Toyota Kata: Reflection on Coaching Struggling Learners

The “Five Questions” are a very effective way to structure a coaching / learning conversation when all parties are more or less comfortable with the process.

The 5 Questions of the Coaching Kata

Some learners, however, seriously struggle with both the thinking pattern and the process of improvement itself. They can get so focused on answering the 5 questions “correctly” that they lose sight of the objective – to learn.

A coach, in turn, can exacerbate this by focusing too much on the kata and too little on the question: “Is the learner learning?”

I have been on a fairly steep learning curve* in my own journey to discover how modify my style in a way that is effective. I would like to share some of my experience with you.

I think there are a few different factors that could be in play for a learner that is struggling. For sure, they can overlap, but still it has helped me recently to become more mindful and step back and understand what factors I am dealing with vs. just boring in.

None of this has anything to do with the learner as a person. Everyone brings the developed the habits and responses they have developed throughout their life which were necessary for them to survive in their work environment and their lives up to this point.

Sometimes the improvement kata runs totally against the grain of some of these previous experiences. In these cases, the learner is going to struggle because, bluntly, her or his brain is sounding very LOUD warning signals of danger from a very low level. It just feels wrong, and they probably can’t articulate.

Sometimes the idea of a testable outcome runs against a “I can’t reveal what I don’t know” mindset. In the US at least, we start teaching that mindset in elementary school.

What is the Point of Coaching?

Start with why” is advice for me, you, the coach.

“What is the purpose of this conversation?” Losing track of the purpose is the first step into the abyss of a failed coaching cycle.

Coach falling over a cliff.

Overall Direction

The learner is here to learn two things:

  • The mindset of improvement and systematic problem solving.
  • Gain a detailed, thorough understanding of the dynamics of the process being addressed.

I want to dive into this a bit, because “ensure the learner precisely follows the Improvement Kata” is not the purpose.

Let me say that again: The learner is not here to “learn the Improvement Kata.”

The learner is here to learn the mindset and thinking pattern that drives solid problem solving, and by applying that mindset, develop deep learning about the process being addressed.

There are some side-benefits as the learner develops good systems thinking.

Learning and following the Improvement Kata is ONE structured approach for learning this mindset.

The Coaching Kata, especially the “Five Questions” is ONE approach for teaching this mindset.

The Current Condition

Obviously there isn’t a single current condition that applies to all learners. But maybe that insight only follows being clear about the objective.

What we can’t do is assume:

  • Any given learner will pick this up at the same pace.
  • Any given learner will be comfortable with digging into their process.
  • Any given learner will be comfortable sharing what they have discovered, especially if it is “less than ideal.”

In addition:

  • Many learners are totally unused to writing down precisely what they are thinking. They may, indeed, have a lot of problems doing this.
  • Many learners are not used to describing things in detail.
  • Many learners are not used to thinking in terms of logical cause-effect.
  • The idea of actually predicting the result in a tangible / measurable way can be very scary, especially if there is a history of being “made wrong” for being wrong.

Key Point: It doesn’t matter whether you (or me), the coach, has the most noble of intentions. If the learner is uncomfortable with the idea of “being wrong” this is going to be a lot harder.

Summary: The Improvement Kata is a proven, effective mechanism for helping a learner gain these understandings, but it isn’t the only way.

The Coaching Kata is a proven, effective mechanism for helping a coach learn the skills to guide a learner through learning these things.

For the Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata to work effectively, the learner must also learn how to apply the precise structure that is built into them. For a few people learning that can be more difficult than the process improvement itself.

Sometimes We Have To Choose

A quote from a class I took a long time ago is appropriate here:

“Sometimes you have to choose between ‘being right’ or ‘getting what you want.’”

I can “be right” about insisting that the 5 Questions are being answered correctly and precisely.

Sometimes, though, that will prevent my learner from learning.

Countermeasure

When I first read Toyota Kata, my overall impression was “Cool! This codifies what I’ve been doing, but had a hard time explaining.” … meaning I was a decent coach, but couldn’t explain how I thought, or why I said what I did. It was just a conversation.

What the Coaching Kata did was give me a more formal structure for doing the same thing.

But I have also found that sometimes it doesn’t work to insist on following that formal structure. I have been guilty of losing sight of my objective, and pushing on “correctly following the Improvement Kata” rather than ensuring my learner was learning.

Recently I was set up in the situation again. I was asked to coach a learner who has had a hard time with the structure. Rather than trying to double down on the structure, I experimented and took a different approach. I let go of the structure, and reverted to my previous, more conversational, style.

The difference, though, is that now I am holding a mental checklist in my mind. While I am not asking the “Five Question” explicitly, I am still making sure I have answers to all of them before I am done. I am just not concerned about the way I get the answers.

