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?


*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.

The Kata of Leader Development

I’ve been parsing Turn the Ship Around to better understand David Marquet’s message from his experience as captain of the USS Santa Fe (SSN 763), a Los Angeles Class nuclear powered attack submarine.

And I’ve been promising to link his concepts back to Toyota Kata. So now I’m going to try to do that.

You can see part of the back story by reviewing my original post and watching the video here:

Here is the rest of the back story.

Capt. Marquet was originally programmed to take command of the USS Olympia (SSN 717) which is also a Los Angeles Class submarine.

Except that the “improved” versions of Los Angeles Class submarines, from SSN 751 onwards, are really a completely different design. In any other navy, those later versions would be a different class of ship.

The Olympia is the earlier version, the Santa Fe is much newer.

The Olympia looks like this:


This is the Santa Fe:


The obvious difference is the (lack of) dive planes on the sail. The Olympia doesn’t have those forward missile tubes. The sonar is different. The reactor and power plant is different.

Capt Marquet’s problem was that he was ordered to take command of the Santa Fe at the last minute, after studying everything about the Olympia for an entire year.

Traditionally, a (US Navy) submarine captain’s credibility and authority is anchored on him as a technical expert on every aspect of what the machine can, and cannot, do. This is the foundation for him giving good orders to the officers, NCOs and crew. In practice, the command model is that the ship is a machine with one brain and many hands.

A lot of businesses run the same way.

Except that Captain Marquet wasn’t a technical expert. On the first cruise he gave an order to do something that the Santa Fe couldn’t do, the Navigation Officer knew it wasn’t possible, and passed the order along anyway “Because the Captain told him to.” That is where the little video in the previous post picks up.

OK, that’s the back story.

Developing Leaders with the Improvement Kata

Challenge and Direction

Like in the Improvement Kata, Capt Marquet got a clear challenge and direction from his boss, Commodore Kenny. The performance of the Santa Fe was sub-standard. They were doing poorly on inspections, making mistakes, morale was poor, reenlistment (an indicator of morale) was the worst in the fleet. Officers were resigning. Capt Marquet’s task as the new Captain was to get that performance up to where the Navy needed it to be.

Grasp the Current Condition

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 of Turn the Ship Around describe Capt Marquet’s careful and deliberate effort to understand the normal operating patterns of life on the Santa Fe. How did people interact with one another? What mechanisms were inhibiting initiative? What were the sources of fear, hope on board? All in all he found a competent, but dispirited, crew who was not as bad as they allowed themselves to believe they were.

But the process of “making decisions” was paralyzed by mechanisms pulling authority and control to the highest levels of the organization.

He was looking for the mechanisms of the process, of the way work was organized, of the way decisions were made, that were casting the shadow of poor performance and poor morale. He knew he could not address those things directly. He had to deal with the underlying process mechanics, and ultimately learn which ones impacted his key performance metrics.

Establish the Next Target Condition

Capt Marquet was…well… the Captain. His target conditions became challenges for his next levels in the organization. Though he didn’t follow the Improvement Kata precisely, we can see from the actions he took that the mental structure was there.

If we zoom in a level, and look at Capt Marquet’s initial meeting with the Chiefs as outlined in Chapter 8, we actually see the entire pattern.

If you have served in the military, you can bleep over the next section on the role of the Chiefs.

The Role of Non-Commissioned Officers

imageIn the Navy*, “Chiefs” are Chief Petty Officers, senior non-commissioned officers. They are (very) roughly equivalent to supervisors in industry. The saying is that the Officers are responsible for doing the right things, the Chiefs are responsible for doing things right.

The sailors’ day-to-day interactions are mostly with the Chiefs and more junior Petty Officers, which might be thought of as leads or team leaders.

Thus, it is really the Chiefs that set the tone for the experience of the rest of the crew. If they aren’t “into” the job, aren’t working as a team, it is unlikely the organization below (or above!) them is as effective as it could be, and morale is likely mediocre at best.

The same goes for your supervisors.

Where a military organization differs from industry is that there is a senior non-commissioned-officer paired with an officer at every level of the hierarchy. The most senior noncom on the ship is the “Chief of the Boat” who reports directly to the Captain.

This structure is very beneficial in making sure the Enlisted perspective is brought into every level of decision making.

