Another Homework Question

Another interesting homework question has shown up in the search terms. Let’s break it down:

23. if the slowest effective machine cycle time in a cell is 55 seconds and the total work content is 180 seconds, how many operator(s) should operate the cell so that labor utilization is at 100%?

I find this interesting on a couple of levels.

At a social level, the idea of cutting and pasting a homework question into Google hoping to find the answer is… interesting. Where is the thinking?

What are we teaching?

The question is asking “How many people do we need to run as fast as we can?” (as fast as the slowest machine). But how fast do they need to run? Maybe they only need a part every 95 seconds. If that is true, then I need fewer people, but I am going to run the slowest machine even slower.

In other words, “What is the takt time?” What does the customer need? How often must we provide it?

Then there is the “labor utilization” metric, with a target of 100%. Assuming the planned cycle time is actually 55 seconds (which it shouldn’t be!), we need 3.3 people in this work cell. (180 seconds of labor cycle time / 55 seconds planned cycle time: “How long does it take?” / “How long do you have?” = Minimum Required Capacity)

How about improvement? What do we need to do to get from 3.3 people to 3 people? We can solve for the labor cycle time.  55 seconds of planned cycle time * 3(people) = 165 seconds of total labor. So we need to get that 180 seconds down to a little less than 165 seconds.

Now we have a challenge. We need to save a bit over 15 seconds of cycle time. That might seem daunting. But we don’t have enough information (the current condition) to know where to begin. Then we can establish the next target condition and get started making things better.

These types of questions bother me because they imply all of these things are fixed, and they imply we run “as fast as we can” rather than “as fast as we must.”

Edit: Today I saw two more searches for:

total work content divided by slowest machine cycle time

so it looks like at least two others are working on the same assignment.  🙂


Interesting Question about Cycle Time

An interesting search landed someone on the site recently. Here it is:

a machine is producing 55 parts in one hour. what is the cycle time for each part.

Likely this is someone Googling his homework question, but I’d like to take apart the question and discuss it. If this is a homework question, I would contend that the likely “correct” answer is wrong.

Take a pause and think about it for a second. How would you reflexively answer this question?



Someone encountering this question is likely to simply divide the 55 parts of output into the 60 minutes of elapsed time. Doing that, we get something just over 65 seconds per part.

Which is interesting, but it isn’t the cycle time per part. It is the average rate of production, but it isn’t the cycle time.

I contend you don’t have enough information to answer the question. To really do that, you need to get your safety glasses and hearing protection, go down to the machine with a stopwatch (I’d suggest one with a lap function) and click off the elapsed time interval between each and every part as it come off the machine.


Well… let’s say that the machine is actually running at a cycle of 55 seconds / part when it is actually operating, but there are frequent jam-ups that the operator has to clear.

Isn’t that a completely different story than running smoothly with one part coming off every 65.45 seconds?

Think about it.

Notes From Day 2 of Kata-Con

Perfection is the enemy of progress.

  • The longer it takes, the higher the expectation.
  • The higher the expectation, the longer it takes.

My thoughts: I’ve seen this a lot. It is magnified when the leaders are detached from the process.

Process improvement is messy, and if the leaders aren’t comfortable with that messy process, they develop unrealistic expectations of what “progress” looks like.

The people getting the work done, meanwhile, end up working hard to manage those expectations. They actually conceal problems from the boss, for fear of him misinterpreting problems-that-must-be-solved with my-people-don’t-know-what-to-do.*

Trying to layer Toyota Kata over the wrong organizational structure will overwhelm people.

The organizational structure follows necessity. This lines up with Steven Spear’s research.

The organizational structure must match the needs of the process, and the target condition for learning.

If your supervisor has 20 direct reports, it is unlikely he will have the time to work on improvement in a productive way. Toyota’s team leader structure is specifically engineered for improvement, development, and getting a car off the line every 58 seconds.


Improvement takes time and people.

The End.

This isn’t free, nor can you calculate an ROI ahead of time. Get over it.

Start with what you MUST accomplish and look at what is required to get there. It doesn’t work the other way around.

