Toyota Kata: Coaching vs a Report Out

Andrea brought up an interesting point in our weekly open Toyota Kata discussion. She noted that as the coaching conversation became more and more fluid, it tended to become more like a report-out from the learner than coaching them. That got me thinking about a couple of things.

Updating the Toyota Kata Storyboard

Reverse Coaching

Something I think I have talked about in the past is the technique of using the Improvement Kata structure to report out. In other words, report out progress (like in a meeting, for example) as though you were answering a version of the Coaching Questions even though they aren’t being asked.

  • Review what we are are trying to accomplish.
  • Where we are now.
  • The last step taken, what happened, what has been learned.
  • The next step being taken, what we expect (or expect to learn)

It would be really simple, for example, to format PowerPoint slides in this sequence. I discussed this a little bit way back in 2008, before Toyota Kata was published.

My hypothesis here is that people would like hearing a report in that format, and the boss might well start asking others to do the same thing.

Maintaining the Coaching Structure

Of course I don’t think this is what Andrea was talking about. It was the opposite. The learner is so familiar with the structure, and well prepared, so the coaching questions seem moot.

So what is a coach to do?

Here is my question:

Are You Challenging Your Learner?

When you are getting a report-out with little room for coaching this is actually a good thing. It means that your learner has developed and what may have been challenging in the past is now more or less routine.

Keep in mind that your learner has two thresholds of knowledge. One is around the actual process or task they are taking on. That is what is actually being discussed in the coaching conversation.

The other threshold of knowledge is around learning to tackle tough challenges with the scientific thought structure.

With beginner learners, both of these knowledge thresholds are pretty apparent. As a coach you are working to develop their thinking patterns, to make that scientific thought structure habitual. You do that by giving them challenges that take them a bit beyond their threshold of knowledge, and then coach them to apply scientific thought to take on that challenge.

As they get better, they will apply scientific thought to any problem they take on. Congratulations, Coach, it worked. You can tell this is happening when the conversation starts to sound like a report-out. What once was a tough problem is now handled routinely.

OK, Coach, Time to step up your game.

What challenge can you issue that would have your learner struggle a bit with grasping the current condition? Establishing a target condition? Figuring out what the obstacles are and isolating them? Developing good experiments?

In other words, how to you push your learner a bit beyond their threshold of knowledge of tackling challenges scientifically? Then you are back into the learning zone and both of you are operating at the next level.

TWI: Is it Time to Rethink Job Relations?

My intent with this post is to spark a conversation about whether it is time to adjust what we teach people to say when they are teaching TWI Job Relations. It is based on, and expanded from, a talk I gave at the 2023 TWI Summit.

Background

TWI stands for Training Within Industry, a program developed during WWII by the U.S. War Manpower Commission. During the war there was huge growth and turnover within the industrial base as production shifted from civilian products (locomotives, for example) to wartime production (tanks). Many of the (mostly male) workers were drafted or enlisted. People with no industrial experience were joining the workforce. Technicians, often very technically skilled, but inexperienced in leading people, were put into supervisory positions.

The Commission deployed a series of training programs to teach industrial supervisors:

  • Job Instruction, teaching the skill of breaking down a job and teaching it to others.
  • Job Methods, teaching the skill of analyzing work with an eye to improve efficiency.
  • And, Job Relations, what we are discussing here, the skill of handling people problems.

The program produced detailed manuals for certified instructors, and was rigorous in insisting that instructors not deviate from the words in the manual (unless the manual called out using their own words to tell a story, for example).

Today there are a lot of people, both internal trainers and quite a few outside training companies and consultants, using this material to teach.

In many cases the material these current-day trainers use deviates very little from the source material.

In addition, there are companies that are “training the trainer” to deliver the course precisely – which is good – and coaching them not to deviate from the words in the manual.

When we have people follow a script, they are playing a role that is defined by the voice in the script. Yes, they bring their own style, but the scripted dialog sets the tone of the message.

I believe it is time to take a look at that source material through the lens of 21st century values and ask whether or not we should revise the words and content in that script rather than blindly following something written in 1944 as though it is somehow sacrosanct. If the words do not match the story we want to tell, and the values we want to communicate, then perhaps we should update the script.

The challenge, of course, is that nobody owns this material. The original 1944 manuals are all in the public domain. Thus there is no central owner or go-to “keeper of the configuration.” Anyone can take the source material, and with some practice and feedback, do a credible job delivering it. But it remains that most of the versions in use out there don’t deviate much from the original material.

Thus, my message is not about anyone in particular. It is about the 1944 material. What follows is a review I would write if it were just being published, separating from the legacy and taking an objective look at the document and training material as it stands on its own.

If you are considering using it yourself, or are considering hiring someone to bring this material to your company, then hopefully this will make you a better customer by arming you with some questions to ask.

Determine Objective: What Kind of Relations Do We Want?

The TWI Job Relations course emphasizes the importance of supervisors having “good relations” with their people, and giving supervisors the basic skills they need to develop and maintain those relations is clearly the objective of the course. In principle, I agree with this objective 100%. The relationships between a supervisor and the team are critical to the success of the organization.

How do we define “Good” in “Good Relations?”

If “good relations” is the overall objective, then we should look at what is meant by the word “good.” I think the answer depends on the person’s mental model and biases about the role of authority. There are a couple of distinct paradigms I want to discuss. There may be more, but I think most are variations of these two. And, to be clear, this is actually a continuum rather than a bipolar model. I am just showing the endpoints.

Thus, rather than thinking about whether a particular turn of phrase in the script represents one end or the other, perhaps ask, “Which direction is it nudging things?” In other words, which end of the continuum is it biased toward – and is that the direction you want to emphasize in your own organization?

Traditional Transactional Relationships

In a lot (probably most) organizations the relationship between the supervisor or boss and their subordinates is largely transactional.

They ask people to give their time and participation in exchange for tangible benefits (like pay) and intangible rewards (like approval).

Transactional Relationships within a work group

This model embeds some tacit assumptions including:

  • If everyone does their job, we get the result we want.
  • The supervisor is largely responsible to define the jobs.
  • The supervisor is responsible ensure that everyone is doing those jobs.