Although it can, and does, happen, it is relatively rare that an enlisted non-commissioned-officer would become a commissioned officer during his or her career. This is a significant shift in the career path.

Pushing Authority to Create Responsibility

Capt Marquet’s initial experiment to shift the crew dynamics on board the submarine involved the Chief Petty Officers. He meets with them and works with them in an exchange: They get authority. They take responsibility.

A few key points that emerge here are:

  • Lecturing people about “taking initiative” and “stepping up” doesn’t work. If it did, our organizations would be operating at phenomenal levels already.
  • Capt Marquet talks about the Chiefs as individuals, each with his own strengths, level of commitment, etc.
  • There was a clear challenge for them in Capt Marquet’s mind. He knew what he needed from them.
Coaching Through Grasping the Current Condition

Capt Marquet met with the Chiefs, and facilitated a conversation that first sought to arrive at a common understanding of the level of authority the Chiefs really had on the submarine. (almost none, decision making for anything of significance had been pulled up above their level).

Key Point: Capt Marquet likely already knew that the Chiefs had very little authority. But it wouldn’t work to act on that assumption without validating it in the minds of the Chiefs themselves. Further, the Chiefs had to arrive at their own truth, and they had to want to change it.

Based on his assessment, Capt Marquet guided the chiefs through a discussion about their current condition. At this point, they are the learners, the improvers, and he is taking the role of the coach. This is the bullet list he cites in the book:

  • Below-average advancement (promotion) rates for their men.
  • A lengthy qualification program that yielded few qualified watch standers.
  • Poor performance on evaluations for the ship.
  • A lean watch bill, with many watch stations port and starboard under way, and three-section in port (the objective was to have three-section at sea and at least four-section in port; this meant that each member would stand watch every third watch rotation— typically six hours on watch and twelve hours off— at sea, and every fourth day in port)
  • An inability to schedule, control, and commence work on time.
  • An inability to control the schedules of their division and men.

While this is really just a laundry list describing the general working environment that is summarized in the book, my impression is that the group had developed a good common grasp of the processes behind most of these issues. It really came down to the Chief’s authority to decide who needs to do what, and when, had been usurped by various other mechanisms in the chain of command.

If the Chiefs have no real authority to act, then the commissioned officers must make every decision and provide every direction. Those orders are often separated in time and space from the events they are trying to influence. The officers simply can’t be everywhere at once.

The dynamics can easily trigger a downward, reinforcing spiral of more and more control being pulled higher and higher, which makes the orders even more detached from reality.image.png


And, again, the same is true for your supervisors and team leaders in their relationship with management.

The Chiefs Establish their Target Condition

You can’t direct someone to accept responsibility.

My next question built on what we had all agreed on, namely, the chiefs did not run Santa Fe.

I asked, “Do you want to?”

Reflexively they answered, Yes! Uh-huh. Of course!


And that’s when we began to talk honestly about what the chiefs’ running the submarine would mean.

– David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around

I wanted to make sure they deliberately decided to take charge. It wouldn’t be any good if I directed them.

– David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around

Something that is often lost on managers learning to be coaches is that the coach can’t impose a target condition. Certainly the coach can (and should) structure the challenge in a way that ensures the learner is working on the right things. And the coach must provide guidance to ensure the learner is working on those things the right way.

But it is up to the learner to figure out how to get there, and up to the coach to ensure the learner has the skill and persistence to succeed. It is a mutually dependent relationship.

Many managers are uncomfortable with this because it means giving up control even if they know the right answer (or think they do). It means giving up control especially if they know the right answer! This is actually a lot easier for a coach who doesn’t know exactly what to do!

As the discussion continues in the book, some of the Chiefs begin to realize that with control comes accountability for the results. They won’t be able to hide behind “well, they told me to do it” because “they” is now the face in the mirror.

That is actually harder than just waiting to be told what to do. It is also a lot more rewarding if the work environment is supportive of growth vs. punishing mistakes.

The shape of a target condition

At the end, we were agreed: the sole output would be concrete mechanisms.

While it feels good to describe a future vision with words like “The supervisors will be empowered” that doesn’t address the adjustments and changes that must be made to the mechanisms that are driving the current situation.

If you want your supervisors to have more authority, but aren’t willing to dismantle the mechanisms that are withholding it from them… that isn’t going to work.