If you don’t continually strive, you die.

If you aren’t striving to go forward, you are going backward.

My thoughts: I make the following analogy: Continuous improvement is like a freezer. There is never a time when you can say “OK, it’s cold enough, I can unplug it now.” You must keep striving to improve. Without the continuous addition of intellectual energy, entropy takes over, and you won’t like the equilibrium point.

All of our failures have come to good things.

My thoughts: By deliberately reflecting and deliberately asking “What did we learn?” you can extract value from any experience. The way I put it is “You have already paid the tuition. You might as well get the education.”

We had sponsorship challenges as the leaders caught up with the people.

My thoughts: Yet another instance of the leaders falling behind the capability of their people. When the people become clear about what must be done, and just start doing it, the only thing an uninformed leader can do is either get out of the way or destructively interfere.

People don’t like uncertainty. Kata deliberately creates uncertainty to drive learning. You have to be OK with that.

My thoughts: Another expression of the same point from yesterday.

“Learning only” has a short shelf life.

“Cool and Interesting” is not equal to Relevant.

Those are the words I wrote down, rather than the words I heard. The key point is that you can, for a very short time, select processes to improve based on the learning opportunities alone. But this is extra work for people. The sooner you can make the results important the quicker people get on board.

A business crisis should not stop improvement or coaching. Does it?

My thoughts: This is a good acid test of how well you have embedded. When a crisis comes up, do people use PDCA to solve the problem, or do they drop “this improvement stuff” because they “don’t have time for it.” ?

Inexperienced 2nd coaches coaching inexperienced coaches coaching inexperienced learners… doesn’t work.

A lot of companies try to do this in the interest of going faster. Don’t outrun your headlights. You can only go as fast as you can. Get help from someone experienced.

Just because you have gone a long way doesn’t mean you can’t slip back. You must continue to strive.

The “unplug the freezer” analogy applies here as well.

You don’t have to start doing this. But if you choose to start, you may not stop. You have to do it every day.

Don’t take this on as a casual commitment, and don’t think you can delegate getting your people “fixed.” (they aren’t broken)

Everybody gets it at the same level. Senior managers tend to lose it faster because there is no commitment to practice it every day at their level.

Awareness is a starting point, but not good enough. A 4 hour orientation, however, is not enough to make you an expert… any more than you can skim “Calculus and Analytic Geometry” and learn the subject.

Results do get attention.

“I’ll have what she’s having”

But don’t confuse results with method.

My challenges to the plant managers weren’t about P&L or service levels. They were about moving closer to 1:1 flow, immediate delivery, on demand.

Challenges must be in operational terms, not financial terms.

Move from “These are the measures, and oh by the way, here is the operational pattern” – to –> “This is the operational pattern I am striving for. and I predict it will deliver the performance we need.”

Gotta catch a plane. More later.



*When I was in the Army, we got a new Battalion Commander who listened to the logistics radio net, where the staff officers discussed all of the issues and problems that had to be solved. He would jump to a conclusion, and issue orders that, if carried out, would interfere with getting those problems solved.

Although he spoke of initiative and taking action, his actions revealed he wasn’t willing to trust us to let him know if there was a problem we couldn’t handle, and expected perfection in execution in situations that were chaotic and ambiguous.

We ended up finding an unused frequency, and encrypting our traffic with a key that only we shared, so the commander couldn’t hear us. Yup… we were using crypto gear, designed to keep the Soviets from hearing us, to keep our boss from hearing us.

As the information channels to him slowly choked off, he was less and less informed about what was actually happening, and his orders became more and more counter-productive, which in turn drove people to hide even more from him.

This, I think, is a working example of “getting bucked off the horse.”

Notes From Day 1 of Kata-Con

I’m attending the Toyota Kata Summit in Fort Lauderdale. We’ve completed Day 1. Here are some notes I took. I plan to expand on some of them later.

Experiment your way forward vs. decide your way forward.

My thoughts: We like certainty. We like a plan we know will work. Unfortunately a plan we know will work is usually just a plan we have convinced ourselves should work. But we have a hard time distinguishing the difference. Such is our desire for certainty – a strongly held opinion or feeling becomes a fact.