“What are you working on?” While I am asking “What is your target condition?,” that question has locked up this learner in the past. What I got in reply was mostly a mix of the problems (obstacles) that had been encountered, where things are now, (the current condition), some things that had been tried (the last step), what happened, etc.

The response didn’t exactly give a “Target Condition” but it did give me a decent insight into the learner’s thinking which is the whole point! (don’t forget that)

I asked for some clarifications, and helped him focus his attention back onto the one thing he was trying to work out (his actual target condition), and encouraged him to write it down so he didn’t get distracted with the bigger picture.

Then we went back into what he was working on right now. It turned out that, yes, he was working to solve a specific issue that was in the way of making things work the way he wanted to. There were other problems that came up as well.

We agreed that he needed to keep those other things form hurting output, but he didn’t need to fix them right now. (Which *one* obstacle are you addressing now?). Then I turned my attention back to what he was trying right now, and worked through what he expected to happen as an outcome, and why, and when he would like me to come by so he could show me how it went.

This was an experiment. By removing the pressure of “doing the kata right” my intent is to let the learner focus on learning about his process. I believe I will get the same outcome, with the learner learning at his own pace.

If that works, then we will work, step by step, to improve the documentation process as he becomes comfortable with it.

Weakness to this Approach

By departing from the Coaching Kata, I am reverting to the way I was originally taught, and the way I learned to do this. It is a lot less structured, and for some, more difficult to learn. Some practitioners get stuck on correct application of the lean tools, and don’t transition to coaching at all. I know I was there for a long time (probably through 2002 or so), and found it frustrating. It was during my time as a Lean Director at Kodak that my style fundamentally shifted from “tools” to “coaching leaders.” (To say that my subsequent transition back into a “tools driven” environment was difficult is an understatement.)

Today, as an outsider being brought into these organizations, my job is to help them establish a level of coaching that is working well enough that they can practice and learn through self-reflection.

We ran into a learner who had a hard time adapting to the highly structured approach of the Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata, so we had to adapt. This required a somewhat more flexible and sophisticated approach to the coaching which, in turn, requires a more experienced coach who can keep “the board” in his head for a while.

Now my challenge is to work with the internal coaches to get them to the next level.

What I Learned

Maybe I should put this at the top.

  • If a learner is struggling with the structured approach, sometimes continuing to emphasize the structure doesn’t work.
  • The level of coaching required in these cases cannot be applied in a few minutes. It takes patience and a fair amount of 1:1 conversation.
  • If the learner is afraid of “getting it wrong,” no learning is going to happen, period.
  • Sometimes I have to have my face slammed into things to see them. (See below.)
  • Learning never stops. The minute you think you’re an expert, you aren’t.

__________________

image* “Steep learning curve” in this case means “sometimes learning the hard way” which, in turn means, “I’ve really screwed it up a couple of times.”

They say “experience” is something you gain right after you needed it.

Coaching Kata: Walking Through an Improvement Board

Improver's Storyboard

The Coaching Kata is much more than just asking the 5 questions. The coach needs to pay attention to the answers and make sure the thinking flows.

Although I have alluded to pieces in prior posts, today I want to go over how I try to connect the dots during a coaching cycle.

Does the learner understand the challenge she is striving for?

The “5 Questions” of the Coaching Kata do not explicitly ask about the challenge the learner is striving for. This makes sense because the challenge generally doesn’t change over the course of a week or two.

But I often see challenges that are vague, defined only by a general direction like “reduce.” The question I ask at that point is “How will you know when you have achieved the challenge?

If there isn’t a measurable outcome (and sometimes there isn’t), I am probing to see if the learner really understands what he must achieve to meet the challenge.

This usually comes up when I am 2nd coaching and the learner and regular coach haven’t really reached a meeting of the minds on what the challenge is.

Is the target condition a logical step in the direction of the challenge?

And is the target condition based on a thorough grasp of the current condition?

I’m going to start with this secondary question since I run into this issue more often, especially in organizations with novice coaches. (And, by definition, that is most of the organizations where I spend time.)

It is quite common for the learner to first try to establish a target condition, and then grasp the current condition. Not surprisingly, they struggle with that approach. It sometimes helps to have the four steps of the Improvement Kata up near the board, and even go as far as to have a “You are here” arrow.

Four steps of the Improvement Kata
(c) Mike Rother

Another question I ask myself is Can I directly compare the target condition and the current condition? Can I see the gap, can I see the same indicators and measurements used for each so I can compare “apples vs apples”?

Along with this is the same question I ask for the challenge, only more so for the target condition:

How will the learner be able to tell when the target is met? Since this has a short-term deadline, I am really looking for a crisp, black-and-white line here. The target condition is either met or not met on the date.

Is there a short-term date that is in the future?