I put this question to Santa Fe’s chiefs: “What can we do so that you actually run the ship?”

The target condition they established was to have the Chiefs responsible for authorizing leave (vacation time) for the sailors in their organizations.

(In the military, you can’t just go on vacation whenever you feel like it. They have a mission to accomplish, with or without you there, so there is always a process to ensure too many people aren’t gone at the same time.)

What obstacles are keeping us from reaching the target?

There were a number of things that had to be dealt with to make this work. One of them was that Naval regulations required the Executive Officer (2nd in command) to approve the leaves of Enlisted Men.

This meant that even after the Chief of the Boat reviewed the leave plan, at least three additional officers had to approve as well. This added time and bureaucracy which, in turn, hurt morale because it might be weeks before a sailor knows if he can go home for Christmas, for example.

Related to that was the fact that, because of those additional checks, the Chiefs were inclined to approve leave requests without really thinking about the consequences. They knew someone else would be on the hook to say “no.”

They could be the White Hats, and shift the responsibility elsewhere. This was a consequence of the mechanism. The mechanics are part of the “death spiral” I illustrated above.

Which obstacle are we addressing now?

Here is the dilemma. Capt Marquet could ask the Chiefs to prove they could act responsibility, then give them the authority.

Or he could give them the authority, and trust that to drive responsibility.

In reality, I think only one of those choices actually works: Creating responsibility by pushing authority. The obstacle they addressed was the Navy regulations.

What is your next step or experiment?

The experiment was to actually break Navy regulations. On the Santa Fe, the non-commissioned officers would be solely responsible for approving the leave requests of Enlisted Men.

What result do you expect?

They expected that the Chiefs would start thinking through the consequences of these decisions.

This one-word administrative change put the chiefs squarely in charge of all aspects of managing their men, including their watch bills, qualification schedules, and training school enrollments.

The only way the chiefs could own the leave planning was if they owned the watch bill. The only way they could own the watch bill was if they owned the qualification process.

It turned out that managing leave was only the tip of the iceberg and that it rested on a large supporting base of other work.

– David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around

(I added the line breaks for readability online.)

This, in turn, set off multiple cycles of learning as the crew of the Santa Fe gelled into a true mutually supporting team.

In other parts of the book, Capt Marquet talks about the exchange of intent. These decisions are delegated, but they are not made independently. Rather, they worked to progressively create a working climate where people were saying out loud, both formally and informally, what they intended to do and why.

This created an environment were people could hear, and add to, the collective wisdom being shared around them. Knowledge was out in the open and spread quickly thorough the organization with these mechanisms.

But that was all a future consequence of what they learned by making this single change: To actually break the Navy Regulation, and turn 100% of the leave authority over to the non-commissioned officers.

The Overall Theme

This is just one example. The book is full of learning cycles.

People made mistakes. People acted without understanding the consequences. People acted without thinking.

But each time something happened that was contrary to the vision of the right people making the right decisions with the right information at the right time, instead of engaging in the death spiral, they sought to break it.

The crew (with the Captain as their coach) took the first opportunity to pause, reflect, digest what they had learned, and apply a mechanism into their interaction rules that applied a countermeasure.

Capt Marquet didn’t have a concrete step-by-step plan to get there. He just knew where he wanted to to go, had a clear idea of where he was starting, and took the next logical step.

As each step was taken, the next step was revealed. And so there was a little improvement every day. There was a big improvement on some days. But every day they were paying attention to see what they could learn.

And that is what continuous improvement is all about.

What You Can Do

Read the book. Study the book. Parse the book. Each chapter is a parable with a lesson. Don’t get hung up on the Naval environment, that is just a container for the higher-level story.

Study the lessons that were learned. Ask yourself what analog situations you might have, then go and study them. What mechanisms in your organization are driving people to do the things that they do?

What single change can you make that will have a high leverage impact on the level of authority?

That establishes a target condition.

What would “keep you up at night” (as David Marquet says) if you made that change?

Make that list. Those are your obstacles. Which one are you addressing now?



*Just to be clear, I did not serve in the Navy, and my interactions with the Navy were only occasional and brief during my time in the military. I was a commissioned officer in the Army, and the non-commissioned officers are just as important there.

Performance is the Shadow of Process

“Time is the shadow of motion” is an observation usually attributed to Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, pioneers of modern industrial engineering.

