Toyota Kata: What is the Learner Learning?

In the language of Toyota Kata we have a “coach” and a “learner.” Some organizations use the word “improver” instead of “learner.” I have used those terms more or less interchangeably. Now I am getting more insight into what the “learner” is learning.

The obvious answer is that, by practicing the Improvement Kata, the learner is learning the thinking pattern that is behind solid problem solving and continuous improvement.

But now I am reading more into the role. The “learner” is also the one who is learning about the process, the problems, and the solutions.

Steve Spear has a mantra of “See a problem, solve a problem, teach somebody.” This is, I think, the role of the learner.

What about the coach?

The coach is using the Coaching Kata to learn how to ask questions that drive learning. He may also be un-learning how to just have all of the answers.

As the coach develops skill, I advise sticking to the Coaching Kata structure for the benefit of beginner learners. It is easier for them to be prepared if they understand the questions and how to answer them. That, in turn, teaches them the thinking required to develop those answers.

Everybody is a Learner

The final question in the “5 Questions” is “When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?” It isn’t when can I see what You have learned. It is a “we” question because nobody knows the answers yet.

Delivering the Patient Satisfaction Experience

“Our challenge is to improve our patient satisfaction scores.”

This seems to be a fairly common theme as I continue to work in the health care arena.


In the U.S. at least, most major health care operations use one of a couple of major service providers (such as Press Ganey) to survey their patients, and report aggregated patient satisfaction scores to them. Those scores provide a percentile rank of how that facility stacks up against others across various categories. The scores are also made public, and often influence public funding decisions within a region. Thus, they are a big deal.

Chasing the Patient Satisfaction Numbers Doesn’t Work

Here’s the problem. More than a few times I have seen an improver working on a challenge to improve these patient satisfaction numbers. It might be something like “Achieve a 70th percentile score on ___.) with a specific score that has to do with their area.

So far, that’s not a real problem. But what happens next might be.

It is very common to focus solely on the end result, without a lot of thought into the underlying things that drive that result.

Specifically, I have seen more than a couple of cases where a manager is working to directly influence how a patient (customer) will answer the questions on the survey. They parse the question, and try to determine what this word, or that word, actually means to “the patient.” The worst case was trying to introduce fairly heavy handed scripting… “Is there anything I can do for you to be more comfortable?” into every patient interaction.

I certainly can’t speak for the population of patients, but I can say that when I pick up on a scripted phrase, I become very aware of what it is, and it leaves a disingenuous taste.

It’s About the Patient Experience

The patients’ experience is what drives how (and even if) they will answer the questions on these surveys. If their experience was overall favorable, they will be biased to give favorable replies. The opposite is even more true. One bad experience will negatively bias all of their answers.

Here’s the question I ask that sometimes stumps people:

What experience to you want the patient to have?

(If you aren’t in health care, substitute the word “customer” for “patient.”)

If your scores on “Were the staff concerned for my comfort?” are low, think about what experience would give the patient confidence that staff were concerned. Being continuously asked about it with a rote phrase probably isn’t going to do it. But leaving them parked in the hallways with no interaction might be (for example), something that creates discomfort.  (“Comfort” has a psychological, as well as a physical component.) People will put up with a lot of discomfort if they know the higher purpose. It’s hard to make the case for parking the patient in the hallway. That just says “I don’t have anywhere to take you.”

So think deliberately. If everything the patient experienced were something you were doing on purpose, because it contributed to the experience you want the patient to have, what would that look like?

Don’t worry right now about whether that is hard or not. Let go of your internal issues for a while. Just sketch out that awesome “insanely great” patient experience. You don’t have to think of every detail. What are the attributes? What is the flow, from the patient’s perspective – the sequence of events they will experience.

For example, construct a story, told from the patient’s point of view, of coming in for outpatient surgery.

What happens from the time they have their initial consultation until they are on their way home. (And what happens after they get home?) Again, don’t worry about “we can’t do that because…” stuff, we’ll deal with that later.

What experience, what story, would leave the patient with the impression that you are working as a team, that you know what you are doing, that there is a competent process at work to provide safe, effective care and actually care about their experience?

