## Toyota Kata: Is That Really an Obstacle?

“What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?”

When the coach asks that question, she is curious about what the learner / improver believes are the unresolved issues, sources of variation, problems, etc. that are preventing the process from operating routinely the way it should (as defined by the target condition).

I often see things like “training” or worse, a statement that simply says we aren’t operating the way the target says.

Here is a test I have started applying.

Complete this sentence:

“We can’t (describe the target process) because ________.”

Following the word “because,” read the obstacle verbatim. Read exactly what it says on the obstacle parking lot. Word for word.

If that does not make a grammatically coherent statement that makes sense, then the obstacle probably needs to be more specific.

## Prediction Doesn’t Equal Understanding

Sometimes people fall into a trap of believing they understand a process if they can successfully predict it’s outcome. We see this in meetings. A problem or performance gap will be discussed, and an action item will be assigned to implement a solution.
Tonight those of us in the western USA saw the moon rise in partial eclipse.

We knew this would happen because our understanding of orbital mechanics allows us to predict these events… right?

Well, sort of. Except we have been predicting astronomical events like this for thousands of years, long before Newton, or even Copernicus.

The photo below is of a sophisticated computer that predicted lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and other astronomical events in 1600BC (and earlier). Click through the photo for an explanation of how Stonehenge works:

Stonehenge represented a powerful descriptive theory. That is, a sufficient level of understanding to describe the phenomena the builders were observing. But they didn’t know why those phenomena occurred.

Let’s go to our understanding of processes.

The ability to predict the level of quality fallout does not indicate understanding of why it occurs. All it tells you is that you have made enough observations that you can conclude the process is stable, and will likely keep operating that way unless something materially changes. That is all statistical process control tells you.

Likewise, the ability to predict how long something takes does not indicate understanding of why. Obviously I could continue on this theme.

A lot of management processes, though, are quite content with the ability to predict. We create workforce plans based on past experience, without ever challenging the baseline. We create financial models and develop “required” levels of inventory based on past experience. And all of these models are useful for their intended purpose: Creating estimates of the future based on the past.

But they are inadequate for improvement or problem solving.

Let’s say your car has traditionally gotten 26 miles-per-gallon of fuel. That’s not bad. (For my non-US readers, that’s about 9 liters / 100 km.) You can use that information to predict how far a tank of fuel will get you, even if you have no idea how the car works.

If your tank holds 15 gallons of fuel, you’ll be looking to fill after driving about 300 miles.

But what if you need to get 30 miles-per-gallon?

Or what if all of a sudden you are only getting 20 miles-per-gallon?

If you are measuring, you will know the gap you need to close. In one case you will need to improve the operation of the vehicle in some way. In the other case, you will need to determine what has changed and restore the operation to the prior conditions.

In both of those cases, if you don’t know how the car operated to deliver 26 miles-per-gallon, it is going to be pretty tough. (It is a lot harder to figure out how something is supposed to work if it is broken before you start troubleshooting it.)

Here’s an even more frustrating scenario: On the last tank of fuel, you measured 30 miles per gallon, but have no idea why things improved! This kind of thing actually happens all of the time. We have a record month or quarter, it is clearly beyond random fluctuation, but we don’t know what happened.

The Message for Management:

If you are managing to KPIs only, and can’t explain the process mechanics behind the measurements you are getting, you are operating in the same neolithic process used by the builders of Stonehenge. No matter how thoroughly they understood what would happen, they did not understand why.

If your shipments are late, if your design process takes too long, if your quality or customer service is marginal, if the product doesn’t meet customer’s expectations, and you can’t explain the mechanisms that are causing these things (or the mechanisms of a process that operates reliably and acceptably) then you aren’t managing, you are simply directing people to make the eclipse happen on a different day.

“Seek first to understand.”

Dig in, go see for yourself. Let yourself be surprised by just how hard it is to get stuff done.

## How Do We Deal With Multiple Shifts?

This is a pretty common question.

Today I was talking to a department director in a major regional hospital that is learning Toyota Kata. She picked it up very quickly, and wants to take the learning to the off-shifts.

She (rightly) doesn’t want the night shift to just be deploying what day shift develops, she wants night shift totally involved in making improvements as well. Awesome.

