Toyota Kata and The Menlo Way

I have been telling everyone who will listen to read Rich Sheridan’s book Joy, Inc. ever since I came across and read it in the fall of 2015.

Fast forward to earlier this year when Lean Frontiers sent out their request for suggested keynote speakers for KataCon. I wrote to Mike Rother and asked him “Do you think we could get Rich Sheridan?”

Skip ahead a bit more, and I spent four days last week at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor – two days “in the chalk circle” paying close attention to the actual day-to-day work there, and two days working (pairing) with Rich Sheridan to work out the key beats for his KataCon keynote.


The “So What?” Test

Menlo is well known as a benchmark for a great working culture. But the question you may be asking (and, honestly I hope you ARE asking it) is “What does Menlo Innovations and agile software development have to do with Toyota Kata?”

If you visit Menlo (and I really hope you do!) here is what you won’t see:

  • Learner storyboards.
  • “5 Questions” coaching cycles.
  • Obstacle parking lots.
  • Experiment Records (PDCA Records)

In other words, you won’t see the explicit artifacts that characterize an organization using Toyota Kata to learn how to think about improvement scientifically. In that sense, Menlo isn’t a “Toyota Kata” benchmark.

OK… and?

You don’t see those things at Toyota either. You don’t go to Toyota to see “Toyota Kata.”

The Underlying Thinking Pattern

What you will see (and hear… if you pay attention) at Menlo Innovations is an underlying pattern of scientific thinking and safe problem solving in everything they do.

Let’s review what Toyota Kata is really all about.

Rather than re-writing something elegant here, I am going to quote from my part of an email exchange between Mike Rother, Rich Sheridan and me:

Going back to Mike’s original research premise, we knew that Toyota has this pretty awesome culture thing, but didn’t really understand the “secret sauce” of the exact structure of their interactions. Put another way, we saw and understood all of the artifacts, but copying the artifacts doesn’t copy the culture.

Mike’s research was really the first that dug deeper into the interactions that the artifacts support.

Once he extracted that “secret sauce” he then boiled off all of the other stuff, and what remained at the bottom of the pot was the Improvement Kata steps and the Coaching Kata steps.

In practice at Toyota, those things are deeply embedded in the artifacts. Sometimes they aren’t even spoken.

My informal hypothesis was that if I spent time paying attention to, not just the artifacts, but the way those artifacts guided interactions at Menlo, and then boiled off the other stuff, what would remain at the bottom of the Menlo pot would also be the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata steps. And, though I didn’t do this formally, and yes, I had confirmation bias working here, I believe I can safely say “I have no evidence to contradict this hypothesis.”

For example:

In our conversation on Friday, Mike pushed back a bit on “just run the experiment,” [context clarification: Experiments to randomly try stuff, without a clear target condition rarely get you anywhere] but the reality I observed and heard was that “purpose” (challenge and direction) and “current condition” are deeply embedded in the day-to-day interactions, and “just run the experiment” is, indeed, working on a specific obstacle in the way of a target condition of some kind.


“What problem are you trying to solve?” is Menlo jargon that I overheard many times just listening to people talk.

Within Menlo, that term is contextual. Sometimes it is about the higher-level direction and challenge.

Sometimes it is about an intermediate target condition.

Sometimes it is about an immediate problem or obstacle.

As we say in Kata world, it is fractal. It is truly fractal at Menlo as well, to the point where the words don’t change at various levels.

The words DO change at various levels in Toyota Kata’s jargon, but we can’t get hung up on the terms, we have to look at the structure of problem solving.

Menlo’s co-founders already had this thinking pattern, and deliberately sought to embed it into the culture of the company they were starting. There wasn’t really any need to explicitly teach it because they weren’t trying to change the default behavior of an organization. New Menlonians learn the culture through the interviewing and on-boarding process and adopt very quickly because the very structure of the work environment drives the culture there.

In fact, spend any time there even just hanging out, and it is very difficult NOT to get pulled into The Menlo Way. Like everyone else, Rich and I were in the daily stand-up as pair-partners, reporting our work progress on his keynote.


What About Toyota Kata?

Menlo has had hundreds (thousands, actually) of visitors, and those who are “lean savvy” all ask if Menlo is “using lean” as their guideline. The answer is “no, we are just trying to solve problems.” While they have certainly incorporated most of the artifacts of “agile software production,” the purists push back that they aren’t “really doing it” because they didn’t copy those artifacts exactly. Nope. They used them as a baseline to solve Menlo’s problems.

When we see an awesome problem-solving culture, it is tempting to try to reverse engineer it by copying the physical mechanics, such as heijunka boxes (work authorization boards), kanban, “standard work” and the like.

But we have to dig down and look at the routines, the behavior that those artifacts and rituals support. When we do, we see the same patterns that Toyota Kata is intended to teach.

You need to begin with the thinking pattern. Use Toyota Kata to learn that.