We don’t know how it will go. We have to get comfortable with ambiguity if we want to move beyond what we already know.

Until you understand the mindset of uncertainty, you can’t teach anyone else.

My thoughts: This is probably the most foundational qualification for a manager who aspires to become an improvement coach. The improver / learner won’t know the answers.. and neither will you. You have to be very OK with that. If you aren’t, then you’re just telling people what to do, and nobody is learning anything.

Until you try, there is no baseline for learning or coaching.

My thoughts: At the start of a ski lesson, the instructor had each of us ski 50 yards or so down the hill while she watched from below. She asked us to just ski down to her. Of course, she observed.

Then each of us was individually coached on something to practice… a drill or technique that would correct one deficiency in our form.

She skied down another 50 yards, and observed us again. If we were not performing the drill correctly, she corrected until we were performing it correctly. Then our task was to practice.

Asking “What is your target condition?” is asking the learner to demonstrate his technique and understanding. For the coach, the idea is to get them to try so you have a baseline for coaching.

Warning! Be ready for empowered employees!

If a manager with only an “awareness” level of understanding enters this space, he’ll either deflate the team with inept coaching, or will get bucked off the horse he isn’t good enough to ride. The leaders can’t do this from behind. You can’t simultaneously have empowered, creative team members and maintain control. (Sounds a bit like something Heisenberg came up with…)

I am coaching (by giving direction).

No you aren’t.

My thoughts: Actually this note was my thought triggered by something someone said. But I’ve seen senior managers who want to be “coaches” and then redefine “coaching” to mean “tell people what to do.” Doesn’t work like that.

The 5 questions are a jig. The questions on the card allow you (the coach) to listen because you don’t have to think about what question to ask next.

Some days big up. Every day little up. Please try. Do your best. Until you take first step, you cannot see next step. – Toyota coordinator (master coach).

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.” image

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.

Edit to add:

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!)

The Personal Challenge of One-by-One

I got a cool model kit of the 1903 Wright Flyer for Christmas, and am in the process of assembling it. Each wing (top and bottom) has two spars connected by 38 ribs. (To give you a sense of the size, the wingspan of the model is just over 30 inches).


Each of the 38(x2) ribs requires the following steps:

  1. Cut the laser cut part from the sheet.
  2. Sand the ends smooth with an emery board. Fit check between the spar.
  3. Sand the burned wood from the top edge with an emery board (outside curve).
  4. Sand the burned wood from the bottom edge (inside curve) with a piece of fine sandpaper wrapped around a round hobby knife handle.
  5. Sand the burn marks off the flat side with the emery board.
  6. Glue the front end to the front spar.
  7. Glue the back end of the previously done rib to the rear spar. (give the front glue joint time to set)

It was amazingly tempting to just cut them all out, the sand all of the ends, then sand all of the top edges, then sand all of the bottom edges, then sand all of the flats, then glue them all into place. That would have felt like it was faster.

But no matter what order I did it in, I had to repeat steps 1-7 38 times, there wasn’t any way around that. And yes, I picked up, and put down, the tools and glue bottle 38 times by doing it 1:1. But I also picked up on mistakes that I had made only once, and could check and adjust my technique as I went to ensure everything was fitting together the way it should be.

I could also more easily cut things loose when a little glue stuck the spar to the jig. It’s easier to get the knife under one stuck rib. (I only glued my fingers to the wood a couple of times, and only just a little. *smile*).

I know this is old stuff to most of my readers, but sometimes it is good to come back to the fundamentals and experience that 1:1 feels slower even though it isn’t.

Does Your Solution Have A Problem? Does Your Problem Have A Customer? 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.”

Where Toyota Kata Doesn’t Work


I’ll admit right up front that the headline is worded to attract search engines.

If that’s how you got here, be prepared to think.

Can You Prove That This Works

This is something I hear a lot:

“I can see where _____ applies to your example. But my process is __(different somehow) ___.

Fill in the blanks.