It is pretty common for a novice learner to set a target condition equal to the challenge. If they are over-reaching, I’ll impose a date, usually no more than two weeks out. “Where will you be in two weeks?” Another way to ask is “What will the current condition be in two weeks?”

Sometimes the learner has slid up to the date and past it. Watch for this! If the date comes up without hitting the target, then it is time to reflect and establish a new target condition in the future.

Is the target condition a step in the direction of the challenge?

Usually the link between the target condition and the overall challenge is pretty obvious. Sometimes, though, it isn’t clear to the coach, even if it is clear in the mind of the learner. In these cases, it is important for the coach to ask.

Key Point: The coach isn’t rigidly locked into the script of the 5 questions. The purpose of follow-up questions is to (1) actually get an answer to the Coaching Kata questions and (2) make sure the coach understands how the learner is thinking. Remember coach: It is the learner’s thinking that you are working to improve, so you have to understand it!

(And occasionally the learner will try to establish a target condition that really isn’t related to the challenge.)

Does the “obstacle being addressed” actually relate to the target condition?

(Always keep your marshmallow on top!)

The question is “What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?” That question should be answered with a reading of all of the obstacles. (Again, the coach is trying to understand what the learner is thinking.) Then “Which one (obstacle) are you addressing now?”

Generally I give a pretty broad (though not infinitely broad) pass to the obstacles on the list. They are, after all, the learner’s opinion (“…do you think are…”). But when it comes to the “obstacle being addressed now” I apply a little more scrutiny.

I have addressed this with a tip in a previous post: TOYOTA KATA: IS THAT REALLY AN OBSTACLE?

It is perfectly legitimate, especially early on, for an obstacle to be something we need to learn more about. The boundary between “Grasp the current condition” and “Establish the next target condition” can be blurry. As the focus is narrowed, the learner may well have to go back and dig into some more detail about the current condition. If that is impeding getting to the target, then just write it down, and be clear what information is needed. Then establish a step that will get that information.

Sometimes the learner will write down every obstacle they perceive to reaching the challenge. The whole point of establishing a Target Condition is to narrow the scope of what needs to be worked on down to something easier to deal with. When I focus them on only the obstacles that relate directly to their Target Condition, many are understandably reluctant to simply cross other (legitimate, just not “right now”) issues off the list.

In this case it can be helpful to establish a second Obstacle Parking Lot off to the side that has these longer-term obstacles and problems on it. That does a couple of things. It can remind the coach (who is often the boss) that, yes, we know those are issues, but we aren’t working on those right now. Other team members who contribute their thinking can also know they were heard, and those issues will be addressed when they are actually impeding progress.

Does the “Next step or experiment” lead to learning about the obstacle being addressed?

Sometimes it helps to have the learner first list what they need to learn, and then fill in what they are going to do. See this previous post for the details: IMPROVEMENT KATA: NEXT STEP AND EXPECTED RESULT.

In any case, I am looking to see an “Expected result” that at least implies learning.

In “When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?” I am also looking for a fast turn-around. It is common for the next step to be bigger than it needs to be. “What can you do today that will help you learn?” can sometimes help clarify that the learner doesn’t always need to try a full-up fix. It may be more productive to test the idea in a limited way just to make sure it will work the way she thinks it will. That is faster than a big project that ends up not working.

Notes and Thoughts from KataCon 2

The 2016 Toyota Kata Summit developed some interesting themes.

Even though the keynote addresses were not coordinated, one message emerged across them all.

This is about leadership development.

And by that, I don’t mean it is about further developing those in leadership positions. I mean it is about developing good thinking and leadership skills in everyone who chooses to deliberately learn. The “kata” are a structure for that learning, but learning the kata themselves is not the goal. It is a means to the end.

I know I have said this before, but now I see the beginning of a shift in the larger community, away from “kata as a problem solving tool” and toward “kata as a practice routine” for something bigger than the kata themselves.

Some Quotes and Themes

Improvement cannot be separate from management.

– Amy Mervak

This may well seem obvious. But in the vast majority of organizations, improvement is the job of the Continuous Improvement Department, or the Quality Department, or some other staff department.

If they are working on developing the improvement skills of line management, then all well and good. But if they are working directly on making improvements, then that is the problem at the root of “lack of leadership engagement.”

Intentional practice results in intentional learning.

– Amy Mervak

Put another way, without intentional practice, learning is a matter of luck. If you want your organization to actually learn a new behavior, then people and teams have to deliberately practice it until it is a habit.

What differentiates excellent organizations from their competitors is effective execution of strategy.

– Mike Rother

There is no shortage of effective models. But those models all require shifts in how people respond, especially under stress, to the unexpected.

Even in the best of times,

We want to learn something new, but we habitually follow our [existing] routines.

– Mike Rother

Our brains, and therefore we, are hard-wired to do this. And “under stress” is not the time to try to learn a new response. It has to be practiced in a space where it is safe to screw it up and learn.

