used to seeing. (What did he think was going to happen?) Again: If you are a practitioner / consultant (internal OR external) be aware of this kind of situation.

Spotlight Showed Problems

The improvement effort begins with a deep look at the current condition. This inevitably makes issues visible that were previously hidden. Again, if the culture / politics of the organization are not friendly to revealing problems, the ground work needs to be laid first.

The Guru Model

The “Guru Model” is pretty common – actually relates to everything above, especially the first topic. If you are working on developing these skills in the line leadership, it can dilute the status of the experts – who may or may not be as truly competent as they claim. We are seeing a shift away from a model of doing what the expert tells us to, and toward a model of learning to figure it out ourselves. The second model is far more flexible and works in almost any situation. We need to let go of the idea of seeking “the answers” from Gurus, and embrace that we need to learn how to figure them out.

“Doing Lean” with a challenge of “Getting Lean”

Don’t be a solution in search of a problem. The traditional approach has been to have “lean program” that pushes deploying tools and models that resemble a snapshot of a benchmark company such as Toyota. That implementation becomes an end unto itself. In the example discussed, the target company was doing fine in the eyes of its owner, but the consultant was trying to sell him on “lean” to “eliminate waste.” Even if there is a lot of possible upside, if the owner isn’t feeling the need to do something different, you are probably not going to get very far.

Note: If you are an internal practitioner, it is even harder. Ultimately it is managements job to set a performance challenge for the organization that can’t be met by tweaking the status-quo. “The challenge is often challenge” came up a number of times – organizations are typically pretty bad at establishing challenges that actually… challenge anything.

The Value of a “Model Line” as a “Demonstration of the Power”

This was an interesting discussion. Traditional thinking, for decades, has been that those who want to implement a change find a single area to transform in order to demonstrate what is possible. The idea is that once management sees the power, they will want to spread the same approach across the organization.

This effort could be taken on by an outside consultant, such as an MEP, or even an internal centralized improvement office (which may technically be “internal consultants” but they are “outside” to the other departments in the organization.

In either case, there is a lot of time and effort required, with no real assurance that even dramatic success will be seen in the light intended. My thoughts are there are at least two other equally plausible scenarios:

  • The one I discussed earlier: The success is discounted as an special case that can’t be replicated. This is what happened in the company where the company lean office that was the primary detractor.
  • Possibly worse: Management sees how great it is, and puts together a mass training / deployment plan to standardize the “new process” and rapidly spread it across the organization as a project – an approach that is doomed to fail.

Better, perhaps, to use a simple, short, mass-orientation exercise such as Kata in the Classroom to introduce the concept to as wide an audience as possible. Then see who is interested and help them learn more. You can’t force this stuff upon anyone. Ever.

Other Notes

Developing capability in the organization requires covering both technical and social (people relations, leadership) skills with leaders.


Target conditions and experiments means “you don’t have to boil the ocean or solve world hunger.” My thoughts: I have seen executives reluctant to accept or commit to a challenge because they did not know ahead of time exactly what would be required to reach it. The point of breaking down the challenge into target conditions, and further into obstacles, and addressing obstacles one-by-one makes the challenge seems less overwhelming.


The first group to get training needs to be the senior leaders. They learn by doing on the shop floor: Making actual improvements on actual processes. If the execs aren’t willing to learn, you probably aren’t going to get far. Further notes: This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything without full participation from the top. But you will reach a limit to what is possible.


Kata Ideas vs. “Suggestions” or simply soliciting ideas for improvement. A traditional suggestion program solicits any idea that the team member things might help. When there is a supervisor-as-learner working against a specific obstacle, striving to achieve a specific target condition, the ideas are much more focused.

Supervisor to team: “I’m trying to figure out how to solve this problem. Does anybody have any ideas we can test?” Then test them one by one as experiments.


“Real” scientists often don’t do true “single factor experiments.” They do mess around and try changing things up to see what happens. But if they see something interesting they then go back and run controlled experiments to isolate variables to understand what is happening.

This is totally different than the common approach of implementing a bunch of changes and hoping the problem goes away. If the problem does go away, and you don’t then rigorously investigate why, you have learned little or nothing. Now you are stuck in the position where you can’t risk changing anything at all because you don’t actually know what is important.


Measuring the success of “Toyota Kata”

We emphasize that you don’t “implement Toyota Kata.” Instead, you use the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata as practice routines to embed a new way of thinking into the organization’s daily habit of the way things are done.

The key is the thinking pattern that remains and self sustains. In companies that are very advanced, you sometimes see few, if any, “Toyota Kata boards” because the thinking pattern is embedded in every conversation they have.

Just as we say “Lean is NOT about the tools” – it isn’t about the physical artifacts, neither is Toyota Kata.

However (my current thinking) (THIS IS CRITICAL) – the artifacts are what provides the initial structure that lets you get that thinking started, allows people to practice it, and lets you observe how they are doing. My thought: DO NOT TAKE THIS DOWN until you are confident that someone new just joining your organization is going to learn it simply by picking it up from the way people talk to them every day.

These are just raw notes and some thoughts about them. If any of this sparks interest, leave a comment and I can expand on it with a more formal post.

One thought on “KataCon 2017: Day 0

  1. I love the mention of “real” scientists, the concept of tinkering, and the need to be able to reproduce results (e.g. recreate errors) being more important than a strict procession of single factor experiments. Keep up the raw thoughts!

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