Other versions are:

  • “I can see how that works in manufacturing, but ____.
  • “How does this apply to _____?”
  • “Can you show me examples in (something that is an exact match to what I do)?

Anyone in the business of process improvement has heard versions of this excuse for years. It always comes up. “I can see how that works for cars, but we make ____.” is an older version.

One of my favorites came via a friend working with a Japanese supplier to Boeing. They told him “We can see how this would work in American culture, but we don’t think it works in Japan.” Yes, we were teaching Japanese management techniques to the Japanese, and they were telling us it doesn’t work in Japan.

So… this style of “Prove to me that this applies to my specific situation” is something we’ve all heard again and again.


If you manage to read all the way to the bottom, you will see that I readily concede that I cannot prove that “Toyota Kata” or learning problem solving based on scientific thinking works to improve any process out there.

To be able to prove that, I would need knowledge of all processes, past, present and future, and have to make the case that, in each and every one of them, I have indeed established that it works.

What I do have is personal knowledge of application in a very diverse circumstances, which adds to the collective experience of thousands of people who are working to apply these methods and principles. So far, we haven’t found that case where it can’t work. We might someday, but haven’t yet.

The assertion that this thinking is universal is a refutable hypothesis. You can, with some effort, establish rigorous proof, through repeatable experimentation or direct observation of a counter-case that my theory needs modification.

But before we get to that part (at the end), let’s go through some more common instances of this line of thinking.

The Instance of Product Development

Here are a couple of things to think about.

Let me ask, “How do you do product development?”

Typically (HOPEFULLY!) I’ll get some version of:

  • Understand what we are trying to achieve – performance specifications, customer needs, etc. that today’s product cannot provide.
  • Assess the baseline capability and identify gaps between what we need to do, and what we can do with technology, manufacturing capability, etc.
  • Based on that, establish the first, or next, of what are likely a series of intermediate goals converging on the requirement.
  • Iterate through cycles of trials, tests, experiments, learning, etc. to converge on a design that meets the requirements.

Now, to be clear, there are LOTS of variations on this, and lots of ways to manage the execution of this thought process. Some are dramatically more effective than others, but at the core there is a rigorous application of the scientific method.

What is the alternative? Guess at something, build it, and hope it works? Even that approach is going to (hopefully) have you going back and assessing what you learned when it doesn’t work.

So what, exactly, is it about the methodology we are teaching with Toyota Kata that is any different from the above?

  • Understand the challenge and direction.
  • Grasp the current condition.
  • Establish the next target condition.
  • Iterate from the current condition toward the target condition using a rigorous scientific approach that drives learning.

Why wouldn’t you want to apply that method to R&D? What do you do, if you don’t do this?

And, to be even more clear, I think I can make the case that all of the exotic product development methodologies – “Production Preparation Process (3P),” “Agile” and it’s cousins, “Lean Start Up,” “Design for Six Sigma,” “Set Based Concurrent Engineering,” all of them, are simply methods to cycle through the this learning process faster, cheaper, and more robustly.

Toyota Kata is nothing more than a tool to teach the thought pattern. Don’t lose sight of that.

Here’s the kicker. What we are doing, in reality, is working hard to figure out how to apply robust product development thinking to production processes, not the other way around. This stuff started in R&D. The Wright brothers used this process between 1899 and 1903 and beyond to the first practical airplane in 1908. Wilbur’s diaries and letters are essentially a PDCA cycles record.

Scientific Process Engineering

In spite of the little rant above, most engineers take a lot of care to design the product. They study and understand the details of its function, and carefully make modifications in a controlled way so they can test the effects of what they are doing.

On the other hand, it is relatively rare to see the same rigor applied to designing the production process. Many times it is allowed to come together ad-hoc. There is often deep understanding of the core value-adding process steps – how to do machining, welding, painting, etc. But the design and management of the movement of material and information from one process step to the next? Not so much.

Why wouldn’t you want to learn how to apply the same rigor in designing the production system that you apply to designing the product itself?