Don’t forget to include your administrative communications in this process – what phone calls do they get? What paperwork do they get? What does crystal-clear billing look like?

Build a block diagram, a story board, of the patients’ ideal flow through the system.

What would a wait-free, smooth flowing experience look like?

Learning From Disney

In Disney theme parks, they make a clear distinction between “On Stage” and “Off Stage.” Their employees (all of them) are referred to as “Cast Members.” Anytime a Cast Member is visible to guests, they are “On Stage.” They are performing. They are part of creating the story, the experience, they want the guest to have.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, in the tunnels, off stage, are the processes required to create the “On Stage” performance. It’s a show.

The guest experience is designed. Once it is designed, it is created by the process.

Disney’s priorities (in order) are:

  • Safety
  • Courtesy
  • Show
  • Efficiency

Translated, they place putting an a good performance above being efficient. But if pushed, a cast member may break character if required to be courteous. And they will get snippy with someone who persists in doing something unsafe in spite of courteous requests.

What on Earth does this have to do with health care?

Everything. That is if you are trying to create a safe, professional and competent impression to your patients.

What is the Actual Patient Experience?

Now we have a sense of the ideal, it’s time to understand what is really happening. Again, start with the patient’s experience.

What happens at each interaction? What questions are asked? Who asks them? How often are they moved? Where and when are they waiting, and why? 

Use “typical” rather than exceptional cases here. One thing I am seeing is, yes, every case is different but in reality, most are handled within a routine.

Pay attention to the “on stage” part of your process. This is what the patient sees, and what creates their experience.

At the same time, look at the behind-the-scenes “off stage” flow to see what might be causing a less-than-ideal patient flow. For example – The patient’s experience is that he is alone in an exam room waiting, reading Time Magazine for 20 minutes. That is the “on stage” part.

Meanwhile, “back stage” you have a nurse on the phone trying to get the results of tests that were done by another provider. (This is a real-life example.)* (There was also a physician waiting on them!)

Your Processes Create the Patient Experience

(Again, substitute “customer” for “patient” and this becomes an essay for everyone.)

Your Patient Satisfaction scores are driven by the patients’ experience.

The patients’ experience is established by your “on-stage” (patient facing) process.

Your “on-stage” process is the result of your “off-stage” execution.

The people making the improvements need to be challenged, and focused on, creating a specific experience for the patient.

Linking to Policy Deployment

All of that begs the question: Who should make the linkage between process performance and patient satisfaction, because those scores do matter, in a very big way.

Let’s look at this from a policy deployment standpoint.

Certainly Administration (the executives) should be tracking their scores. From their perspective, these are an important (along with patient safety, quality, length-of-stay, financial performance, etc) aspects of how the organization is performing.

They see the overall performance and trends. And they can see how each department is performing.

But the patient’s experience is cross-functional. The patient only sees “the hospital.” He doesn’t see, and doesn’t care, that Admissions, the lab, the Emergency Department, Outpatient Surgery, Environmental Services (who cleans his room) and Radiology are all different departments. The patient doesn’t see, and doesn’t care, that “the clinic” and “the hospital” are separate legal entities.

As part of Policy Deployment, Administration should be establishing operational standards and challenging the Department Directors to meet them. Those standards are based on what Administration believes will move the needle on the patient satisfaction scores. In reality, this is also an experiment. Does this operational standard meet our customer’s expectations?

They also are making sure the Directors are working on the cross-functional interfaces between their departments. (If it isn’t the Directors’ job to do this, whose job is it?)

Key Point: Until you are consistently delivering the product or service, there is little point in trying to change things up. Set a standard, strive to meet it. Once things are somewhat stable, then you can evaluate whether your standard is adequate or not. Think about it… what is the alternative? You have random execution that is randomly working. You don’t know why. You can’t talk to people about performance until they can demonstrate consistent execution.


Your patient satisfaction scores reflect the experience of the patient.

The patient experience is the outcome of your on stage process performance.

Your on stage process performance is ultimately driven by your back stage process execution.

If you want to improve your patient satisfaction scores, establish the operational standard you want to strive for that you think will improve patient satisfaction.

Then strive to develop a process that meets that operational standard.

THEN you can evaluate whether your process is adequate.