The Job Relations material is pretty explicit when it describes the purpose of the class:

Management wants output and quality.

Output and quality always require the loyalty and cooperation of the people in addition to what machines can accomplish.

Can we do something which will improve loyalty and cooperation? That is the purpose of these meetings.

– From Job Relations Session 1

Loyalty and cooperation are certainly things we would like to get from people, but I also think it is also a pretty low bar. And loyalty is a two-way street, at least outside of a dysfunctional relationship where it is expected but not given outside of the bounds of a transaction.

A Mechanistic Model of the Universe

This transactional view is representative of a 17th century mindset that, unfortunately, prevails today in many domains, especially in business and industry.

Largely defined in the work of René Descartes (1596-1650) and really solidified in the work of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) this model depicts a universe that operates like clockwork. It is mechanistic. It is deterministic – if we know the starting positions and characteristics of the pieces, we can predict what will happen. This is a reductionist view – we can understand the whole by decomposing it and understanding the parts. If we optimize the parts, we will optimize the whole.

From the 1944 perspective, the world of physics had been grappling with the idea that none of this is actually true for the previous 30 years or so. In the world of everyday experience, the mechanistic view still made common sense to people. It still does today. But on the level of human relationships, we now understand things much better.

The Mechanistic View in Industry

What do I observe that might lead me to conclude that the mechanistic view prevails in a business or factory?

Relationships Are Transactional

There are discussions around the relationship as an exchange between the business and the employee.

Motivation is Regarded as Extrinsic

Workers in the Ford Model-T Factory

“They are only here for the paycheck” and even the attitude that the purpose of treating people well is to motivate them to perform – as part of the transaction. The general belief here is that if it were not for the external rewards, people would not bring what is required to the job.

Issues, “problems,” are framed as restoring or renegotiating the transactional relationship, or at best, heading off things that might disrupt it.

The Goal or Objective is for everyone to “do their part” for the performance of production – to meet the needs of the organization which is thought of as separate from the employees.

Therefore, leaders intercede when something threatens production. Their goal, their objective, is to head off threats to the status-quo or to restore the status quo.

Now, to be clear, there are elements of these things in even the most enlightened organizations. But there are key differences in the underlying paradigm and, more critically, the words that are used when discussing problems.

The Holistic, Teamwork View

The reductionist, mechanistic model is appealing because it creates an illusion of direct cause-and-effect between a change in one component and the overall outcome. It is also appealing because it gives the illusion that we can deal with each component, including each person, separately, and shape their behavior by altering the terms of the transaction.

We have learned a lot since the early 1940s.

The Holistic, Systemic View

In this paradigm the emphasis is on teamwork rather than “do your job.”

“Teamwork” is interesting. People tell me they want “teamwork” within their organizations as though teamwork is a tangible thing. It isn’t. Teamwork is an emergent property of specific habitual patterns of interaction between people. When those interconnections are strong, there is teamwork. When those interconnections are weak, then people tend to retreat into their own individual silos.

The supervisor’s role in this model is much less directive. Their objectives are around maintaining clarity so that the entire team is aware of how they are doing vs. their objective; to work to build trust with and between the members of the team; and work to grow people’s skills, both technical and social.

The objective is centered around strengthening the team.

What kind of things do I observe when this model prevails?

Relationships are Social

This doesn’t mean that everyone is friends or socializes outside of work (though that can happen). It doesn’t even mean they all like each other. Rather, there is a bond of trust and respect between the members of the team. This isn’t just about the interactions between individuals and the supervisor, but interactions between everyone.

Sidebar: It your organization refers to employees in terms such as “team member” but still engages in traditional transactional relations focused on compliance and control, the values in your language do not reflect the values people actually experience, and you are only fooling yourself.

Motivation is Considered to be Intrinsic

Human motivation is probably the thing we have learned the most about since the 1940s. There is a robust body of research that suggests that transactional, extrinsic, motivators alone actually reduce teamwork, reduce the level of commitment, and impede creative problem solving because they introduce a fear of loss into the transaction. Organizations that have strong teamwork also understand this.

They work hard to build a workplace that creates a sense of autonomy, competence, and most critically, relatedness – the sense of satisfaction from relationships and being a part of something bigger than ones’ self.

And crucially, these organizations tend to consider all employees, regardless of level, to be vested members of a single entity rather than transactional employees. Note that I say “employees” here but I am not implying any particular legal relationship. I have seen phenomenal teamwork and intrinsic motivation within groups of independent contractors, or hybrid groups with both independent contractors and formal employees. I have even seen it with team members who were technically employees of a temp agency.

This feeling of being vested in the teamwork and the outcome arises from the relations between the team members, not any particular legal structure.

Assumption: Good Teamwork Produces Better Results

In the strongest teamwork cultures, the lowest level of accountability for results is the team. Admittedly this is exceptional, but it demonstrates a basic underlying assumption: The way to get the best performance is to focus on strengthening teamwork rather than reacting directly to things that disrupt production.

Now… reality is more subtle than this, of course. But that really means that the leadership, especially the first line leadership, must be steeped a mindset of learning and growth rather than one of simply gaining compliance.

A Thought Experiment – Which Team Do You Want?

Consider this hypothetical. We have two groups that are identical.

  • The same people.
  • The same process.
  • The same equipment.
  • The same environment.

The supervisor for Team 1 has a focus on things that disrupt production.

The supervisor for Team A has a focus on things that strengthen teamwork.

Which of those teams will be more productive? Team 1? or Team A?

I asked this question to an audience of about 60 people (as I gave this talk) at the 2023 TWI Summit. Nobody raised their hands for Team 1. About two thirds raised their hands for Team A. Strong teamwork produces better results.

Two Teams Thought Experiment

Getting the Facts: What Does TWI Job Relations Actually Say?

Which brings us back to our original question: How do we define “good” in “Good Relations?”

The 1944 Job Relations trainer’s manual is silent on any direct definition of “Good Relations.” Therefore we have to look at what the material defines as the objective of the supervisor.