What is the alternative? Actually I know what the alternative is. Set financially derived metrics, and a high-stakes rewards system for hitting them. Then leave it to managers to figure out on their own. While you’re at it, divide the system into functional areas and set those managers up to compete with each other’s performance. It is a robust system with a reliable, repeatable outcome. Maybe not the outcome you would seek intentionally, but reliably predictable nonetheless.

So how about giving a thought to applying scientific design principles to your production flows? It can’t make them any worse.

Back to Engineering

In a large engineering department, most of the activity isn’t research and design work that I discussed above. It is production work. The products are drawing changes, bills of material, quotes and estimates, CNC programs, engineering change notices, resolution of production problems. This is all vital engineering work, but it is production.

Each of those products is assembled from components. The “material” might be information, but if you decompose outputs into their constituent components, you see sub-assemblies coming together from smaller bits, and in turn, assembling into the bigger “thing” whatever it is.

This is a factory. It just makes useful information rather than hardware.

The irony is (1) There typically even less attention paid to how things are done, what struggles people have to get the information they should have gotten, but didn’t, etc. then there is in even the worst manufacturing floors. And (2) There is often little realization that even people sharing the same cubicle often are working to different interpretations of the requirement, much less methods of doing the work.

So here’s a question:

Are you (as a manager) expected to improve the lead time, quality of output, productivity… any of those things… in your department?

If the answer is “No” then great. I’m glad to hear that things are working perfectly for you… though you might want to spend more time understanding what people are really dealing with, because “No Problem” is often a BIG problem.

For most, though, the answer is “Yes.” They are expected to deliver some improvement in throughput, quality, productivity, etc. Note that these are all production system measurements. That makes perfect sense, because, as I said, these processes are production.

OK… you’re on the hook to deliver improvement of some kind.

How are you going about improvement in your process?

Indulge me a bit, and let me ask a couple of questions.

  1. What you are trying to achieve with your improvement?
  2. How is your process performing today in comparison to that? Do you know what it is about the process that is driving that current performance?
  3. What are you working toward, right now, as the next step to reach your goal?
  4. What kinds of things are you going to have to fix or change to get there?
  5. Which of them are you working on now?
  6. Can you share a bit about what kind of things you are trying in your improvement effort? How are they working for you?

I realize that Toyota Kata might not apply, but if you are actively working to improve anything, you likely have answers to some form of those questions (hopefully).

Of course, those are a variation on the Toyota Kata coaching questions, aren’t they?

It’s just that we usually don’t ask and answer questions like this explicitly. Maybe the effort would be a little more focused and clear if we did. Because all we are trying to do with Toyota Kata is make the scientific thought process more explicit so it is easier to teach. The idea is to get more people learning and understanding how to think that way, which I believe is generally a good thing. Most people would agree, at least with that last part.

I Still Need A Specific Example

Here’s where I sometimes scratch my head, especially when I get this question from someone with a technical education, and often a graduate degree on top of it.

When you went to those universities, did they teach you with examples that exactly matched the job you are doing today? Likely not. Yet you have figured out how to apply those principles to what you are doing.

In those classes, seminars, case studies, they used problems and examples to help you understand the principles.

Then they expected you to take the specific instance of those principles from the examples they used, turn them into a general case, then figure out how to apply those general principles to a different problem, case, or set of circumstances.

In the end, that is really all they were teaching you: How to figure out how to apply a general principle or theory to a specific case or problem. They likely didn’t accept an exam answer that said “You didn’t show me an exact example of this problem.”

It’s Still Science

I will totally concede that there may well be specific instances where the general principles of scientific thinking wouldn’t work to improve a particular type of process. And in those cases, there is certainly no benefit to working to learn how to apply, and teach, scientific thinking.

I say that because I believe in the scientific method, therefore my assertion that “These principles are universally applicable” is a refutable hypothesis.

I welcome the discovery of a specific case where they don’t apply. But the other side of the scientific method is I cannot prove the non-existence of that case.

If, on the other hand, you can establish that you indeed have the proverbial “Black Swan” on your hands, let’s take a look. The burden, though, is on the person suggesting to refute the hypothesis to provide compelling evidence.