This actually goes pretty deep. I have worked with a few organizations, and one in particular, where everyone adamantly agrees what changes must be made. But they don’t take active steps to get there.

Which brings us to:

40 priorities = No priorities.

Strategic priorities must be focused and formally expressed.

– Amy Mervak

It doesn’t do any good to have a Grand Vision if it is vague, or so diluted that Everything Is Important. Your job (management) is to be clear so people don’t waste their time working hard on something that doesn’t make a difference.

Although he was not present, Bill Costantino was quoted:

A long discussion is a symptom of lack of clarity on the current condition or the challenge.

– Bill Costantino

In other words, “What are we trying to accomplish here, and where are we now?” never get asked or clarified.

On Culture Change Modification

An interesting point was made about culture. Yes, we are working to shift the culture of the organization. But “change” may imply that we are changing everything. In reality, we have to consider:

  • What are we choosing to keep, maintain, enhance?
  • What are we choosing to alter?
  • What are we choosing to let go?

If these are deliberate decisions made by the team, then there is an opportunity to make purposeful adjustments, and frame them in the context of “What are we striving for?”

So perhaps the term “culture modification” is more appropriate.

Dave Kilgore’s presentation (full disclosure: I nominated Dave as a keynote) highlighted an organizational culture as the challenge for his advance team.

image

And because they are focused on creating this culture, they are making tangible progress.

Brad Frank asked the audience an interesting question.

If someone brings you a problem, there are two problems. What is the second one?

-Brad Frank

I have alluded to this in previous posts. As a leader, you have to ask “Why was my organization unable to make the correct decision without coming to me?”

Every time someone has to come and ask you something, it means you are an obstacle to their success.

– Brad Frank

Dave Kilgore emphasized the same thing and uses David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” model both as a way to advance the culture, as well as a way to assess the current condition by listening to people.

I wanted to get these notes up there. I’ll cover Day 2 in another post.

How Do We Deal With Multiple Shifts?

This is a pretty common question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But… how do we coach them, and so on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step by step.

Keep it up, Susan.  Smile

Developing Cross Functional Responsibility

The Challenge

It’s a typical staff meeting. The function heads are around the table with the boss. One of them describes a hiccup or problem he is encountering that is outside of his control – it originates in another department for example.

An action item gets assigned in the meeting, and we move on to the next topic.

Good to go, right? Isn’t that the boss’s job?

Let’s expand the role of the boss a bit. Rather than being the conduit of all information, isn’t the role really to “Ensure cross-functional coordination is happening?”

If these meetings are weekly, there is weekly cadence to this kind of coordination, meaning if the issue comes up immediately after a meeting, it is a week before a decision is made. On average, it is a few days.

Let’s look at the nature of the language being used. The implied (but often unstated) question being asked by the function heads is “What do you want me to do?” The even worse implication is “I’ll work on cross functional issues when I get an action item to do it.” Not exactly teamwork.

Here’s another example.

Three functional managers all work in the same building… actually in the same open room. The building isn’t even that big. You can find anyone who is anywhere in the building in less than 5 minutes, just by standing up and walking around.

Their common boss is a in another city, a couple of hours away.

As he talks to these functional managers, they tell him of issues. But they haven’t talked to their counterpart who is 20 feet away. They are expecting the boss to do that. To say this exasperates the boss (who “gets it”) is an understatement.

In yet another organization, we are talking to various department directors about process improvement. Nearly every one of them cited problems in other departments as disruptions to their processes.

These Directors are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) expecting the CEO and Executive Team to issue directives to the other departments to fix these problems. The problem comes in when the Executive Team accepts the “assignment” and facilitates the communication. Now it’s their job.

Here is the question that surfaced in this organization: The managers were responsible for organizing and managing the processes that are internal to the department. If the Directors aren’t the ones responsible for that cross-departmental coordination… whose job is it? And if it is someone else’s job, what value are the Directors actually adding by managing the managers’ management of the internal processes, and commiserating about the problems from other departments?

All of these cases are the consequence of a management process that sends reports up, and sends decisions down. This develops a deeply rooted unconscious set of habits that are hard to change even when all agree it should be changed.

What Doesn’t Work

Saying “We need to do a better job talking to each other” isn’t going to work. Even saying “You need to talk directly to Dave about that” really doesn’t work because:

  • It is still telling him what to do.
  • The behavior repeats for every instance because “Jim” is still habitually coming to the boss for direction.

What We Are Trying

The objective (challenge) is to get the boss out of job being the sole conduit for cross functional communication. We want these guys working as a team.

In one of these cases, the boss and I took a page from David Marquet’s book, and thought it might help if he (the boss) made it clear that he is going to refuse to be the intermediary in these conversations. Now… how does he create the environment where this cross-coordination is happening as a matter of routine?