In the introductory material on day one, we see this definition of “Good Supervision” at the bottom of Page 18 in the 1944 Job Relations manual:

Good supervision means that the supervisor gets the
people in his department to do what he wants done,
when it should be done, and the way he wants it done,
because they want to do it.

Are you comfortable with this definition of “good supervision?”

All I can do here is relate my own reaction. Yours may be different. But to me, this is the very definition of compliance. Most updates to the material change the pronouns from “he” to something more inclusive, but the rest of the words remain, and are often quoted outside of the actual class.

Is this the objective? Is this the relationship we want our supervisors to have with their people? Only you know what your objective is.

Page 18 of the Job Relations Manual: Is this what we want?

Here is a little test you can do. Take this definition of “good supervision” and frame it in the first person. Imagine that a supervisor was saying these words to the people who report to him. “My job is to get you to do what I want done, when it should be done, and the way I want it done, because you want to do it.”

Now ask yourself: Would that statement reflect respect for the people it was spoken to? Would it fly when spoken to members, especially the youngest members, of a 21st century workforce? Does that statement meet the objective of good relations between a supervisor and his direct reports?

If teaching your supervisors how to constructively gain compliance from their people is your goal, you can stop reading. This post is not targeted at you.

But if you are after a different objective, then perhaps we should rethink the words we use when instructing. And, more importantly, we should rethink the words we teach others to use when teaching them to deliver this training material.

The Job Relations Model

If we were to hypothetically change the definition of “Good Supervision” to something a little more aligned with 21st Century values (or keep it if your values are aligned with it… why are you still reading this?) and look at the rest of the material, we see that we may have now created some discontinuities that need to be addressed.

The TWI Job Relations Model

The question remains: Does the model we use to teach these concepts support our objective?

In the 1944 course, the instructor constructs this diagram step by step with the objective of emphasizing that success of supervisors depends on the “loyalty and cooperation” of the people working for them.

The first step of building the diagram is to emphasize that “A supervisor gets results through people.” by making the valid point that it is the people actually running the machines and assembling the product (or in more modern language, performing the value-adding operations) that actually get the results.

Did that supervisor himself make wire? No, he supervised a department in which many people worked together to turn out the wire.

Now this is really just a quibble on my part, but is there a better way to say that the supervisors’ job is to enable their people to get good results rather than “the supervisor gets results…” which, in my mind, lays claim to them?

Gets Results Through People – Does it reinforce the idea of hierarchy and authority?

I’m just throwing that out there, but overall, the tone seems to me to be more about authority than teamwork.

If I look holistically, I think the supervisor is more about enabling the team to get results by working on removing barriers to teamwork and getting the job done in the most effective and efficient way possible.

As the vertical two-ended arrow labeled “Job Relations” is drawn, the training script directs the instructor to say:

“Job Relations are the everyday relations between you [the supervisor] and the people you supervise.

The kind of relations you have affects the kind of results you get.

Relations with some are good, with others are poor, but there are always relationships.

Poor relationships cause poor results ; good relationships
cause good results.

When a supervisor wants to meet any of these responsibilities effectively, he must have good relations with his people.

And all of this is totally true. What is not here is emphasis on the relations between the people. In fact, the word “trust” appears nowhere in the baseline material. “Teamwork” is mentioned only as “Lack of teamwork” in the list of possible problems a supervisor might encounter. It certainly isn’t a point of emphasis as a core objective.

So to someone who already has a mechanistic mindset, it is easy, in my mind, for that person to interpret this material as reinforcing a model where the supervisor uses his authority to oversee each member of the group individually with the overall objective of each one doing his job so that their piece of the process functions correctly.

The Foundations for Good Relations

TWI Job Relations – Foundations for Good Relations Pocket Card

The 10 hour course spends 10 minutes going over the “Foundations for Good Relations.”

They are:

  • Let each worker know how he is doing.
  • Give credit where credit is due.
  • Tell people in advance about changes that will affect them.
  • Make the best use of each person’s ability.

and at the bottom of the pocket card: People must be treated as individuals.

What is really interesting to me here is that, according to the 1945 Training Within Industry Report that outlines the development of these courses, an earlier version of these foundations was (Bold emphasis added by me):

  • Be sure that each person understands what his job is.
  • Be sure each person understands the working conditions.
  • Be sure each person understands what affects his earnings.
  • Be sure that the people on the team work together.

So earlier, pilot, version of the material from early 1942 (at the latest) included an explicit reference to teamwork as a foundation for good relations, but this was changed by the time the final 1944 version was finalized. And it is the 1944 version that everyone who teaches TWI Job Relations bases their materials on.

Although the foundations are pretty solid, I personally find the phrasing a bit paternalistic – which, again, reflects the values of the times. Thus I think we should review the foundations and choose our words carefully when teaching these critical concepts.

The other question I have is this: Since these foundations are a critical underpinning for the entire program, why do we only spend 10 minutes telling them about the foundations? From TWI Job Instruction we know that “telling alone is not enough” for something that is critically important.

Again, according to the official history of the program, earlier pilot versions spent more time on the foundations, but that time was given up in order to spend more time on what is now the main emphasis of the course: “How to handle a problem.”

How to Handle a Problem

TWI Job Relations – How to handle a problem

The course defines a problem as: “Anything the supervisor has to take action on.” and right away we set the tone for the remaining 8 hours and 55 minutes of the course – Problems.

What is awesome about TWI Job Relations is the Four Step Method for “handling problems.” What I wish were different is that it is framed to be about handling problems that cannot be ignored rather than a more general purpose process for developing people and teamwork. The process itself needs no changes. Only the title and context of teaching.

I think this point is driven home by the way the 10 hours course spends people’s time.

What Does TWI Job Relations Emphasize?

Timeline of TWI Job Relations 10 Hour Course

A simple look at the overall timeline of the course is telling. It spends slightly over 10% of the time talking about the foundations (in green above), the importance of good relations. And it spends just under 75% of the time practicing how to handle compliance issues (in red above). With the exception of “The Jim Problem” the case studies are around people having poor attitudes, not showing up for work, etc. And the case studies tend to set the tone for the “problems” that the participants bring to the class.