Her question was along the lines of “How do I maintain continuity of the effort across both shifts?” She was jumping into asking how to provide good coaching support, whether there were separate boards, or a single board etc. and playing out the problems with each scenario.

My reply was pretty simple. “I don’t know.”

“What do you want to see your learners doing if they are working the way you envision?”

In other words, “What is your target condition?”

But… how do we coach them, and so on?

I don’t know. But until we understand what we want the improvement process to look like, especially across the shift boundaries, we can’t say. Different target conditions will have different obstacles.

And what worked at Boeing, or Genie, or Kodak, or even another hospital I’ve worked with likely won’t work here in your hospital. The conditions are different. The conditions are different in different departments in the same hospital!

She admitted that she was having a hard time thinking about a target without dealing with all of the potential obstacles first. My suggestion was that this challenge is her improvement board, and the best way to work out a solution was to actually follow the Improvement Kata (that she has been doing such a great job at coaching for the last month).

Trust the process. Once there is a clear target condition for the people doing the work (in this case, the learners / improvers), then we’ll better understand the obstacles we actually have to deal with. That will likely be fewer than every possible problem we can think of right now.

Establish your target condition, then list your obstacles, then start working on them one by one.

The Improvement Kata is exactly the tool to apply when you know you want to do something, but can’t figure out exactly how to do it.

Step by step.

Keep it up, Susan.

## 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.

## A Tale of Two Sites

With apologies to Charles Dickens, but the opening line is just too good to resist…

## The Best of Times

In this plant, the advance team is chaired and actively led by the most senior manager on the site. He is actively coaching, he is actively being coached. He is questioning his own learning, seeking council, and acting on it.

They are clear that, while there may be general guidelines, they must learn by trying and experimenting. They cannot simply deploy a roadmap because they can only see the next mile on a 1000 mile journey.

They see it as a method to shift their culture away from its “tell me what to do” legacy and toward one of an empowered workforce that takes initiative and works on the right things, the right way.

There is no doubt among the leadership team that this is the path forward.

They are starting to apply the language of the Improvement Kata informally in their meetings and discussions.

Overall, it seems a bit messy. But learning is like that.

## The Other Site

The “implementation of Toyota Kata” is a directive from the corporate Continuous Improvement team.

The corporate team spends much of their energy developing and deploying templates, PowerPoint presentations, setting standards for the forms and the layout, lettering and colors on the improvement boards, and setting milestones.

They have published a step-by-step procedure for a site to implement Toyota Kata, based on their assumptions of what ought to work. None of them has actually led a change like this.

They are, in turn, working through the site continuous improvement team who is expected to execute to these standards.

The site leader receives weekly reports on progress. Training the managers and “implementing Toyota Kata” is the responsibility of one of the site’s continuous improvement staffers. The site leader questions him using the 5 Questions each week, and issues direction in response to the answers.

It is the continuous improvement practitioner who is responsible for motivating the members of the management team to challenge their own processes and develop their improvement boards. A significant number of them are questioning the need or purpose of this exercise.

## Thoughts

Unfortunately I run into the second case far more often than I see the first. But the story is decades old. That is how we did Six Sigma, kaizen events, Theory of Constraints, Total Quality Management. In each case we have separated the deployment of a core change in the way we manage operations from the responsibility for actually managing.

It

doesn’t

work.

This TED talk by Tim Harford actually sums up the difference pretty well:

But beyond what works, and what doesn’t, we also have to ask “Which approach is respectful of people?”

What are the underlying assumptions about the people at the gemba when “standards” are established thousands of miles away, published, and then audited into place?

Why do they feel they must tell people exactly what to do?

What do they feel is lacking on the site?  Competence? or Clarity?

## Scientific Improvement Beyond The Experiment

“How do we deploy this improvement to other areas in the company?” is a very common question out there. A fair number of formal improvement structures include a final step of “standardize” and imply the improvement is laterally copied or deployed into other, similar, situations.

Yet this seems to fly in the face of the idea that the work groups are in the best position to improve their own processes.

I believe this becomes much less of a paradox if we understand a core concept of improvement: We are using the scientific method.

## How I Think Science Works

In science, there is no central authority deciding which ideas are good and worth including into some kind of standard documentation. Rather, we have the concept of peer review and scientific consensus.