*This was an obstacle in front of a target condition focusing on hitting a standard for “In, Seen and Out” within a specific time frame for routine pre-procedure consultations. They fixed it. Patients no longer have to sit and wait while someone hunts down those test results.

Toyota Kata and Hoshin Kanri

Jeff asked an interesting question in a comment to the post Often Skipped: Understand the Challenge and Direction:

[Hoshin Kanri] seems to suggest I reach long term objectives (vision) through short term initiatives/projects as if I can (should?) know the steps. [Toyota Kata] 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?

Let’s start out with digging into what hoshin kanri is supposed to do. I say “supposed to do” because there are a lot of activities that are called “hoshin kanri” that are really just performance objectives or wish lists.

First, hoshin kanri is a Japanese term for a Japanese-developed process. We westerners need to understand that Japanese culture generally places a high value on harmony and harmonious action. Where many Americans (I can’t speak for Europeans as well) may well be comfortable with constant advocacy and debate about what should be worked on, that kind of discussion can be unsettling for a Japanese management team.

Thus, I believe the original purpose of hoshin kanri was to provide a mechanism for reaching consensus and alignment within a large, complex organization.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, hoshin kanri concepts emerged out of their Japanese incubator and came to western business. In this process, the DNA combined and merged with western management practices, and in many (never say “all”) western interpretations, the hoshin plan tends to be something patched onto the existing Management By Objectives framework.

That, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Hoshin kanri’s origins are from MBO migrating to Japan where they took MBO and mixed in Japanese cultural DNA.

However, I’m not comfortable that what we have ended up with in the west meets the original concept or intent.

With that as background, let’s get to the core of Jeff’s question.

What is the purpose of hoshin kanri?

Let’s start with chaos. “We want continuous improvement.”

In other words, “go find stuff to improve,” and maybe report back on what you are going to work on. A lot of organizations do something like this. They provide general guidance (if they even do that), and then maybe have the sub-organization come tell and report what they expect to accomplish. I have experienced this first hand.

“I expect my people to be working on continuous improvement,” says the executive from behind his desk in the corner office. Since he has delegated the task, his job is to “support his empowered workforce” to make things better.

image_thumb.pngFlatly, that doesn’t work unless the culture is extremely well aligned and there is a
continuous conversation and stream of consciousness within the organization
. That is very rare. How to achieve that alignment is the problem hoshin kanri is intended to solve. It isn’t the only way to do it, but it is an effective method.*

A Superficial Overview of the Process of Hoshin Kanri

The leadership sees or sets a challenge for the organization – something they must be able to do that, today, they cannot. This is not (in my opinion) the same as “creating a crisis.” A crisis just scares people. Fear is not a good motivator for creative improvement.

Different parts of the organization may get a piece of the challenge, or the leadership team may, as a whole, work to figure out what they need to accomplish. Here is an important distinction: “What must be accomplished” is not the same as a plan to accomplish it. A challenge, by its very nature, means “We don’t know exactly what we will have to do to get there.”

This can take the form of KPI targets, but that is not what you are doing if there is a simple percent improvement expected with no over-arching rationale.

Now comes the catchball.

Catchball is not Negotiation of the Goal

Catchball is often interpreted as negotiating the goals. That’s not it. The goals are established by a market or competitive or other compelling need. So it isn’t “We need to improve yield by 7%.” followed by “Well, reasonably, I can only give you 5%.” It doesn’t work like that.

Nor is it “You need to improve your yield by 7%, and if you don’t get it then no bonus for you.” That approach is well known to drive some unproductive or ineffective behavior.

And it isn’t “You’re going to improve your yield by 7% and this is what you are going to do to get there.”

Instead, the conversation might sound something like “We need to improve our yield by 7% to enable our expected market growth. Please study your processes as they relate to yield, and come back and let me know what you think you need to work on as the first major step in that direction.”

In other words, please grasp your current condition, and come back with your next target condition.

That sounds a lot like the Coaching Kata to me.


Toyota Kata is not a problem solving method. 

Toyota Kata is a set of practice routines designed to help you learn the thinking pattern that enables an organization to do hoshin kanri, and any other type of systematic improvement that is navigating through “We want to get there, but aren’t sure exactly how.”