In the examples, the instructor emphasizes listening to people, though there isn’t any real practice around good listening skills. Again, earlier pilot versions of the course emphasized this more, but not the final version that everyone uses today.

OK, I could dig in more, but I’m not going to. Hopefully if you are considering using this material, you will read it for yourself, or listen to the words actually used, and ask yourself if these points of emphasis are what you want to teach your supervisors. Time for the next step.

Weigh and Decide

First, let me address some obvious (to me) potential objections to what I am saying so far. Then let’s look at alternatives, and finally, let’s ask which alternatives is most likely to meet our objective.

But Mark…Supervisors have to learn to deal with these real-world issues.

Yes they do. My questions are:

  • Are the case studies reflective of issues that 21st century supervisors have to deal with?
  • Are we giving our supervisors 21st century skills to deal with these their issues?
  • Are we emphasizing teamwork or compliance?

I don’t disagree at all that our objective includes teaching supervisors how to effectively handle problems. I question whether the tone and phrasing we are using is the most effective way to do so.

But Mark… I (we) absolutely emphasize building good teams when teaching Job Relations.

If so, that is awesome. My questions are:

  • Are you following the Job Relations course script, or are you deviating from the script to emphasize these things?
  • Are you having to emphasize these things in follow-up after the formal class?
  • If you are deviating from the script, then my message is not directed to you, BUT…

Do we teach new instructors to follow the script exactly?

If so, then my questions are:

  • Do those newly certified Job Relations instructors already work in a place with a solid teamwork-based mindset (or a place striving toward one)?
  • Do the words we teach them to say reinforce that teamwork mindset?
  • What happens when the norms and customs of the organization are focused on compliance and production numbers only?
  • Do those same words reinforce the mindset of compliance and production?

Are We Meeting Our Objective?

That depends very much on what your objective is.

If your objective is to prevent (or recover from) disruptions to production by teaching your supervisors to get people to do what he wants done, when it should be done, and the way he wants it done, because they want to do it, then everything is fine. The 1944 TWI Job Relations material is focused on this objective and does a great job.

If, on the other hand, the objective is to teach supervisors the skills they need to build a culture of teamwork, as well as to build a cadre of instructors who emphasize the things that contribute to that culture, then maybe, just maybe, we should take a look at the words we use.

And the words we teach others to use. And what we have them practice. And where they spend their time.

Job Relations is great. And when it is taught and coached through a lens of teamwork culture, it can have a profound positive impact on the organization.

But out of the box, I believe it is too deeply tied to the values and paradigms of its times.

I think we can do a better job preparing our supervisors for the next 80 years.

Conclusion

This is long enough, and I am not going to delve into any specific suggestions here. As I said at the beginning, this is public domain material, nobody owns it or manages the configuration. Anyone who wants to is able to take this as a baseline and update it to match your own values.

If you do, I would hope that you would consider re-contributing your updates to the public domain, so that our community can benefit as a whole.

“95 Thesis” on Kaizen Events and TPS

Once again I am going through old files. These are some notes I wrote back in 2005 that I thought might be interesting here. Looking back at what I was writing at the time, I think I was thinking about nailing these points to a church door somewhere in the company. That actually isn’t a bad analogy as I was advocating a pretty dramatic shift in the role of the kaizen workshop leaders.

All Saint’s Church – Wittenberg, Germany

This was written four years before I first encountered Toyota Kata, and reflected my experience as a lean director operating within a $2billion slice of a global manufacturing company. What reading Toyota Kata did for me was (1) solidify what I wrote below, and (2) provided a structure for actually doing it.

Perhaps this will create some discussion. If you are interested in getting a Zoom session together around it, feel free to hit the Contact Mark in the right sidebar (or just click it here) and drop me a note. If there is interest, I’ll put something together.

Kaizen Events

Kaizen events (or whatever we want to call the traditional week-long activity):

  • Can be a useful tool when used in the context of an overall plan.
  • Are neither necessary nor sufficient to implement [our operating system].1
  • There are times when any specific tool is appropriate, and there are no universal tools. Kaizen tools included.
  • (Our operating system) is, by our own model, the “Operational Excellence” pillar of (our business system). This is keyed in leadership behavior, not implementation of tools. The tools serve only to provide context for leaders to rapidly see what is happening and the means to immediately respond to problems.
  • Thus, focusing on implementing the tools of TPS (takt time, flow, pull, etc) outside of the immediate response and problem solving context is an exercise which expends energy and gains very little sustainable change. This is independent of whether it is done in a week-long intense event or not.
  • However, in my experience, organizations which take a deliberate and steady approach implementing have had more success putting the sustaining mechanisms into place. While it is sometimes necessary to bring teams together for a few days at times to solve a specific problem, or to develop a radically different approach, these efforts tend to be more focused than a typical kaizen week I see.
  • When the kaizen week is scheduled first, and then the organization looks for what needs improving, this is a symptom of ineffective use of the tool.
  • In general, a kaizen, whether it is a week, a month, or even just a few minutes, must be focused on solving specific problems which are impeding flow or are barriers2 to the next level of performance. Without this focus, there is no association with the necessities of the business, and no context for the gains.
  • There are a few simple countermeasures which can be applied to a kaizen week activity that focus the participants much more tightly on learning the critical thinking.

Improvement can, and must, take many forms. A week-long kaizen activity is but one. It is expensive, time consuming, disruptive, and should be used deliberately only when simpler approaches have failed to solve the problem.

Classes and Courses ≠ Teaching and Learning

Bluntly, even though we preach PDCA and say we understand it, we are not applying PDCA in our education approach.

Some fundamental tenets:

  • All of our teaching should be contextual and focused on what skill or knowledge is required to clear the next barrier to flow or performance.
  • The above does not rule out teaching fundamental theory, but fundamental theory must be immediately translated into actions and put into practice or it will never be more than a nice discussion.
  • The vast majority of our teaching should be experiential, and based in real-world situations, solving actual problems vs. examples and contrived exercises.
  • We want to move our teaching toward an ideal state (a True North in our approach) where it is:
    • Socratic – focusing people on the key questions.
    • Experiential – learn by application to solve real problems and thus gain experience and confidence that the concepts translate to the real world.
  • Thus, education and training is but one tool used by leadership to help people clear the barriers and problems that block progress toward higher levels of performance.
  • As far as I can determine, the “Toyota Way” of teaching is similar to this model.