Someone makes what she believes is a discovery. She publishes not only the discovery itself, but also the theoretical base and the experimental method and evidence.

Other scientists attempt to replicate the results. Those attempts to replicate are often expanded or extended in order to understand more.

As pieces of the puzzle come together, others might have what seems to be an isolated piece of knowledge. But as other pieces come into place around them, perhaps they can see where their contributions and their expertise might fit in to add yet another piece or fill in a gap.

If the results cannot be replicated at all, the discovery is called into serious question.

Thus, science is a self-organized collaborative effort rather than a centrally managed process. All of this works because there is a free and open exchange among scientists.

It doesn’t work if everyone is working in isolation… even if they have the same information, because they cannot key in on the insights of others.

What we have is a continuous chatter of scientists who are “thinking out loud” others are hearing them, and ideas are kicked back and forth until there is a measure of stability.

This stability lasts until someone discovers something that doesn’t fit the model, and the cycle starts again.

## How I Think Most Companies Try To Work

On the other hand, what a lot of people in the continuous improvement world seem to try to do is this:

Somebody has a good idea and “proves it out.”

That idea is published in the form of “Hey… this is better. Do it like this from now on.”

We continue to see “standardization” as something that is static and audited into place. (That trick never works.)

What About yokoten. Doesn’t that mean “lateral deployment” or “standardize?”

According to my Japanese speaking friends (thanks Jon and Zane), well, yes, sort of.  When these Japanese jargon terms take on a meaning in our English-speaking vernacular, I like to go back to the source and really understand the intent.

In daily usage, yokoten has pretty much the same meaning [as it does in kaizen] just a bit more mundane scope…along the lines of sharing a lesson learned.

Yokogawa ni tenkai suru (literally: to transmit/develop/convey sideways) is the longer expression of which Yokoten is the abbreviation.

Yoko means “side; sideways; lateral. Ten is just the first half of “tenkai” to develop or transmit. Yokotenkai..

If you take a good look at the Toyota internal context, it is much more than just telling someone to follow the new standard. It is much more like science.

## How the Scientific Approach Would Work

A work team has a great idea. They try it out experimentally. Now, rather than trying to enforce standardization, the organization publishes what has been learned: How the threshold of knowledge about the process, about a tricky quality problem, whatever, has been extended.

We used to know ‘x’, now we know x+y.

They also publish how that knowledge was gained. Here are the experiments we ran, the conditions, and what we learned at each step.

Another team can now take that baseline of knowledge and use it to (1) validate via experimentation if their conditions are similar. Rather than blindly applying a procedure, they are repeating the experiment to validate the original data and increase their own understanding.

And (2) to apply that knowledge as a higher platform from which to extend their own.

## But Sometimes there is just a good idea.

I am not advocating running experiments to validate that “the wheel” is a workable concept. We know that.

Likewise, if an improvement is something like a clever mistake proofing device or jig (or something along those lines), of course you make more of them and distribute them.

On the other hand, there might be a process that the new mistake-proofing fixture won’t work for. But… if they applied the method used to create it, they might come up with something that works for them, or something that works better.

“That works but…” is a launching point to eliminate the next obstacle, and pass the information around again.

oh… and this is how rocket science is done.

I believe Brian’s comment, and my response, are a valid extension of this post, so be sure to read the comments to get “the rest of the story.” (and add your own!)

## Shifting Perspective from Getting Results to Developing People

Note: This post has been in my “Draft” queue for a few months, so actually pre-dates the previous one. But I’m seeing a theme developing in what I am paying attention to lately.

Taken from an actual conversation.

“To get [this productivity metric] from 60% to 85%.”

(thinking) – he is only talking about the performance metric.

“How would the process have to work to achieve that level of performance?”

(pointing to process flow diagram) “We have two work flows. One for routine project work, the other is high-priority emergent work. Whenever a worker has an opportunity to take on routine project work, I want him to be able to take the next most important job from the prioritized work queue.”

“This would eliminate the need for the worker waste time trying to find me to get an assignment or investigate or guess what he should do next, and let him get started right away. It would also stop cherry picking the easier jobs”

“My goal is for the Team Leader to establish those priorities, and keep track of how work is progressing.”