An executive I am working with mentioned today that Toyota Kata is what is informing their policy deployment process. Without that foundation of thinking, their policy deployment would have been an exercise in assigning action items and negotiating the goals.

So what is the difference between hoshin kanri and Toyota Kata?

There isn’t a difference. They are two parts of the same thing. Hoshin kanri is a mechanism for aligning the organization’s efforts to focus on a challenge (or a few challenges).

Toyota Kata is a practice routine for learning the thinking pattern that makes hoshin kanri (or policy deployment) function as intended.

In hoshin planning, you are planning the destination, and perhaps breaking down individual efforts to get there, but nothing says you already know how to get there.

It isn’t an “action plan” and it isn’t a list of discrete, known action items. Rather, it is specific about what you must accomplish, and if you accomplish those things, then the results are predicted to add up to what you need.

What to Do vs How to Get It Done

At some point, someone has to figure out how to make the process do what is required. That has to happen down at the interface between people and the work actually being done. It can’t be mandated from above. Hoshin helps to align the efforts of improving the work with the improvements required to meet the organization’s challenge.

From the other side, the Improvement Kata is not about short-term objectives. The first step is “understand the challenge and direction.” Part of the coach’s job is to make sure this understanding takes place, and to ensure that the short-term target condition is moving in the direction of the challenge.

We set shorter term target conditions so we aren’t overwhelmed trying to fix everything at once, and to have a stable anchor for the next step. It enables safer learning by limiting the impact of learning that something didn’t work.

However, in Toyota Kata, while we might not know exactly how to get there, but we are absolutely clear where we have to end up.

The American Football analogy works well here. The challenge is “Score a touchdown.” But if you tried to score a touchdown on every play, you would likely lose the game. The target condition is akin to “get a first down.” You are absolutely clear what direction you have to move the ball, and absolutely clear where you need to end up in order to score. But you aren’t clear about the precise steps that are going to get you there. You have to figure that out as you go.

Hoshin Kanri focuses the effort – “What to work on.”

Toyota Kata teaches the thinking behind “How to work on it.”

*Though hoshin kanri may be effective, getting it to work effectively is a journey of learning that requires perseverance. It is much more than filling out a set of forms.

Hitting the Numbers by Holding Your Breath

To commemorate the end of WWII, China held a big military parade in Beijing. You can read about it in any number of news sites.

Beijing, though, (as well as Shanghai) is well known for having a serious problem with air pollution.

Here’s my experience: This is a late afternoon photo I took in Beijing in early October 2006… before the pollution was making the international news. Yes, that is the sun. There were days I could not see three blocks from my 6th floor apartment window.


In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, Chinese officials were determined to present clear skies to the international audience. The same measures were taken again in the run-up to the APEC conference last year. And this article in The Guardian outlines some of the measures taken to present what cynical Beijingers are calling “Parade Blue” skies:

From The Guardian:

Four out of five government vehicles will be taken off the road between now and the parade and private vehicles will be allowed on the roads only on alternate days, based on odd- and even-numbered license plates.


Almost all steel mills in Beijing, Heibei and Tianjin are to be shut down in the lead up to the military parade, Xu Xiangchun, chief analyst at Mysteel Research told Bloomberg last month.

What all of this means is they know what causes the smog. This drill, which was first trialed when I was spending time there prior to the Olympics, is now routine.

OK, so what? And what does this have to do with lean thinking?

We can read these articles and shake our heads. But the story here is that many organizations drive the exact same behavior with their metrics driven cultures.

If making the numbers (or the sky) look good is all that matters, the numbers will look good. As my friend Skip puts it so well, this can be done in one of three ways:

  • Distort the numbers.
  • Distort the process.
  • Change the process (to deliver better results).

The third option is a lot harder than the other two. But it is the only one that works in the long haul. The other two are doing what they did in Beijing – holding your breath.

I’ve seen this manifest in a number of ways. Factory managers doubling down producing product that wasn’t selling to “make absorption” and record paper profits for their plants.

A large corporation that needed good 4th quarter numbers.