What they realized was this: You want to save time. But you cannot directly affect how long something takes. You have to look at the motions, at the process structure that is casting the shadow of time. To change how long the shadow is, you have to change the structure of what is casting it.


As you start your improvement effort, your challenge is often to change the size or shape of the shadow.

Grasping the current condition is looking at the process structure so you can see what patterns and characteristics of the process are shaping the shadow.

It is important to understand how the process patterns and characteristics are affecting the shadow before you just go changing stuff.

You might think “Oh, this part of the process ought to look like this…” and change it. There might be a lot of effort involved. But if you don’t have a sense of cause and effect, then you might end up with something like this:


Change have been made, but we really haven’t changed anything on the outside.

Your target condition has three components, and it is good to develop them in this sequence:

1. The “achieve by” date.

2. The target process pattern and characteristics, and the internal process metrics that will tell you if you are working to that pattern.

3. The expected change in performance if the target working pattern becomes the norm. Then check your expected performance change against the challenge. Is it moving you in the right direction? Is it moving you enough in the right direction? If not, then go back to #2.

Edited to add: In the purest sense, you should start with the performance change you require, then determine the pattern you need to achieve it. That is what it says in Toyota Kata, and in the Improvement Kata HandbookI don’t disagree with that sequence. However beginning improvers, when asked to first decide the performance target tend to just make a guess and can struggle if they over-reach.  I find that this is more of an iterative process than a fixed sequence.

Key Point: The target process pattern has to be what you must do to get to a specified level of performance. It isn’t “Well… we can make these improvements, and therefore might be able to deliver this improvement.” It’s “We have to make these changes in order to reach the goal we have set.”

The pattern of work is what should be emphasized. The performance level is an outcome, the shadow, of the work pattern. Your target condition is really a hypothesis: “If I create a process that follows this pattern, then I will get this level of performance.”


Why am I emphasizing this?

Because a lot of managers have been taught, by pretty much every MBA program out there, to manage to results.

They believe that by measuring and asking about results that those results will be achieved.

That may well happen, but often the changes made are (1) not sustainable and/or (2) people are creative at finding solutions that are destructive to the long (and intermediate) term interests of the organization.

The exchange of intent that is inherent in the Improvement Kata is a way to open up this communication channel.

The person making the improvement clearly has a result based challenge, and the boss ought to be asking the questions to confirm he hears it spoken back to him in the same way he understood it.

Then the boss should become intently curious. “What is it about the way we do things now that is creating (this result we want to change)?” In other words, ‘What is the actual condition now?”

“What process changes are you proposing as your initial step? What result to you expect? When can we see what we’ve learned? These questions are summarized in “What is your target condition?”

Be Ready for Empowered Employees

“I want my employees to feel empowered.”

“You realize empowerment means your employees start making decisions, right?”

“Oh… I want them to feel empowered. I didn’t say wanted them to be empowered.”

(from a presentation by Mardig Sheridan)

This is a further exploration of one of my notes from the Kata Summit a few weeks ago.

Think back to your own organizational history. When people were “empowered” how often did management struggle to retain control of everything?

These same managers complain about having to make every little decision themselves, and not taking initiative.

When organizations try to take on Toyota Kata there are a couple of common patterns that frequently emerge.

One is where most of the actual coaching is done by staff practitioners, with the higher level managers pretty much staying out of the mix. Previous posts not withstanding, that actually works pretty well up to a point.

The limit is reached when the next obstacle is a limiting policy or organizational boundary that can’t be crossed.

So… while this process does build the skill of individual managers at the middle and lower levels, it doesn’t do so well building a management team. Those enlightened middle managers can be in a tough spot if their bosses are expecting them to just be a conduit for direction from above. The coaches are working to engender independent thinking in the middle level of an organization that, by the actions of its leaders, doesn’t actually want it. (Yes, that is a bit black and white, the truth is more nuanced.)

The other common approach, and the one we encourage, is one where the coach is the responsible manager – usually the learner’s boss, or at least in the chain.

Novice coaches, especially if they are actually in the chain of responsibility, often struggle with the boundary between “coaching” and “telling the learner what to do.”

He often knows the answer. Or at least he knows an answer. Or, perhaps, he knows the conclusion he has jumped to with the limited information he has.