(thinking) – OK, I see where he is trying to go. I’m not sure I would have taken this exact approach, but it looks good enough right now to let him run with it and see what he learns.

“What was the last step or experiment you completed?” (Note: I am trying asking this question with ‘you completed’ so emphasize I want results from the last one, not information about what is ongoing or next.)

“Before I went on vacation, I looked at the incoming work queue, and established priorities for that work. As the workers needed their next job, it was clear to them what they needed to do.”

“What result did you expect?”

“I expected my productivity metric to hit my 85% target.”

“What actually happened?”

“The metric did hit the 85% target, when I prioritized the work. Then I went on vacation, and as you can see here (pointing at the graph), the productivity dropped back to its baseline level.”

“What did you learn?”

“I learned that when I set the priorities, and track the productivity, it improves as I expected it to. I also learned that when I don’t do it myself, then things go back to the way they were.”

“What obstacles do you think are preventing you from achieving your target condition?”

“People don’t know what the most important job is.”

“You said your target condition is for your team leader to make those assignments. How does that obstacle relate back to your target?”

“My team leader doesn’t know what the most important jobs are.”

“How about writing that down on the obstacle list.”

(he adds it to the list)

“Any other obstacles?”

“Um… I don’t think so.”

(thinking) I’m pretty sure there are other issues, but he seems focused on this one. Let’s see where he is going with it.

“OK, so that (the team leader) is the obstacle you’re addressing now?”

“Yes.”

“OK, what is your next step?”

“I am going to assign the priorities myself.”

“What result do you expect?”

“I expect the performance to go back to its target value.”

pause…

(thinking) He isn’t connecting the dots here.

“Let’s come back to your target condition. You said you want the team leader to do all of this, rather than you, right?”

“Yes.”

“What is keeping you from just giving him the work and having him do it?”

“If I did that the productivity would go down again.”

”How come?” (Yes, I am leading the witness here. My thinking is that if I can get the right words to come out of him, he’ll “get it.”)

“My team leader doesn’t know how to set the priorities.”

“Right, so that’s the real obstacle in the way of reaching your target of having him do it, right?”

“Yes, but if I have him do it, then my productivity will go down. Isn’t the idea to hit the goal?”

“Yes, but you said in your target condition you wanted to hit the goal by having your team leader set the priorities, not just do it yourself.”

pause… (he’s probably feeling a little trapped now.)

(continuing) “So, if your team leader did know how to set the priorities, you think you’d hit your productivity goal with him doing it, right?”

pause…

“What else might be in the way?”

“He (the team leader) doesn’t like to go and talk to managers in other [customer]departments about their work priorities.”

“Write that down. Anything else?”

“He sometimes is reluctant to give assignments to people who would rather be working on something easier [but less important].”

“Write that down. Anything else?”

“I don’t think so. It sounds like the team leader is the problem.”

“You remember the session we did about David Marquet, the submarine captain, right?”

pause… “yeah.”

“So is this an issue with his (the team leader’s) competence – something you need to teach – or clarity – something you need to communicate?”

“I guess I need to teach him how to set the priorities.”

“So that is still the obstacle you are addressing now?”

“Yes.”

“OK, so what step are you going to take first?”

and from here, the conversation took a 90 degree turn into how this manager was going to develop his team leader.

The target condition got clarified into the capabilities and information the Team Leader needed to be able to perform the job competently.

The obstacles turned into things which must be taught, and things which must be communicated.

In retrospect, the obstacle I was addressing was reluctance on the Manager’s part to accept that developing the team leader was nobody’s job but his. But I’m finding that to be a common theme in a few places.

## Does Your Solution Have A Problem? Does Your Problem Have A Customer?

Javelin.com is a site with a few good tools centered around startup product development. (“Lean Startup”). I really liked their tutorial around the “javelin board” which is a vertical PDCA record specialized for testing product ideas.

In the tutorial, the phrase that really got my attention was this:

“Not all solutions have problems, and not all problems have customers.”

If you are a regular reader, you know one of the questions I ask frequently is “What problem are you trying to solve?” This is especially important if the proposed solution is a “lean tool.” For example, “there is no standard work” is not a problem, per se. I know lots of companies that do just fine, and have more than doubled their productivity before work cycles ever emerged as something to work on. “What obstacle are you addressing now?” is a question we ask in the Coaching Kata to explore the learner’s linkages between the proposed solution, the problem (obstacle), and target condition. The obstacle itself is a hypothesis.