David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” model may be useful here.

Grasp the Current Condition

“Start with Awareness, and Just Listen”

         – David Marquet, author “Turn the Ship Around”

imageTake a week and just listen to the words people use when talking about cross-functional problems. Are they simply stating the problem and hoping the boss will pick up doing something about it – and tell someone what to do?

Make a tick-mark on the ladder diagram for the level of each conversation.

Are they implicitly or explicitly looking to be told what to do? (Telling Jim to “Talk to Dave” or even asking “Have you talked to Dave?” is telling them what to do.)

Where is your center of mass?

“Tell me what to do” is the bottom rung. Your own current condition may well be different, but if you have read this far and this still feels relevant to you, it likely isn’t much different.

Establish the Next Target Condition

What words does the boss want to hear when one of those managers is letting him know what is going on? Not in the ideal situation, but at the next level – up one or two rungs.

For example, instead of saying “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department.” and waiting to be told “Have you talked to Dave?” what does the boss want to hear from this department head?

Maybe “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department, and I intend to talk to Dave to confirm that he understands what we need from him.”

Apply Rapid Iterations of PDCA

OK, now that the boss knows what words he wants to hear, how does the boss change his response so when he hears “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department” the boss’s response drives thinking and initiative back down the chain.

Stealing another line from Marquet, maybe the boss says “OK, what do you think I’m thinking right now?”

“ummm… I’m thinking you want me to go talk to Dave about this.”

“Great. What do you expect to happen?” and then “OK, when can you let me know how it actually went, and what you learned?”

Ideally the boss wants to continue this process, setting successive targets until he hears “We had this problem, but Dave and I worked out a solution, and this is what we’ve done.”

or they only come to the boss with a problem that requires the boss to cross-coordinate with one of his peers, but they come with a solid recommendation.

Step by step.

Never give up on your people.

“We Need To…”

When working with large organizations, I frequently hear a surprising level of consensus about what must be done to deal with whatever challenge they are facing.

Everyone, at all levels, will agree on what must be done. They will say “We need to…” followed by statements about exactly the right things, yet nobody actually does it. They just all agree that “we need to.”

I even hear “We need to…” from very senior leaders.

It’s a great car, I wish we made more of them.

– Attributed to Roger Smith, CEO of GM, following a presentation on the Pontiac Fiero.

I can’t come up with a clever name for this, but it is really the opposite of Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox” where a group embarks on an activity that no one actually wants to carry out. In this case, a group doesn’t take action toward something they all agree must be done.

I would contend that “We need to” spoken to no one in particular is an artificial substitution of the word “we” that does not actually include “I.” Substitute “they” for “we” and you hear what is really being said.

“They need to…”

“Somebody needs to…”

This isn’t clarity. It isn’t accountably. It is a wish.

In Turn the Ship Around, David Marquet challenged (actually ordered) his crew to never use the word “they” to refer to any crewmate on the submarine. This shift in language was an early step toward shifting the teamwork dynamic on the USS Santa Fe. Marquet comments “We don’t have teamwork. We have a rule. You can’t say ‘they’.” but the truth was that the linguistic shift precipitated a shift in the behavior and then the underlying thinking.

This week we asked the question: What small change to their language could we challenge a leadership team to make that would shift the dynamic of “We need to” from general, ambiguous statement toward taking a step to fix it.

What should follow “We need to…” to turn it into accountable language?

One suggestion that came up would be to follow “We need to…” with “…therefore I…

By making that thinking explicit, we might tacitly flush out “We need to, therefore I intend to wait for someone to tell me to do something.” or “We need to, therefore I am going to hope it happens.” or “We need to, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Realistically, no one would say those complete sentences on purpose, but a struggle to come up with something more concrete might trigger some reflection on the underlying thinking.

Maybe we can turn “We need to, therefore I…” into describing one step the speaker can take in his or her organization without seeking permission*. There is always something that can be done.

This doesn’t need to be scripted or literal. It might just take a self-empowered voice to ask “We all seem to agree on what must be done. What step are we going to take, today, to move in that direction?”

Action Step: Challenge your team when you hear “We need to.” Are you talking about an anonymous “they” or taking a concrete action step? Who, exactly, is “we” if doesn’t include “me”?

Never give up.

_________

*Keeping in mind that “without permission” does not always mean “I have the authority to do it.” It just means “It is the right thing to do, so I’m going to do it.”

The Improvement Kata PDCA Cycles Record

The improvement kata has four major steps:

image

Those steps provide a structured pattern to enable consistent practice until they are unconscious and natural.

In the fourth step, “Iterate Toward the Target Condition” we have a form, called the PDCA Cycles Record that provides an additional level of structure for the improver / learner and the coach.