Can you please explain what it is about your specific process that defies application of scientific thinking to understand it better, and improve it? What specific characteristics would a process have that makes it so unique that you are stymied in any attempt to apply what you have been educated and trained to do as a scientist or engineer?

I am really curious, and welcome exploring that together, and perhaps modifying my theory to adapt to any true anomalous situation.

That’s science.

Often Skipped: Understand the Challenge and Direction

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Here’s what I think happens:

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

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

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

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

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

What to do differently?

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

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

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

Challenge Light

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

More about Knowing How

A couple of posts down, I reiterated the importance of understanding of how your product is made. If you are in the business of “making things” your ability to improve your product reaches its limit at your level of understanding how to make it. Lean Process and Product Development (below) addresses this same topic.

Now let’s apply this to the management  of production.

In the west, it seems that one of the perks of success is increasing isolation from where the work is done. This may be because western management systems separate the role of “administration” as a generic process from the specialty roles that actually get stuff done. The assumption is that a skilled administrator can successfully administrate just about anything.

As a result, perhaps some managers strive to detach themselves from the details of “getting stuff done” as an unconscious effort to increase their status. They shift to administration type tasks.

These tasks tend to relate to driving financial results. The focus and discussions tend to be around “earned hours” and which shipments to pull ahead to invoice for revenue. They involve skills like expediting (meaning queue jumping) the “hot” jobs, or the ones most likely to make an immediate impact on a financial metric.

The problem comes about when production alone tries to resolve revenue shortfalls with these actions. Pulling more work onto the shop floor – starting jobs earlier – might “keep people busy” but the overproduction just hides the fact that sales volume is below production capacity. Now sales not only has to close the initial shortfall (if you want REAL revenue to keep up), but they also have to double up their efforts to re-fill the pipeline. Otherwise, the “earned hours” or “absorption variance” shortfall is just postponed (and made worse) by this kind of action.

Back on the shop floor, there isn’t anyone looking after the system. It is generally assumed to require this continuous intervention to operate at all, the intervention in turn disrupts stability, which escalates the problem.

But even more, I am troubled, frankly, by how many times I have seen production managers have very poor production management skills.

First and foremost is simple systems thinking. By this I mean understanding the consequences of your decision on the overall stability of the process. In other words, if you break it, you are responsible for ensuring it gets fixed. And to be sure, jumping queues, telling workers to break the flow is breaking it. Note that mastery of how the accounting system keeps score is not systems thinking for the production process. And breaking the process to manipulate the cost accounting is… ?

Of course, if these things are “business as usual” then we are teaching people to do these things as a matter of routine, not exception. Chaos ensues, and there is no attempt at all to worry about the consequences. We’ll deal with that the same way tomorrow.

After understand how the system works, there are some very basic things that any manufacturing manager needs to know. Most of these things also apply to non-production processes, but that does take a little more thinking.

Though it is (hopefully) intuitively obvious that level production is more efficient than ramping things up and down every day (hour!), very few production managers make any effort to establish any kind of level pace.

The single most popular post on this site is “Takt Time – Cycle Time.” I initially wrote it to make the point that the term “cycle time” is ambiguous and we need to be clear about which definition we mean when we use the term, and that we need to understand the “Why?” behind takt time vs. taking a blind, rote approch. Take a look at the comments chain. It isn’t about the questions being asked so much as who is asking them. Whose job is it to understand production management in these organizations?

You may not have a “takt time” in the literal sense, but you do have a rate that things must be done in order to succeed by the end of the day.

Unless you have infinite flexibility, every process was designed around some level of capacity (which means a rate!), even if by accident. But, all too often, I see managers making decisions about hiring more people, buying more equipment, even putting on extra shifts, without doing the underlying math of what capacity is required, what capacity they have, defining the gap, identifying the obstacles, and then deciding on countermeasures. (with “more stuff” as an absolute last resort)

It isn’t about “how many we have to make.”

It is about “how fast should we be making them?”

This, I guess, is the nuance that gets lost.

Keep Calm and Learn to Think