The javelin board process first ensures that (1) you know who the customer is and (2) that you validate that the problem you THINK they have is one they ACTUALLY have… before you go exploring solutions.

Remember as you watch this, though, that the process isn’t different from the Improvement Kata. It is just a specialized variant. The underlying thinking pattern is totally identical… and the problem Toyota Kata is trying to solve is “We have to learn this thinking pattern.” Once you understand the pattern, and apply it habitually, then these variations make perfect sense. On the other hand, if you don’t understand the underlying pattern, then these variations all look like a different approach, and you’ll end up wrestling with “which one to adopt.”

## DMAIC and Toyota Kata

A lot of the organizations I deal with have a legacy with Six Sigma, or some x-Sigma variant. If they are now trying to incorporate Toyota Kata as a way to shift their daily behavior, questions arise about how it fits (or might fit, or whether it fits) with DMAIC.

This sometimes comes about when the impetus to embrace Toyota Kata comes from outside the organization, such as an initiative from the corporate Continuous Improvement office. In this case, unless integration with legacy approaches is carefully thought through, Toyota Kata (or whatever else is coming down the pipeline) can easily be perceived as “yet another corporate initiative” or “something else to do” rather than “a new (and hopefully better) way to do what we are already doing.”

### My Background

First a disclaimer. My deepest exposure to Six Sigma was during my time as a Quality Director in a large company that had a long history with TQM and then Six Sigma. Thus, I dealt with the Black Belts and Green Belts in the organization, and paid a lot of attention to the projects they were working on.

In addition, every certification project for a new Black Belt came across my desk. Unlike a lot of managers in the chain (apparently), I actually read them, parsed them, and asked questions when I couldn’t follow the story line of the project. (Apparently nobody expected that, but it’s another story.)

I worked with the corporate Master Black Belt, made input into their programs, and did what I could to create a degree of cooperation, if not harmony, between the Six Sigma community and the lean guys.

Thus I am not claiming this is anything new or profound. Rather, this is sharing my own sense of connection between these two approaches in a world where I often find them competing for people’s mindspace.

### The Improvement Process Flow

As I observed it, a Six Sigma project was typically organized and conducted as follows:

An area manager, usually a Green Belt, identifies something that needs improving. He assembles a team of stakeholders. He is coached by a Black Belt through*:

Defining the problem and establishing a charter for the team.

Establishing a Measurement that will define progress.

Conducting a thorough Analysis of the process, with a primary focus on sources of variation, especially those which are intertwined with quality issues.

Developing a list or set of Improvements and putting them into place, again focusing primarily on variation in methods, etc. that drive defects.

Establishing a standard to Control the process and keeping it running the new way.

Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control. DMAIC.

In actual practice, it is very similar to the large single-loop “six step problem solving” process I was taught as “the problem solving process that came out of TQM.” That is probably not a coincidence.

DMAIC projects are typically targeted at measurable significant financial payback. Black Belts are trained to find and spend their time on high-payback projects. At least in the company I worked for, there was a minimum payback they had to achieve to get their certification. They also had to demonstrate knowledge of the various high-powered statistical tools.

It makes sense for people steeped in this methodology to ask how it fits in with “short cycles of experiments and improvements” that are the anchor for not only Toyota Kata, but kaizen in general (if you are doing it right).

And, put another way, if the organization is trying to establish a coaching culture using Toyota Kata, is Toyota Kata something different from DMAIC, or do they fit together? (I have actually been asked exactly the same question about Toyota Kata and kaizen(!), but that, too, is another story.)

To give credit where credit is due, this was the topic over lunch last week at a client site whose Six Sigma projects also follow the general structure I outlined above. Jazmin, the continuous improvement leader, was already working through this in her mind, and recognized the linkage right away.

Since the company has an active Six Sigma program, with dozens of projects ongoing, we wanted to find a way to integrate Toyota Kata thinking into what they were already doing vs. introducing yet another separate initiative. (It is easier to “embrace and extend” something you are already doing than bring something brand new into the domain.)