  • They shut down production in the last month of the fiscal year to get the inventory numbers up.
  • They pulled orders in from 1st quarter to ship early. This booked revenue as soon as the inventory went into “shipped” status, even if it was still in a container at the port.
  • Because they used LIFO inventory cost models, the deeper they dug into their finished goods, the lower the “costs” and the higher the “margins.” (Don’t confuse LIFO physical inventory management with LIFO cost accounting.)

And they put up some pretty good numbers. Here’s the kicker — they actually believed those numbers, confusing their manipulation of the financial models with actual results. Bonuses all around.

1st quarter, though, was a different story. Shortages resulting in missed shipments because they hadn’t made anything for a month. Thin orders because they had already filled all of the orders they had inventory to fill. (It isn’t like new orders magically appear to replace the ones you ship early.) And at the end of Q1, the CEO had to look the analysts in the eye and explain why.

Anyone can make the numbers for a quarter, maybe even for a year, just as Beijing can clean up their skies for a couple of weeks.

But if you want to make those numbers truthfully, then the only alternative is to “change underlying process.”

This is the difference between a “target” and a “target condition.” To most people a “target” is about the numbers, the desired value of whatever is being measured. That “target” can be achieved by any of the three methods: Distorting the numbers, distorting the process, or actually changing the process.

target condition describes not only the goal, but how the process should operate to achieve it. The target condition is set by the improver / learner as a next landing point on the climb toward the overall challenge, but the coach hears it  every iteration of the coaching cycle.

Thus the coach (who should be the boss) is well aware of which of the three approaches is being taken (hopefully “change the process”), as well as the issues and problems which must be overcome to get there. It is no longer just a matter of directing that a number be achieved and “holding people accountable” for hitting it.

This two-way conversation is what strengthens the organization and keeps things from becoming silly exercises that achieve nothing but encouraging people to hide the truth. (Then when someone decides to stop hiding it, we have a “whistleblower.”

Epilogue: As I was working this up, the news has been pouring out about the VW “defeat device” scandal that has now taken out a number of corporate officers, and is going to seriously hurt the company for a long time.

Imagine this conversation in an engineering staff meeting:

Boss: What is the status on reaching the American clean air standards with the TDI engines?

Head Engineer: Don’t worry, we’ve finally got a plan. We are now certain we’ll be able to pass the test.

Boss: Great. Next item.

Contrast that with:

Boss: Where are we on the challenge of reaching the American clean air standards with the TDI engines?

Head Engineer: My current target condition is to pass the test by programming the car to detect when the test is being run, and adjust the engine performance to meet the standards while it is being tested. We’ll met the performance goals by shutting off the emissions controls during normal operation.

Now, that second conversation may well have occurred. But I can see the first case as far more likely.

The question for your organization is which of those conversations do you have? Or is the air too polluted to see clearly?


The Improvement Kata PDCA Cycles Record

The improvement kata has four major steps:


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):


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.


*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.

Output vs. Takt Time

The team’s challenge is to reach steady output of 180 units per hour.

Their starting condition was about 150 per hour. Their equipment and process is theoretically capable of making the 180 per hour with no problem.

They calculated their takt time (20 seconds) and established a planned cycle time of 17 seconds.

Some time later, they are stuck. Their output has improved to the high 160s, but those last 10-12 units per hour are proving elusive.

This is the point when I saw their coaching cycle.

Looking at their history, they had set a series of target conditions based on output per hour. Their experiments and countermeasures had been focused on reducing stoppages, usually on the order of several minutes.

“Does anybody have a calculator?”

“Divide 3600 seconds by 180, what do you get?”

“20 seconds.”

“Do you agree that if your line could reliably produce one module every 20 seconds that you would have no trouble reaching 180 modules per hour?”

Yes, they agreed.

“So what is stopping you from doing that?”

They showed me the average cycle times for each piece step in the process, and most were at or under 15 seconds. But averages only tell a small part of the story. They don’t show the cumulative effect of short stoppages and delays that can cascade through the entire line.

The team had done a lot of very good work eliminating the longer delays. But now their target condition had to shift to stability around their planned cycle time.

Performance vs Process Metrics

This little exercise shows the difference between a process metric and the performance metric.