Content

The content of training is as critical as the way it is delivered.

Our objective is to shift people’s thinking, and in doing so, shift their day-to-day behavior as they make operational decisions. The target audience for all of our efforts are the people who make decisions which impact our direction and performance. This is anyone in any position of leadership, at any level of the company – from a Team Leader on the shop floor to the CEO.

The key is to embed the structure of applying PDCA into all of our content. For example:

  • The “rules-in-use” in Steven Spear’s research (Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System and other related publications).
  • Every tool, technique, etc. we teach, or should teach, is some application of the above. (The rules-in-use include problem detection, response, and problem solving.) I have yet to encounter an improvement tool or technique that does not fit this model.
  • This approach fundamentally re-frames the concept of “problem” and what should be done about it.
  • The Toyota Production System (in its pure state) is a process which delivers a continuous stream of problems to be solved to the only component of the system that can think – the people. This is how people are engaged, and this is what makes it a “people based system.” Leave this out, and “people based system” is just hollow words. Nearly every discussion talks about how important people are, but then dives right into technical topics without covering how people are actually engaged — outside the context of a week-long kaizen.

The Role of “Workshop Leaders” in the (Continuous Improvement Office)

No one has disputed the critical make-or-break role played by the line leadership, not only in implementation, but even more so in sustaining.

Workshop leaders are generally taught to plan and lead workshops. The emphasis is on the week-long workshop logistics; on presenting modules in classroom instruction; and on the skills to facilitate a team through the process of making rather dramatic shop floor improvements.

In a typical (not saying it happens here) implementation scenario, it is the workshop leaders who go to the work area, do the observations (usually without a lot of skilled mentoring, and usually just to collect cycle times); build the balance charts and combination sheets; plan what will be changed; how it will be changed, set objectives, targets and boundaries.

They are the most visible leadership of the teams during the week, and they are the ones tracking and pushing follow-up and completion of open kaizen newspaper items.

The effect of this (which is fairly consistent across companies) is:

  • The standard work tools are something workshop leaders use during improvement events.
  • Cycle times, observations, and looking for improvement opportunities is something that is the domain of the workshop leaders.
  • Actually guiding the team members through the problem solving process is the job of the workshop leaders.
  • The supervisors and managers are there as team members, in order to learn by participation, from this outside expert.

The question is: Who is responsible to coach the line leaders through the process of handling the problems that the TPS is designed to surface in operation?

Once the basic flows are in place, there will be a stream of problems revealed. Those problems will either be seen or not seen. IF problems are seen, they will either be dealt with quickly, following good thinking, or they will be accommodated so they go back to being unseen. This is a critical crossroad for the organization…. and it is the behavior of the first and second line leaders, and the support they get from their leaders, that most influences whether the system backslides or continues to get better and better.

IF problems are seen, they will either be dealt with quickly, following good thinking, or they will be accommodated so they go back to being unseen.

Note: There is not middle ground. One-piece-flow really can’t sustain in a stable state. It is either improving or getting worse. It isn’t designed to stay still, and it won’t. Continuous intervention is required for stability, and that intervention is what improves it.

Who is teaching the leaders to do this?

Each leader must have a coach, by name, who can, and will, always challenge his thinking and his solutions to problems against a specific thinking structure.

My view is this is the primary role for the Kaizen Promotion Office.

The way to do this is through application of a few core skills, and skills can be taught.

We should:

  • Include this vital role into the expectations of a “workshop leader” – to take them closer to being “coordinators” in the Toyota factory start-up model.
  • Provide these “coordinators” with a specific support process so they know that they can quickly get assistance if they feel they are in over their heads.
  • The role of that assistance is not to step in and solve the problem. It is to take the opportunity to teach both the workshop leader and the area manager by guiding them through solving the problem.

My experience with this concept is that teaching these skills to someone is not as difficult as most people assume. The basics of observing and seeing flows can be taught over a few days to someone who is motivated to learn. The skill of teaching by asking questions can be accelerated from the “pure” method by telling them what is being done in why. “This isn’t about the answers, it is about learning the questions.”

Application and good teaching can easily be verified by checking the leader’s (the student’s) level of skill and behavior. (The senior teacher checks the teacher by checking the student… just as the area supervisor checks the Team Leader’s teaching by verifying the standard work on the shop floor.

None of this is an advanced topic. These are the basics. Once a good context is established in people’s minds, my experience suggests that the Toyota system is no longer counter-intuitive. The tools and techniques that, at first, seem alien now make sense.

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1 By this I meant to shift the operating culture to one that inherently supports continuous improvement.

2 In Toyota Kata language, we would say “obstacles.” I had used the term “barriers” up to that point.

Why Are You Asking Questions?

When someone brings a problem to a leader, it is typical for the leader to begin asking questions. The intent of those questions can make a world of difference.

Diagnostic Questions

In what I would contend is the more typical case, the questions are diagnostic. The leader’s intent is to get more information so that he can then propose or direct a solution. I can certainly speak for myself that when I have knowledge in the domain it is really easy to just drop into this mode. Someone is asking for advice, and I naturally reflex to giving it.

Of course there are times when this is wholly appropriate. Think of a physician and a patient or an auto mechanic and a customer. The customer has a problem that they are not capable of fixing and is engaging an expert to fix it for them or at least tell them what they should do.

Development Questions

If the intent is to develop the expertise in people then the questions must be different. This isn’t about finding the answers, it is about teaching the questions. Here the leader is coaching. The questions are about helping the problem-solver find her threshold of knowledge and the next step to learn more.

In other words, rather than asking the diagnostic questions yourself (as the leader), it is about helping the learner determine what diagnostic questions she should be asking herself, and then going about finding the answers.

Click on the image to download a Toyota Kata coaching pocket card.

This is Harder and Takes Longer

In the short term, it is always easier to just give them the answers. We are all hard-wired to seek out affirmations of our competence. Equally, we are hard-wired to avoid situations that might call our competence into question. It is uncomfortable to be expected to know something we do not. This is part of being human. I would contend it is especially hard to resist showing what I know when I actually DO know (or think I do – though often I know a lot less than I assume).