### Relating DMAIC to the Improvement Kata

Here is how I relate DMAIC to the Improvement Kata.

Define the Problem =(more or less) Challenge and Direction. This is what we are working on, and why it is important.

Measure and Analyze = Grasp the Current Condition. Six Sigma has a host of powerful tools (which are often used just because they are there … so be careful not to make easy things complicated).

I would point out that if you follow the process in the Improvement Kata Handbook, you are also initially focused on variation in the process. Lean people tend to reduce all variation down to units of time, but in that noise are all sources of variation of the process. Defects, for example, don’t count as a delivery, and so introduce noise into the exit cycles. Machine slowdowns and stoppages, likewise, disturb the rhythm of the process. Like DMIAC, the Improvement Kata, as outlined in the handbook, steers you toward sources of variation very quickly.

Thus, a Six Sigma project team, and an improver following the Improvement Kata are both going to initially look for sources of instability. (Quality First, Safety Always).

At this point, the two diverge a little, but only a little.

Perhaps because DMAIC sounds like a single cycle, a fair number of teams tend to try to Implement a Single Grand Solution. They spend a fair amount of time brainstorming what it should look like, and designing it. Then, once they think they have a solution, they put it into place by establishing new “standards” (in this context, that usually means procedures), training people, and validating that it all works.

Again – a lot of kaizen events do pretty much the same thing, they just might do it faster if it is a classic five-day event.

A few years ago I was on a discussion panel at a conference in Chicago that was very Six Sigma centric. In the various breakout sessions, the Black Belts (who are mostly staff practitioners) universally complained about “management embracing the changes” and not enforcing the new processes. They were frustrated that once they were done, things slipped back.

In other words, once the energy input of the project itself stopped, entropy took over, and things regressed back to the original equilibrium.

And (once again) traditional kaizen events often have the same problem.

### Blending Toyota Kata and Six-Sigma Coaching

Think of this conversation between the Black Belt coach and the Green Belt project leader in their daily meeting and check-in:

[preliminary social rituals]

“Just to review, what is the problem you are working on?”

[Green Belt reviews the charter and objective]

“Great, so what is the target condition you are striving for right now?”

[Green belt describes the next intermediate step toward the chartered defined state. He describes how the process will operate when key parts of it are stabilized, for example.]

The Black Belt is listening carefully, and may ask follow-up questions to make sure the target condition is clearly on the path toward solving the defined problem vs. chasing something interesting-but-irrelevant to the issue at hand.

“Good. Can you tell me the last step you took?”

[Green Belt describes a change they made, or some additional data they needed to collect and analyze, or a control measure they have experimented with, etc]

“What did you expect from that step?”

[Green Belt reviews the intent of the action, and what he expected to happen.]

“And what actually happened?”

[Green Belt describes what his data collection and observation revealed about the process, or how well his control measure worked to contain a source of variation, etc…. or didn’t.]

“And what did you learn?”

[Green Belt describes insights that have been gained, especially insights into sources of variation, or the effect of controlling them. He also describes what he might have learned about the tools, or struggled with in applying them.]

“Very good. So what sources of variation or obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target right now?”

[Green Belt describes the current suspects for causes and sources of variation in the process, as well as other issues that may be impeding progress.]

“Which one of those are you addressing now?”

[The Green Belt may well still be working on the last one, or might have it effectively controlled and is now addressing a new one. If he has moved on to a new one, the Black Belt is going to be especially interested in the control mechanism for the sources of variation that has been “eliminated” so it stays that way.]

For example, a follow-up question might be “Can you tell me how you are controlling that? What countermeasures do you have to detect if that variation comes back into play?”

We aren’t limited to SPC of course, and actually would rather have a binary yes/no  need-to-act/don’t-need-to-act signal of some kind.

What we are going here is iterating through sources of variation, and establishing a positive Control on each of them before moving on rather than trying to stabilize everything in one step at the end.

Once he is satisfied that the project team hasn’t “left fire behind them,” then the Black Belt can move on.

“Great. Can you tell me the next step you plan to take, or experiment you’re going to run?”

[Green Belt reviews the next action to either learn more about a source of variation or attempt to keep it controlled.]

“And what result do you expect?”