Units-per-hour is a performance metric. It is measured after the fact, and tells the cumulative effect of everything going on in the process. In this case, they were able to make a lot of progress just looking at major stoppages..

Stability around the planned cycle time or takt time (you may use different words, that’s OK) is a process metric.

It shows you what is happening right now. THIS unit was just held up for 7 seconds. The next three were OK, then a 10 second delay. It’s those small issues that add up to missing the targeted output.

The team’s next target condition is now to stabilize around their planned cycle time.

Since they averaged their measurements, their next step is to (1) take the base data they used to calculate the averages and pull the individual points back out into a run chart and (2) to get out their stopwatches and go down and actually observe and time what is really going on.

I expect that information to help them clarify their target condition, pick off a source of intermittent delay, and start closing the remaining gap.

Lean Thinking in 10 Words

Pascal Dennis, in his book Getting the Right Things Done sums up lean thinking in 10 words:

“What should be happening?”

“What is actually happening?”

“Please explain.”

I would contend that everything else we do is digging out answers to those questions. (yes, there is a bit of hyperbole here, but I want to get you to think about how true this is vs. how false it might be.)

I think “lean thinking” is really a structured curiosity. Let’s take a look at how these questions push us toward improvement.

“What should be happening?” is another form of Toyota Kata’s “What is your target condition?” In our conversations, we often jump straight to “We need to…” language, a solution, without being clear what the problem is.

I’ll set that back by asking questions like “What would be happening if the problem is solved?” “Can you describe that?”

When Toyota trained people ask “What is the standard?” this is what they want to know, because, to them, a “problem” = “a deviation from the standard.”

“What is actually happening?” or “What is the actual condition now?”– Once we are clear where we are trying to go, it is important to grasp where we are now in the same terms as the target.

Something I see quite a bit is a target condition expressed with different terms, measures, and variables than the current condition. You must be able to relate between the two in a way that defines and quantifies the gap that must be closed.

“Please Explain” cuts across the current condition and the obstacles (in kata terms). What do you understand about the gap between what should be happening and what is actually happening?

If the process has deteriorated, what has changed? Why is it that we cannot hit the standard today when, last week, we could? When did it change? What do we know about that? Why did it change?

If you tried to run to the new level, what would keep you from doing it that way? (what obstacles do you think are now preventing you from reaching your target?)

Depending on which of these conditions we are dealing with will fundamentally change the path toward a solution, so it is critical we understand “What should be happening?” or “What is the target condition?” as a first step, then look at the history of the actual condition.

If the process has eroded, what do we know about what has changed in the environment?

All of this is the foundational baseline… the minimum understanding I want to hear before we entertain any discussion about what actions to take, what to change, what to do.

Coaching with Intent

As I continue to explore the concepts in David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around, I am finding increasing resonance with the concept of intent. I’d like to explore some of that in relationship to lean, “Toyota Kata” and organizational alignment.

For a quick review, take a look at the sketchcast video, below, and focus on the part where he talks about “we replaced it with intent.”

I think the critical words are “You give intent to them, and they give intent to you.”

Think about that phrase, then think about how we normally talk about “intent.”

OK, are you back?

In my experience, “intent” has traditionally been a one-way communication. “This is what we need to get done.”

A few months ago I was in a plant, discussing this principle. One of the managers expressed frustration saying “I think I was very clear about what I expected…” (And he was) “but then when I checked he had done something totally different. How does this work for that situation?”

What was left out of that conversation?

…and they give intent to you.

Let’s put this in Toyota Kata terms.

What is the relationship between the “Challenge” and the “Target Condition?”

Think about how the target condition is developed.

Start with the challenge – this is the level of performance we are trying to achieve – the “mission” in military terms, the overall intent of what we are trying to get done.

Once the direction and challenge (the intent) are understood, the improver / learner’s next task is to get a thorough understanding of the current condition. How does the process operate today? What is the normal pattern? Why does it perform the way it does? This should be focused in context of the direction / challenge / intent.

Then the learner (NOT the coach!) proposes the next target condition.

Depending on the level of skill in the learner, the coach may well be assisting in developing all of this, but it is the learner’s responsibility to do it.

Imagine this conversation: as the learner / improver is discussing the target condition, he relates it back to the challenge as a verification for context.