As you do, take a look at your artifacts – the procedures, the policies, the control mechanics of your work. Reinforce the ones that are working to create the kind of culture you want. Challenge the ones that are getting in your way. Do both of those things as deliberate experiments toward a clear vision of the culture you want to create.

That is the benefit of studying companies like Menlo.

I hope to see you all at KataCon, hear what Rich has to say to our community, and establish a link between these two communities that have, up to now, been separate.

The Ecosystem of Culture


An organization’s culture and mindset evolve over time. When confronted with a problem or challenge, the organization (or more accurately, the people in the organization) view it through a filter of their experiences. Ideas that they believe have worked for them under past similar conditions are more likely to be applied again. Ideas that have seemed less successful, or more difficult, in the past are less likely to be applied again.

Over time, this collective experience determines how they respond to the day to day rough spots as well as more serious challenges. Those unconscious biases drive the responses, and in turn, shape how their processes are structured.

Different Cultures = Different Ecosystems

The process mechanics in a company like Toyota evolved over decades in a very specific organizational culture ecosystem, with specific values and beliefs shaped by their historic experiences.

When we are looking at the current processes in a different company, we are seeing the process mechanics that evolved in their management culture. Those process mechanics are optimized by the pressures that are exerted by the way THAT company is managed. Since Toyota is managed differently, its processes are optimized by different pressures, so will look different.

If we take Toyota’s process mechanics and shift them into a different ecosystem, they will have the different pressures exerted upon them. Different default decisions will be made. These alien process mechanics will likely begin to resemble the legacy processes rather quickly, if they survive at all.

This is why the promise of a rapid and dramatic change in operational results is frequently unfulfilled. The process mechanics are imported from a tropical rain forest, and installed in an alpine meadow. As beautiful as it looks in one environment, it won’t stand for long in the other.


Adjusting the Culture vs. Adjusting the Process Mechanics

If we want this transplant to work, we have to pay careful attention to those evolutionary pressures. In practical terms, this means we try the new mechanics, we must watch carefully to learn what problems they reveal. We also need to observe the decisions that are made when these problems come up.

What adjustments need to be made in the way people interact, and to the immediate response to problems or surprises if this new process is to thrive?

Having a formal structure for this deliberate self-reflection is critical.

The Improvement Kata is engineered to specifically drive this kind of reflection by making changes as experiments, then deliberately reflecting with the question “What have we learned?”

For this to work, of course, we must be honest with ourselves and not just issue a flip answer like “It doesn’t work.”

Because we are asking people to adjust their responses, we are asking them to do things which are unfamiliar and may well run opposite from what they have experienced as successful for them in the past. If we try to move too fast, we are asking them to trust an alien process which is, in their experience, unproven in their environment. We might be asking them to reveal their own limits of knowledge – which is very scary for most of us.

That, in turn, asks for reflection on why “I don’t know…” is so scary to admit in the organization’s culture.

We have sold “lean” as a deceptively simple set of common-sense process mechanics with the idea that if we just implement them, we’ll get incredibly great results. As true as that is, “just implement them” is a lot harder than most of the “rapid improvement” models imply.

There is a lot going on behind what appears to be well understood and simple on the surface.

Make Sure Failure = Learning

Take a look at this cool video from Space-X that highlights all of the failures that preceded their successful (and now more or less routine) landing of a recoverable orbital booster rocket. Then let’s discuss it a bit.

(Here is the direct link if you don’t get the embed in your feed:

When we see failure, or even failure after failure, it is easy to forget that learning is rarely linear.

A Culture of Learning

Organizations like Space-X (and their counterparts such as Blue Origin) are in the business of learning. They are pushing the edges of what is known and moving into new territory. For organizations that understand that setbacks, mistakes, failures and the like are an inevitable part of learning, these things – while costly and unpleasant – are regarded as part of the process.

We have seen the same mechanisms in play – a process of experimentation toward progressive target conditions toward a visionary challenge – behind pretty much every breakthrough achievement throughout history.

No Mistakes = No Learning

At the opposite end of the spectrum are organizations with no tolerance for mistakes. They expect everything (and every one) to get everything right every time. They dismiss as incompetent any notion of failure, and attack as weakness any admission of “I don’t know” or “I don’t know how.”

A few years ago, as I was teaching Toyota Kata coaching with a client, a middle manager approached me during a break and said – point blank – that it was not his responsibility to develop his people. “Our policy is to hire competent people, and we expect them to be able to do the job.” He wasn’t the only one to say that, so I built the impression that this belief was, indeed, part of their culture. Needless to say they struggle a bit with getting innovation to happen because they try to mechanize the process.

Mistakes = Tuition

Here’s how I look at it. When a mistake happens – especially one that is expensive – you have paid considerable tuition. Your choice now is to either extract as much learning as you can from the event, or to try to ignore it and move on. The later choice is like paying your tuition up-front, then skipping all of your classes and wonder why you aren’t getting it.