This is the PDCA Record form from Mike Rother’s Improvement Kata Handbook (click the link to go to his download page):

image

The columns in the form correspond with the “5 Questions” that are part of the Coaching Kata.

The intent is that as the coach asks the questions, the learner points to and reads his answers. In the 5 Questions, it is the “Reflection” (on the back of the coaching card) and question #4 that address the PDCA Cycles Record.

Let’s look at how this form structures the learner’s process.

The very first experiment or trial that the learner sets up is based on his understanding of the current condition and the obstacles he is facing. He selects an obstacle, decides what he should do first, and fills that step in Column 1 “Date, step & metric.”

He must think a bit and also fill in “What do you expect?” and describe what effect he expects to have on the process (or what he expects to learn) as a result of taking that step.

Then he hits the yellow bar in the middle of the form. It says “Do a Coaching Cycle.” Do not pass this point without checking in with your coach.

The coach, this time around, is going to ask the 5 Questions, but skip the reflection step, because there is no previous step to reflect on. The coach is (or should be) looking for things like (these are by no means inclusive, rather they just came to mind as I’m writing this):

  • Is the obstacle actually something which must be worked out, or something which must be learned to reach the target? Or is it just a “to do” item? He may ask some follow-on questions to clarify the connection.
  • Is the “Next Step” actually something which addresses the obstacle? Does it reflect a step into “unknown territory” that includes learning?
  • Is the expected outcome a logical consequence of taking the step being proposed? Does it have something to do with the obstacle?

By having the learner write down his intent prior to the coaching cycle, the coach can see how the learner is thinking without biasing that process. He can see if the learner is off track. If so, it’s pretty simple to erase, or even scratch out, the planned experiment and revise during the coaching session.

But either way, as  coach, I want to see the learner’s best effort before I influence or correct it. That is MY process for “grasping the current condition” and even checking the result of a previous experiment on my part by emphasizing something specific during the last coaching cycle.

Once the learner is good-to-go, the NEXT yellow bar says “Conduct the Experiment.” This is the “DO” of PDCA.

Once he is done, the learner is expected to write down his observations in the “What Happened” column, then reflect, and write down what he learned in the “What We Learned” column.

THEN, based on what he learned, plan the next step. So, move down a row, and fill in block #1 with the next step, and block #2 with the expected result.

Then he hits that yellow STOP bar again. This time the coach is going to ask the reflection questions on the back of the card – reviewing the last step and expectation, and then covering the new information: What actually happened; What did you learn; Based on that, what is your next step; and what result do you expect from taking that step?

My job as the coach is to make sure the learner can connect the dots. I want him to write all of that down before I talk to him.

I have to see the learner’s “actual condition now” before I can effectively coach him.

Why Am I Talking About This?

I have run into a few cases now where I have gone into an organization with some prior training or experience with Toyota Kata. They have asked me in to do some additional training, or coach them to the next level because they think they are “stuck.”

In a couple of those cases, I have observed a deliberate* practice of filling out the blocks on the PDCA record during the coaching cycle. Their intent seems to be for the learner to be guided by the coach as he fleshes out what actually happened; what was learned; the next step or experiment; and what is expected and writes those things on the form.

This is very effective if the intent is for the learner to “get it right.”

But from a coaching standpoint, I feel (and this is my opinion) that this practice deprives me of information I need to ascertain how the learner would do it on his own.

I also believe it runs the risk of building a dependency on the coach, and shift the psychological responsibility off the learner – it is easy to fall into the “tell me what to do” trap unless the coach is experienced enough to avoiding “leading the witness” during the coaching cycle.

In most organizations, the hierarchy that likely exists between the coach and the learner has a deeply seated habit of the boss having the answers. I want to avoid reinforcing this dynamic.

A Caveat for Brand New Beginners

When the learner is going through the Toyota Kata steps the first few times, he won’t know what to do. It is completely appropriate for the coach to demonstrate, and guide, the learner through his steps. But the organization should not confuse this effort with the intended pattern of the improvement kata.

As soon as the learner has shown that he understands the intent of the process steps, it is time for the coach to step back and let the learner try it on his own. “Take a few swings” to use a spots metaphor.

That gives the coach the best opportunity to see where he needs to focus his effort. And the PDCA record may well be scratched out, revised, or rewritten in the process. It’s OK for it to be messy. That’s what learning looks like.

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*This is different from a case where the learner simply isn’t prepared for the coaching cycle and hasn’t filled in the forms or even thought about what to put on them.

How Do You Measure Toyota Kata?

I’ve run into a couple of cases where there is an initiative from a corporate continuous improvement team to “implement Toyota Kata.”

Aside from trying to proscribe each and every step of the way (which runs counter to the entire point of discovering the solution – “you omitted step 7b”), they also expect reports of metrics related to the “implementation.”