[If the Green Belt is proposing using a specific Six Sigma statistical cool, the Black Belt is going to be carefully listening, and asking follow-on questions to confirm that the Green Belt understands the tool’s function and limitations, how he plans to use it, what he expects to learn as a result, and why he thinks that specific tool will give him the answers he is looking for.]

“OK, when do you think we can review what you have learned from taking that step”

This interaction is using the Coaching Kata script to develop the Six Sigma skills of the Green Belt project leader. We already have a coaching relationship, so all we are doing here is practicing a technique to make it more effective and more structured.

DMAIC is now more like:

DM [repeat AIC as necessary]

as the team works methodically through the sources of variation as they are uncovered.

### The Master Black Belt

At the next level up is typically a Master Black Belt who is generally responsible for mentoring and developing the Black Belts. They typically meet weekly or monthly and review and share progress on projects.

Only now, let’s shift the discussion to reviewing and sharing progress on developing the problem analysis and solving skills of the Green Belts. Remember, the Green Belts are line management, and we want to get them thinking this way about everything.

“What did he do? What did you expect him to learn?”

“What did he actually learn? Did he make any mistakes?”

“Is he stuck anywhere? What is your plan to give him additional coaching or instruction?”

In other words, they are following DMAIC as well. Except that the “problem” is the skill of the Green Belt and how effectively he is applying that skill to solve his chartered problem.

I am really interested in hearing from Six Sigma folks out there about how this resonates, or doesn’t, with you.

————

*Sometimes I observed a Black Belt doing the same thing on his own initiative, leading the project himself. Occasionally I saw a Black Belt acting solo. I am not discussing either of those approaches here, however.

## Toyota Kata: Obstacles Are Not Action Items

Continuing my observations about old patterns that get in people’s way as they try to practice Toyota Kata…

“What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target?” (I also like to insert the word “now” in there sometimes to emphasize what I am writing about here.)

The intent (and to be clear, as I am interpreting it) here is for the improver / learner to give some thought to the things that have to change before the target condition can be reached.

It is not a list of stuff to do.

I am speculating here, but I suspect that there is a legacy from (mis)use of “Kaizen Newspapers” since, in actual practice, they often look similar to obstacle lists. (I believe the original intent of the “Kaizen Newspaper” was to function more like the Toyota Kata PDCA record, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Remember that there are two routines defined in “Toyota Kata,” the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata.

The Improvement Kata has four major steps, and the “five questions” that get the popular attention are actually part of the Coaching Kata.

Yes, it is the Coaching Kata that managers actually have to learn, but to be any good at it they (hopefully you!) need to fully understand the improvement kata so they can effectively coach a poor answer to one of the questions into a good answer. Without that baseline skill, the “5 questions” exercise turns into asking the question, waiting for the other person’s lips to stop moving, ask the next question. Doesn’t work (which is why I didn’t say “learner” – because no one is learning in this scenario).

Once the target condition is established, the improver / learner should then set back to the perspective of the current condition and assess what is keeping her from just moving directly to the target.

With all of that as an introduction, let’s look at Obstacles in context.

This is Mike Rother’s schematic of the Improvement Kata from the Improvement Kata Handbook (<– click on the link to download it from his web site).

In this model, “obstacles” are the things in the way of getting to the target condition. Saying the same thing, with more emphasis, “obstacles” are only the things in the way of getting to the next target condition.

But obstacles are not action items.

Obstacles are the issues, problems, etc. that you (as the improver) see at the moment. They are based on your current understanding of the current condition.

That is why we ask “What is the actual condition now?” rather than “What was the condition you started from.

The current condition is just that. (Which is why, as a coach, you should insist that your improver / learner keep the current condition up to date.)

As your understanding changes, your view of what might, or might not, be an obstacle changes.

Obstacles are sometimes rendered irrelevant. You might have eliminated a troublesome process step entirely. Or solving one problem might have done “collateral damage” and taken out a couple of others.

As you advance your knowledge, you will likely change your understanding of the obstacles, reword them, clarify them, edit them. New ones might come into view (for the moment).

“What did you learn?” is often at least partially answered by pointing out changes in the obstacle list.

Obstacles are not action items because it is unlikely you will have to deal with all of them.

So… don’t worry about getting the obstacle list “right.” It’s just a reflection of your current understanding which can, and should change as you go.