Learning = Adapting to Change

Organizations that manage in ways that regard learning as part of their everyday experience are much more adaptive to changes and surprises than those who just execute their routines every day. The paradox here is that organizations who value learning are generally the most disciplined at following their routines. This discipline makes execution a hypothesis test, and they can quickly see when their process isn’t appropriate and adapt and learn quickly as an organization. They strengthen their routines, and through those routines, embed what they have learned in the organization’s DNA for future generations.

Organizations that figure it out as they go, on the other hand, tend to rely on individuals to adapt, but there is no mechanism to capture that learning beyond the individual or small group. Sometimes there is a “lessons learned” document, but that’s it. Those reports rarely result in the changes in organizational behavior that reflect learning. I suppose the most egregious case would be the loss of the space shuttle Columbia upon re-entry for exactly the same organizational failures that resulted in the loss of Challenger.

Technical vs. Cultural Learning

Space-X is solving a technical problem with science and engineering. I hope (and expect) that as they become more successful they will always be striving for something really hard that will drive them to the next level. Based on what I see publicly, I think that is embedded into their culture by Elon Musk. (But I don’t really know. If anyone from Space-X is reading this, how about getting in touch? I’d love to learn more.)

I expect this works for Space-X because they have a culture of learning.

What doesn’t work, though, is to try to apply technical solutions to transition a rote-execution culture into a learning culture. Changing the culture – the default behaviors and responses of people as they interact – isn’t about improving the mechanics of the work process. You certainly can work on the work processes, but the starting condition is what evolved in the context of the organization’s culture. The mechanics of the “improved” process that we try to duplicate evolved in the context of a learning culture. The ecosystems are different. It is difficult for a lean process to survive in a culture that expects everything to run perfectly and doesn’t have robust mechanisms to turn problems into improvements.

There Are No Silver Bullets

There are no quick, simple solutions

Occasionally I get an email from someone who asks a question like “How can I improve cycle time in the [fill in the blank here] industry?” Generally my reply is along the lines of “I don’t know, but I can help you figure it out.” I’ll give them some homework, often pointing them at Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata Practice Guide online, and asking them to do the Process Analysis step and get back to me with what they have seen and learned.

Lone Ranger with Silver Bullet
Who was that masked man?

This is usually followed by silence (cue the crickets here). Perhaps they think there is an easy answer and a single email can just tell them what to do to get that 20% performance improvement.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Process improvement involves work. There aren’t easy fixes (that last). There isn’t any solution anyone can give you that can just be implemented, nor can anyone learn it for you.

The real work is adjusting your culture

Digging a little deeper, if you want that productivity improvement to reach even a fraction of your full potential or sustain for any length of time, you have to go beyond technical solutions. When I said process improvement involves work, the technical mechanics are the easy part. The real work is understanding what social and cultural norms in your organization are holding you back and dealing with those.

Fortunately we have learned a lot more about the influence of the organization’s culture and how to influence the culture. But influencing the culture doesn’t happen by accident. And you can’t outsource your own thinking, reflection and learning.


Learning Starts With “I Don’t Know”

If an organization wants to encourage learning, they have to get comfortable with not having all of the answers. Learning only happens when we discover something we don’t know, and then actively pursue understanding it. Many organizations, though, equate “having the answers” or “already knowing” with “competence.” Thus, if I say “I don’t know” then I am setting myself up for being regarded as incompetent.

What I see in these organizations is people will take great pains to hide problems. They will try very hard to figure things out, but do so in the background always reporting that everything is going fine. They live in the hope that someone else’s problem will emerge as the show-stopper before theirs does, and give them the extra time to sort out their issue.

Meanwhile, the bosses are frustrated because people aren’t being truthful with them. But what should they expect if “truth” attracts accusations of being incompetent?

But… there is hope.

I was talking to a friend last week who works in a huge company that seems to be making an earnest effort to shift their culture. There is nearly unanimous agreement that the existing culture isn’t working for them. On the other hand, actually changing culture is really, really hard because it involves changing people’s immediate, habitual responses to things.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when my friend recounted a recent meeting where someone admitted two things:

  1. There was an unexpected problem that came out in a recent test.
  2. They, right now, don’t know how to fix it.

Just to be clear, these two things coming out in this meeting is a big deal. This has been a culture where unexpected problems have not been warmly received. Bringing them up without a confident assessment about a prospective solution was inviting the kind of intervention that is rarely helpful.

This time, though, was a little different.

The leaders started going down the expected responses such as “What do you mean we don’t know what to do?” then… stopped short. They paused, and realized this was not in line with their newly stated values of creating trust and accepting failure as an inherent part of learning.

And they changed their tone. They shifted the conversation from trying to assign responsibility blame for the test failure toward asking what we, the organization, needed to learn to better understand what happened.

My thoughts are:

Kudos to the person who was brave enough to test the waters and admit “I don’t know.”