It can also be frustrating for the learner, especially if they are used to just being told the answers. “Just tell me what to do” is a response that should clue you in to this frustration.

But if your intent is to develop the organization, you have to work a little harder.

Let’s Go See – and learn together

Even if I am asking diagnostic questions, I am likely to get to a point where I start hearing speculative answers or even a hard “I don’t know.” This is a great opportunity to shift gears from diagnostic to coaching with “Let’s go see so we can both understand what is going on.”

Now you can work together to help someone get deeper understanding of the current condition and the nature of the obstacles and problems being encountered. It is also a good opportunity to ask them to document what they are seeing in ways that help them explain it better.

This can take the form of a Toyota Kata storyboard, or an A3, or whatever other structure you are trying to teach and use for problem solving and improvement.

If done well, you will turn “What should I do?” into a learning and growth opportunity for everyone.

Leading to Learn: Ask More, Tell Less

A few years ago I was working with a company that was ramping up a complex highly-automated production process.

A group of technicians had an idea for an improvement. The nature of what they were trying to improve, or their idea is irrelevant here.

They brought their idea to the plant manager, carefully explained it, and then a bit of awesomeness happened.

Instead of being critical or asking a lot of leading “What about…?” questions, he borrowed and paraphrased a question from David Marquet:

“What things do you think might concern me about this?”

The technicians were stumped. So the plant manager then said “That’s OK, how about getting back to me tomorrow with what you think?”

The next day the technicians had revised their idea to deal with potential problems the plant manager hadn’t even thought of. Which makes sense because they knew a lot more about how things worked than he did.

By asking that question he pushed them to think of the higher level systems implications, to think like the plant manager who has customers and constituents he has to please above and beyond the scope of the shop floor itself.

How do you respond when someone presents an idea? Do you critique it? Do you try to come up with scenarios that break it? Or do you challenge people to go back and think a little more deeply about the what if’s?

One is telling. The other is teaching.

Applying the Improvement Kata to the Process of Leadership

Whether you are a line leader or an internal or external consultant, if you are reading this you are likely working to shift the culture of your organization.

The technical “tools” alone are pretty useless unless you are already operating in the kind of culture that embeds the mechanisms of learning and collaboration deep into the structure of day-to-day work. If that kind of culture isn’t present, the “lean tools” will reveal those issues just as quickly (more quickly, in fact) as they reveal shortages, work balance mismatches and quality problems.

Making these kinds of changes is a lot harder than teaching people about how the “lean tools” work, and a lot of change agents are frustrated by the perception that the changes are not sustaining or being supported.

Back in February 2019 I gave a talk at KataCon5 in Savannah on some of the challenges change agents face when trying to influence how people respond to challenges and interact with one another. Here is the direct link in case the embed doesn’t work for you: https://youtu.be/NnvwOF4J3g8

As you watch the video (assuming you are *smile*) give some thought to how well you can paint a picture of how your efforts are influencing the patterns of interaction within the organization. Do you have something in mind for what you are trying to achieve there? What patterns are you actually observing?

And what is your role in those dynamics? How do you influence the patterns of who talks to whom, how, when, and about what? Are you acting as an intermediator between groups that don’t communicate or who are antagonistic toward one another? If so, what would happen if you stopped?

What happens when a production team member, or a nurse doing rounds on the med-surg floor, or your front-line customer service agent encounters something that is different than it should be? What is the threshold of starting action?

All of these things are cultural norms. And the “lean tools” all impact those norms in ways that people often are not prepared for.

None of these questions are on a checklist. Rather, they are the kinds of things to think about.

Toyota Kata: When to Switch Obstacles

Sometimes the situation arises where the learner has been beating her head against an obstacle with little or no luck overcoming it. The question comes up: When is it OK to give up and switch to something else.

The answer is, of course, a little situational. (Consultant speak: It depends…)

The natural progression of the Improvement Kata will provide an opportunity.

Improvement Kata steps by Mike Rother

As the learner is iterating against obstacles toward the Target Condition the clock is ticking because the Target Condition is always associated with an “achieve by” date. If the Target Condition is achieved OR we hit the “achieve by” date without achieving it, the learner should cycle back to the beginning and:

  • Verify understand of the direction and challenge. (The learner may well have gotten more clarity along the way.)
  • Get a complete grasp of the Current Condition. This is important because often while working toward a Target Condition the learner is only updating specific process and performance metrics, and may not be looking for collateral changes elsewhere. This is a time to take a step back, put up the periscope, and get a grasp of the complete picture.
  • Based on that new Current Condition, establish a new Target Condition, with a new “achieve by” date.
  • Now… identify the obstacles in the way of achieving that new Target Condition. Ideally they should wipe the obstacle parking lot clean and take a fresh look.

This process often helps clear the learner’s mind and see another way to get there, or see easier obstacles that were overlooked before.

This is also why it is important for the “achieve by” date to be relatively close (a couple of weeks) – because that date is a safety valve that forces a reset of the process if the learner is stuck.

If the learner asks if it is OK to work on a different obstacle, then the coach should become curious about the learner’s rationale.

Specifically, I want to understand why the learner thinks there might be an easier way vs. just saying this one is too hard. This may well require some more information gathering – a mini version of the reset I talked about above.

The key point here is to maintain the learner’s motivation. There is a fine line between struggling to solve a problem and getting frustrated. This might be a good time for the coach to engage in some empathetic questioning.

For example, name the feeling you are picking up to test your hypothesis: “It seems you are really frustrated by this…” Then listen. The learner will likely either agree, “yeah, I am.” or refute and give you more information, “No, I’m just trying to…” Then you might learn more about their threshold of knowledge with the process of problem solving.

That can open up a discussion for why the learner thinks it would be a good idea to try something else. Then use your judgement.

But as a coach, I don’t want to make switching obstacles too easy because there is a high risk of it becoming a whack-a-mole game. Some obstacles actually require digging and perseverance to overcome. Your job, coach, is to keep the learner in the game.