Things like:

  • Number of coaches.
  • Number of coaching sessions.
  • Number of active improvement boards.
  • Scoring learners on a dozen or so categories of specific attributes for their coaching session.

Then there are bureaucratic reporting structures demanding that this information (and much, much more) get dutifully filled in and reported up to the continuous improvement office so they could monitor how each site is progressing (often from across an ocean).

I’ve seen this before.

I’ve seen companies try to count kaizen events, and quantify the improvements for each one to justify the payback of the effort.

Similarly, I’ve seen top-level corporate leadership teams struggle to determine how to measure, at a glance, whether a site was “doing lean” to get their results (or getting the results by some other means(?) that were less appropriate).

I’ve seen companies try to manage quality by having the quality staff prepare and submit elaborate monthly reports about what was, and was not getting done based on what they felt was important.

I lump all of this under “management by measurement.” I think it is often a substitute for (1) trusting middle management to tell the truth and (2) actually talking to people.

What’s The Alternative?

First we need to work out what we really want people, especially middle managers, to actually do. What would full participation look like if you saw it?

For example, one company I work with has had a problem where middle managers send their people to internally run “kata training,” then say they have no time to coach their people, give them ambiguous or shallow challenges to work on, and generally look at the training as someone else’s responsibility.

OK, what do you want them to do?

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath talk about “scripting the first moves” so someone who is unsure how to begin doesn’t need to expend limited psychological energy figuring out how to start. We want to get them going. We don’t need to lay out the entire process (that will end up being different for everyone) but we can create some clear rules or guidelines for getting started.

From the Switch Workbook on the Heath Brother’s web site:

Be clear about how how people should act.

This is one of the hardest – and most important – parts of the framework. As a leader, you’re going to be tempted to tell your people things like: “Be more innovative!” “Treat the customer with white-glove service!” “Give better feedback to your people!” But you can’t stop there. Remember the child abuse study [from the book]? Do you think those parents would have changed if the therapists had said, “Be more loving parents!”  Of course not. Look for the behaviors.

Asking that question, in terms of what they would actually see their middle managers doing, we came up with three general actions:

  • Work with their learner / improver to establish a clear challenge for them.
  • Commit to regular coaching cycles with their improver.
  • Commit to receiving 2nd level coaching during those sessions (so they can learn as well).

The question then becomes what mechanism can the organization put into place to encourage that behavior vs. just sending people to the class and not following up in any way.

It is easy to tell people what they shouldn’t do. It’s a little tougher to tell them what they should do.

In this case, we discussed establishing prerequisites for sending someone to the class. But these prerequisites are for the organization sending the participant to the training, rather than just the person attending the class.

It is the sponsoring manager who must commit (perhaps even in writing) to ensuring there is an improvement challenge; to establishing a regular coaching cycle; and to welcoming 2nd level coaching.

Perhaps this would be a commitment to the advance team who becomes a bit of an admissions committee – ensuring the support structure is there before we commit to taking someone on in the class.

We discussed taking a copy of the organization chart and putting dots on it where they had active improvement boards and coaching relationships. That would highlight which organization groups were developing their own people and which ones were doing less of it.

We discussed inviting the middle managers who have sent people to the class but, today, are not supporting, to come to the advanced team with a plan – perhaps a similar commitment – for their renewed participation. But no one would be required, because you can’t force anyone to learn something. Put your energy toward the people who want to learn. Trying to get participation from people who don’t want to do it just frustrates everyone.

And finally, create a mechanism for someone inside a non-participating organization to raise their hand and ask for help with their own development. Don’t punish the entire organization because their boss won’t play.

Now you are talking about mechanics, about actions that have testable outcomes: Experiments that can be set up and tried, improved, and iterated in the direction of something that works for your organization.

It is more work than just measuring people. And it doesn’t work every time. But it works more often than something that never works.

The Myth of 10,000 Hours

In this TEDx talk, Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours outlines his theory of learning a new skill.

One of his key points is the prevailing belief that you must spend 10,000 hours practicing a skill to become good at it.

This equates to over 5 years of practice 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Intuitively, we all know we have developed competency at tasks in far less time.

The 10,000 hours is practice to become able to perform at an elite, world-class level against intense competition. A top grand master at chess. A winning starting NFL quarterback. To get on the top podium at the Olympic Games.

But as Kaufman points out, the first part of the learning curve – up to basic competency or even above, is very steep. The thousands of hours are for developing on a far more shallow slope into the level of the elites.

In the video, Kaufman broke the basic learning process down to four steps which mirror the structure behind Toyota Kata.

Deconstruct the Skill.

We, in the lean community, made a huge mistake in attempting to deconstruct “continuous improvement.” Instead of deconstructing the process of continuous improvement, we instead deconstructed the production processes that resulted.