“The overall challenge we have is to _______. As my first (next) target condition, I intend to _____ (as the learner relates his next level of performance, and what the process will have to look like to get there).

Adding the words “I intend to…” to that exchange has (for me) proven to be a powerful tool when learners are struggling to embrace / own their target conditions. Those words establish psychological ownership vs. seeking permission.

The same structure can be applied to the next step or experiment.

“What is your next step or experiment?”

I intend to (fill in your experiment here).”

Going back to the sketchcast video, remember the part where he says:

“Captain, I intend to submerge the ship.”

“What do you think I’m thinking right now?”

“Uh…. hard to tell… I’m guessing you want to know if it’s safe.”

“BINGO! Convince me it’s safe.”

“Captain, I intend to submerge the ship. All men are below. All hatches are shut. The ship’s rigged for diving. We’ve checked the bottom depth. We’re in the water that’s assigned to us.”

In not only stating intent, but going through the checklist, the “learner” demonstrates that the intent will be carried out competently, or not.

We are asking the same questions when we ask about the next experiment, what outcome is expected. Logical follow-on questions could include seeking assurance that the experiment actually addresses the stated “one obstacle” being addressed (this is the right thing to do) and that learner has a plan to carry out the experiment that makes sense, knows what information he intends to collect, what observations he needs to make, and how he intends to do these things (that it is being done competently).

At an advanced level, a good answer to “What is your next step or experiment?” could (should!) include all of these elements – enough information to convince the coach that it is a good experiment, seeking the right information, in the right way.

It becomes  “to address that obstacle, I next I intend to (take these steps, in this way, with these people) so that (fill in expected outcome). I intend to measure here and here, and verify my results by…”

Of course as a coach, if you have a learner who is unsure how to proceed, or looking to be told what to do (which is quite common in organizations that have to overcome a command structure where the boss is the problem solver), how do you need to phrase your coaching questions to get the next level of responsible language out of your learner’s mouth?

If they are waiting to be told what to do, how do you get them to offer an opinion?

If they are offering an opinion, how do you get them to offer a recommendation? Is it well thought out? “What result do you expect?” “How do you expect to achieve that result?”

If they are offering a well thought out recommendation, how do you get them to express an intent? What do you have to hear to be convinced that intent is well though out?

I want to be clear: This is advanced stuff, but it goes hand-in-glove with the coaching kata.

And, to give credit where credit is due, it is all the work of David Marquet. I am just adapting it to the kata here.

Competence and Clarity: Toyota Kata at Sea

A friend, and reader, Craig sent a really interesting email:

As I was practicing the coaching Kata with one of the First Mates on the factory trawler, whenever an issue arose (usually with the leader blaming an employee) he began asking factory and engineering leadership “what needed to be communicated?” or “what needed to be taught?” He found it encompassed every problem on the vessel and I loved that he made it his own and communicated in manner to which lifetime fishermen could relate.

What I found really cool about this is how it is exactly the same conclusion reached by David Marquet, both in the sketchcast video I posted earlier, and the titles of two chapters in his book. The reasons leaders feel they must withhold authority, remain “in control” ultimately come down to competence – what must people be taught, or clarity – what have we failed to adequately communicate. Maybe it’s being at sea.

In other words, if people know whGiveControl.pngat to do (clarity), and know how to do it (competence), then leaders generally have no issues trusting that the right people will do the right things the right way.

The Improvement Kata  is a great structure for creating and carrying out development plans for leaders (or future leaders) in your organization.

The Coaching Kata is a great way to structure your next conversation to (1) ensure clarity of intent: Does their target condition align with the direction and challenge? and (2) develop their competence, both in improving / problem solving, but also in their understanding of the domain of work at hand.




Cruise Ship Cabins on an Assembly Line

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines released a cool P.R. video showing the production of cruise ship cabins on an assembly line with a 14 minute(!) takt time.

The key point, for me at least, is that even “big one-off things” can often be broken down into sub-assemblies that have a meaningful takt time of some kind. We have to look for the opportunities for what can be set up to flow vs. reasons why we can’t.

Click Here for the direct link to the page on Royal Caribbean’s press page.