Sometimes, though, the learner gets fixated on a problem and doesn’t see another way. Even in this case, if the time to the “achieve by” date is short, I’d let it ride. But if that isn’t practical…

The coach may well have a broader perspective – in fact, this is part of the coach’s job.

If the learner is making progress on something I (the coach) consider a red herring, I generally let it go. There is always learning involved – so long as the effort doesn’t bog down progress.

Sometimes, though, the learner is getting frustrated and so focused that he just doesn’t see any other way.

This is time for gentle intervention with whatever questions might help the learner pause, step back, and see the bigger picture.

For example, perhaps something like “If this obstacle were cleared, how would the process operate?” This might not be the full target condition. I’m just trying to learn what “solved” looks like to the learner. Maybe just thinking about it will help them see the where they are trying to go and possibly another path to get there.

An interesting follow-up might be, “Hmmm, what’s stopping it from working that way now?”

“What would you need to learn to better understand what is going on?” might be another avenue to get the learner to look at his threshold of knowledge vs. the big ugly obstacle in front of him

It all depends on what you think will help the learner raise her head and take a different look at things.

But in the end, if you have a learner that is truly stuck, and after a few tries isn’t going to get unstuck, then, honestly, it’s time to go shoulder-to-shoulder with them and dig into things together.

What I would work very hard to avoid is direct intervention – “Why don’t you work on…” because this undermines the entire process by giving them the answers and can easily create a “what do you think I should work on?” expectation next time.

“A3” is an Obligation for the Coach

In Western business it is pretty typical for someone to be assigned to come up with a proposed solution to a problem, and then seek approval for that solution. In some companies that consider themselves more forward thinking, they might even say something like “bring me an A3.”

As a result I have seen a number of organizations that produce some kind of guideline for “how to fill out and A3.” They teach “problem solving” courses so people can learn to do this properly. I have developed, and delivered, a couple of those back when I was working in internal continuous improvement offices. We had case studies, exercises, all in an effort to teach people to be better problem solvers.

Similarly, a (very) long time ago, I recall an exchange on an online “lean” forum where someone had asked about Toyota’s “problem solving class.” The thought was that because Toyota has good problem solvers, that their course must be really good.

My response was that I have a copy of Toyota teaching materials for a problem solving course. It is good, but nothing magical. Because that isn’t how Toyota develops good problem solvers.

They do it with coaching.

What makes the “A3” process work isn’t the A3, or even the structure. It isn’t the instructions, guidelines, or the quality of the problem solving classes.

It is the almost continuous interaction between the problem solver and the coach.

The problem solver’s thinking is challenged. “What evidence do you have?” “Have you tested that assumption?” “How is that happening?” “Why do you think that is the problem?” “What are you planning for your next step?” “What do you expect to learn?”

And it is the coach’s stubborn refusal to give the problem solver the answer. Rather, they insist on following the rigor of the problem solving process using scientific thinking.*

The process is an application of the principle of “Challenge” followed by support to enable the problem solver / learner to meet the challenge. They have to bring perseverance to to the table, but the coach is there to make sure they actually learn to be better problem solvers in the process.

Likely (if you are reading this) you already know that. We knew that when we worked so hard to make those A3 guidelines and problem solving courses. But we did those things anyway.

Why? Because it is easier to develop and deliver those general class materials than it is to develop managers into coaches and leaders.

But the fact remains:

If you want to develop better problem solvers, what you need are better coaches.

The implications here are really profound for most organizations.

If you assign someone to solve a problem, to “do an A3” (or whatever structure you use), you are obligating yourself to coach them through the process.

This is far more than getting status updates. And it is far more work. Because you are teaching, not just supervising. If they fail, it’s on you, not them. “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

In Toyota Kata world we have reduced those questions down to the critical few in the Coaching Kata. That, of course, is a start. Your job as a leader is to practice until the flow of the logic is second nature to you, until you can go beyond the script. Until your first-nature, reflexive response to anyone proposing to do something is “What problem are you trying to solve?” or “What are you trying to learn?” and then carefully listening to their logic and pushing them to the edge of their ability with the next step.

When you can take your own coaching training wheels off, you can then (and only then) ask someone else to ride a bicycle for you, because you will know how to teach them to ride – and that involves more than sending them to a PowerPoint lecture on “Riding a Bicycle.”

“Because knowledge is not understanding” – Destin Sandlin.

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*Some years ago I worked briefly with a manager who had been one of the key players in Toyota’s initial startup of their plant in Kentucky (TMMK). He told me an interesting story. In the beginning, he noted, the U.S. managers would go to their coordinators (Japanese Toyota senior leaders there to advise the new team) and ask for advice.

Then one week all of the U.S. team went through the problem solving / A3 course. The following Monday, he went to his coordinator with a question, and the response was “Doug-san, where is your A3?” After that day, the coordinators would not engage unless there was an A3 that outlined, in writing, what the manager already understood about the problem, what he was seeking to learn, and how he proposed to go about learning it.

Think about that story vs. sending people to “problem solving class” or even a “Toyota Kata” class. When they return, do you insist that they apply what they have learned whenever it is appropriate from that day forward? If you don’t then you are wasting their time and your money sending them to that class. They will never develop the skill without practice, and it is always easier not to practice something we are not comfortable doing.

Daily Management for Improvement

I’m digging through old archives again, and came across this graphic I put together around 2006 or so. It depicts more detailed version of “Organize, Standardize, Stabilize, Optimize” showing the continuous comparison between “what should be happening” and “what is actually happening.” It is the gap between these two that drives improvement forward.

Like the pocket card in the last post, this is built on a foundation established by the work of Steven Spear, especially his PhD dissertation that is summarized in Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. By the way, if you are in the business of continuous improvement, reading (and understanding) this breakthrough work is critical for you.

Other than generally sharing this, my other reason for putting this up is that in the Toyota Kata community there has been discussion for about a decade about whether or not the right hand loop – pushing for stability – is an appropriate use of the Improvement Kata.

I think that is an unfortunate result of some very early conversations about the difference between “troubleshooting” and “improving” a process. We get into semantic arguments about “problem solving” as somehow different from “root cause analysis” and how the Improvement Kata is somehow distinct, again, from those activities.