We ended up with a list of production process characteristics – “you have to have kanban,” and “you have to have standard work” rather than breaking down the skills that were applied to achieve them.

Toyota Kata gives us a deconstruction of the basics of continuous improvement so that we can learn them. That doesn’t mean there aren’t advanced nuances to learn, but those are built on the foundation of competence with the basics.

And basic competence can get you a long way.

Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean you can get away without understanding the basic tools. It’s just that, in so many cases, they have been put into place without that understanding. The tools are there to help define “what should be happening” and clarify “what is actually happening” so you can apply the correct thought process and use them to drive improvement. Without the underlying thought process, taught by the improvement kata, sustaining the “tools implementation” is very difficult.

Learn enough to self-correct.

Learning enough to self-correct means that you can recognize the difference between what how you are doing it, and how you want to be doing it.

(There’s that “should be happening” and “is actually happening” theme again.)

You can certainly teach yourself to play the piano, or even teach yourself multivariate calculus.There were no flight instructors for Wilbur and Orville Wright, yet they managed to develop very sophisticated skill with aircraft that were dangerously unstable by any modern standard.

But to learn effectively, you need some baseline of what “doing it right” looks like. Sometimes that is obvious. Sometimes it is more subtle.

This is where having a coach really helps. A coach stops you before you get into trouble. He can correct a nuanced imperfection in your technique that may have a major impact. Having a coach can get you to this point much faster.

That’s why many people hire a coach, sometimes by a different name like “taking lessons” or “going to school” to help them get through this phase more quickly.

Most of the good Toyota Kata classroom training out there gets you close to, but usually not quite over, this point. You can try it, you can get through a PDCA cycle with good coaching, but likely you can’t pick up enough to self-correct yet. THAT requires practice with a coach until you catch on to what “good” looks like.

Remove barriers to practice.

If you are coaching or teaching, this is far as you can get someone to go if they really don’t want to participate.The learner has to want to learn the skill, because everything past this point requires internal motivation.

Feeling stupid is a barrier to sitting down and doing the work. The opposite way to say the same thing is “needing to look like you know what you are doing before you know how to do it.”

This is one reason there has to be self-motivation – because you have to be willing to be incompetent in order to build competence.

For some reason corporate training, and related adult education programs, call it “good” if you have your backside in the seat for the required number of hours. Does it matter if you were on your email the whole time? Often no.

So people get sent to the Corporate Training Department’s “Problem Solving” course, get it on their transcript, and are expected to be able to do it. Same thing for “Handling Problem Employees,” “Lock-out / Tag-out” and a myriad of other corporate topics. The goal is almost to simply create a record that you attended, so they can say “We trained him” and remove legal responsibility.

Toyota Kata doesn’t work that way. Many managers struggle with the idea that they have to do more than just attend the class. They are their own barriers to practice.

What are yours?

Practice at least 20 hours.

This isn’t the “myth of needing to practice.” You actually need to do the work.

20 hours of practicing the improvement kata breaks down to roughly 40 days if you are thinking that way on purpose and reflecting on your actions, and consciously self-correcting for about half an hour a day.

The more you try, the more practice you get, and the quicker you will come up the learning curve. It isn’t that hard, but you do have to work at it.

And working at it is more than just reading the five questions.

“What You Could Improve” Isn’t The Answer

In fact, suggestions on what to improve aren’t an appropriate answer when it’s the question.

Sometimes on discussion forums I see a practitioner asking questions like:

  • Who should the learner be?
  • What target should I assign?
  • Which, in turn, implies “Which lean tools should I use?”

I’ll break down the questions in another post. Right now, I want to discuss the common replies.

Replies come from well meaning people who leap to “You could apply SMED” or “It looks like you are trying to put in a pull system.”

In other words “Here are some improvements you could make.” without any grasp of:

  • The actual challenge being faced by the organization.
  • The current process operating patterns that are limiting moving to the next level.

So, the advice has no grounding in what must be done, only what could be done.

If I were to reframe the conversation to a different kind of problem, those replies wouldn’t make any sense at all:

“I am looking for help fixing my 2010 Toyota Tacoma*.”

  • “You could change the sparkplugs.”
  • “How about checking tire inflation?”
  • “This fuel additive works great.”
  • “What kind of fuel mileage are you getting?”

The first question should be “Tell me what about your 2010 Tacoma is currently unacceptable to you?”

“It’s stuck on a trail with a broken axle.” probably requires a different response than “It’s running rough in the morning.”

“Lean” is no different. What are you trying to accomplish here? is a question we don’t ever seem to ask. Why? Do we really think we have a pat set of answers that apply to any situation, or to any situation that seems similar to one we have encountered in the past?

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*My Toyota truck (it predates the Tacoma) is a 1995 that has been driven the distance to the Moon, and is now on its way back.