This makes no sense to me for a couple of reasons.

Scientific Thinking is the Foundation

Toyota Kata is not a problem solving tool. It is a teaching method for teaching scientific thinking, and it is a teaching method for learning to teach scientific thinking. In the books and most literature, it uses organizational processes as working examples for the “starter kata,” but exactly the same thinking structure works for such diverse things as working through quality issues, developing entirely new products and processes, working through leadership and people issues. The underlying sub-structures may change, but the basic steps are the same.

When I encounter an organization that already has a “standard problem solving approach” I do not attempt to tell them they are wrong or confuse them by introducing a different structure. Rather, I adapt the Improvement and Coaching Kata to align with their existing jargon and language, and help them learn to go deeper and more thoroughly into their existing process.

Stability is a Target Condition

I see a lot of pushback about working to “return a process to standard.” In reality, that is the bulk of the activity in day-to-day improvement. The whole point of having a standard in the first place is to be able to see when the actual process or result is somehow different.

Think about it: If there isn’t an active means of comparing “actual” vs. “standard” what is the point of having a standard in the first place?

Think of the standard as a target condtion.

What obstacles are preventing you from [operating to that standard]? You can guess, but the best way is to diligently try to operate to the target condition and see what gets in your way. That might not happen immediately. Maybe some time will go by, then BAM! You get a surprise.

This is good. You have learned. Something you didn’t expect has interfered with getting things done the way you wanted to. Time to dig in and learn what happened.

Maybe there was some condition that you could have detected earlier and gotten out in front of. Who knows?

This is all part of the continuum of Troubleshooting by Defining Standards.

You Cannot Meet a Challenge Without Working on Stability

As you are working to reach new level of performance – working toward a new challenge – there will be a point when the process works sometimes, so you know it is possible. But it doesn’t work every time because there are still intermittent obstacles that get in the way.

Nevertheless, you have to work diligently to see problems as they occur, respond to them, dig into causes (root cause analysis anyone?) and systematically protect your process from those issues.

The only real difference between covering this territory for the first time vs. trying to recover a previously stable process is that in the later case you can ask “What has changed?”

But, in the end, in both cases – stabilizing a new process vs. re-stabilizing an old one – you are dealing with conditions that are changing from one run to the next. That is why it works sometimes and not others. You don’t know what is changing. You are trying to figure it out by experimenting and learning.

What About Root Cause Analysis?

My challenge is still a stable process.

My current condition is my level of understanding of how the process works today, and the exact mechanism that results in a defect. Even defects are produced by a process – just not the process we want.

That understanding will be incomplete by definition – because if we truly understood what was going on we wouldn’t have the problem. So… what do I know (and can prove with evidence) and what do I not know.

What do I suspect? What evidence do I need to gather to rule out this possible cause, or keep it in play? Next experiment. What do I expect to learn?

I’ll write a more detailed post about this at some point. I think it is a topic worth digging into. Suffice it to say that I have absolutely used the Improvement Kata structure to coach people through finding the root cause of wicked quality problems.

It really helped that they were able to see the same underlying pattern that I had already been teaching them. It made things simpler.

Don’t Complicate a Simple Concept

It’s all “solving problems” (the term “problem solving” apparently has some specific form it needs to take for some people).

The underlying structure for all of it is scientific thinking. Some say it’s PDCA / PDSA. Same thing.

Splitting semantic hairs and saying “this is different” makes simple things complicated. Yes, there are advanced tools that you use when things get tough. But… addition and subtraction; basic algebra; advanced polynomials; basic differential calculus; advanced multivariate calculus – IT IS ALL MATH. You apply the math you must to model and solve the problem at hand.

DON’T apply more math than you need just because you can. That serves no purpose except, perhaps, to prove how smart you are… to nobody in particular.

Solving problems is the same. There are some cases where I need to develop a designed experiment to better understand the current condition – the interactions between variables. There are cases where other statistical tools are needed. Use them when you must, but not just because you can.

Use the simplest method that works.

The Perils of Weekly Toyota Kata Coaching

Outside of the actual operation, the default meeting schedule for most organizations is weekly.

This is OK when everyone understands what is expected and the default thinking and behavior is working for you.

With Toyota Kata, though, the intent is to practice a routine that is not default thinking or behavior. Yet many organizations fall into the default of a weekly coaching cycle.

What we have to remember is that the coaching cycle, and the learner’s preparation for the coaching cycle, are practice. The time(s) that you aren’t practicing you are engaging in the default, and if the default isn’t what you want it to be then it will easily overpower what you are trying to learn.

15 minutes a day is practice. 15 minutes a week is dabbling.

It is the same as a supervisor’s area experiencing one or two “kaizen events” a year. It is just dabbling with kaizen, not practicing it every day, and certainly not immersion. They aren’t going to learn to think differently with that kind of cadence.

Time spent on improvement vs. business as usual
Illustration courtesy of Mike Rother

Batch Production of Experiments

One of the reasons we want to drive toward one-by-one flow in production is so we can have one-by-one confirmation of products vs. waiting for a huge batch to be produced only to discover that they all have problems.

Breaking it down even further, we want one-by-one confirmation of operations so that we don’t keep working on something that is already unusable from something earlier.

Likewise, if a learner is running many experiments without checking in with a coach, he can get pretty far off track without realizing it. The coach can provide a valuable outside check to make sure the learner isn’t getting locked on to something that is distracting him from the bigger picture.

Remember: This is about developing people

Before you jump in and say “But I don’t have time…” consider the alternative.

How much time do you, as a manager, spend intervening in problems that you think people should be able to solve on their own? If you keep giving them the answers, they are going to keep brining those issues to you.

With a little bit of thinking, the Coaching Kata cycle can be easily spliced on to David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” and guide your conversations away from intervention and toward creating able problem solvers.

But before you can do that well, you have to practice the Coaching Kata until asking those types of questions becomes second nature to you.

This isn’t all about the learner’s development! If you only practice coaching once a week, whatever your default is today will likely remain so tomorrow. Change requires repetition and practice.

Just some things to think about this week.