So, creating some rationale for why, the coach gives direction rather than coaching. This can be very subtle, and is often disguised as coaching or teaching. For this, I remind coaches to “Check your intent.” If it is to “Show what you know” then step back.

The learner may well have better information. Now this puts the learner in a tough spot. He is being encouraged to explore, yet also being told what to do.

Leaders who want to create initiative, leadership, and decentralized action in their organization have to be ready to give up on the idea that they know the best answers.

Notes From Day 2 of Kata-Con

Perfection is the enemy of progress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Improvement takes time and people.

The End.

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

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

If you don’t continually strive, you die.

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

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

All of our failures have come to good things.

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

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

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

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

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

“Learning only” has a short shelf life.

“Cool and Interesting” is not equal to Relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results do get attention.

“I’ll have what she’s having”

But don’t confuse results with method.

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

Challenges must be in operational terms, not financial terms.

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

Gotta catch a plane. More later.



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

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

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

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

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

Scientific Improvement Beyond The Experiment

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

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

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

How I Think Science Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Think Most Companies Try To Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Scientific Approach Would Work

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

We used to know ‘x’, now we know x+y.

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

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

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

But Sometimes there is just a good idea.

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

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

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

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

oh… and this is how rocket science is done.

Edit to add:

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

David Marquet: Turn Your Ship Around

imageRegular readers (and clients) know I really like David Marquet’s “Leader-Leader” model and believe it has a synergistic close connection to lean thinking, leadership, and Toyota Kata. When I was offered a chance at getting a pre-publication copy of his Turn Your Ship Around! workbook, I jumped at the opportunity.

Lean Leadership

I don’t like the word “lean” but we are stuck with it, so I’ll use it. I believe “Lean” is really about good leadership.

It’s really tough to make “lean” work beyond a superficial level without the rich horizontal and vertical two-way communication that is created in what David Marquet calls “Leader-Leader.”

While the lean process structure directly supports this type of leadership, our typical approach to “lean” has been to focus on the technical aspects and gloss over the change in behaviors.

Why? It is easier to teach how to build a u-shaped layout, or implement a kanban loop than it is to actually shift people’s day-to-day behavior. A fair number of attempts to use Toyota Kata have fallen into this trap as well – teaching it as a rote technical tool rather than a structure to develop deeper thinking and improve organizational clarity and alignment.

Our numbers-driven management culture tends to shy away from “people problems” and tries to lateral those things to Human Resources. Here’s the test: Who chairs the “difficult conversations” in your organization? Leaders? or HR?

Captain Marquet’s experience in the Navy was similar. A submarine Captain’s authority (in the US Navy) largely descended from his technical knowledge and expertise. Take away or diminish that technical expertise, and he has to learn to rely on the team, and build a team that can be relied upon.

So we are really talking about that elusive “culture shift.”


The word “empowerment” got a really bad name back in the late 1980s. There were tons of books written and consultants pushing managers to “empower their workers.”

They painted a picture of the end state: self directed teams that managed their own work in ways that were far better than anything achievable by top-down direction. There was nothing wrong with the picture – I’ve seen a few examples of that process in action and it is always amazing.

The problem was getting there. Companies would have a kickoff, make a huge change, “empower their workers” and let go of control, and sit back to watch the amazing results.


While the intentions were good, when direction was suddenly removed, people didn’t know what to do and they guessed wrong. They had been used to getting the answers from the boss, and suddenly those answers were gone.

The rules and boundaries were not well understood, and frustrated leaders often ended up pulling away even more control than they had held before the experiment.

“Well that didn’t work” became the words attached to “empowerment.”

So why does it work in the places where it does? It is surprising to me how often I hear leaders cite exceptionalism. “They can hire better people.” for example, without thinking about what that means about their own leadership, people development or hiring processes.

David Marquet lays out a few key principles in his Leader-Leader model. He is clear (to me) that this isn’t a switch you can suddenly throw. His journey on the Santa Fe was one of discovery as he navigated unknown territory. There were successes and setbacks, each a point of learning.

The main points of the model are progressively giving control; building competence; and establishing clarity.

In the words of Toyota Kata, establish a next target condition for pushing control and decision making down a level, then identify the obstacles in the way and progressively and systematically address them.

Those obstacles are nearly always something we must teach (competence); or something we must communicate (clarity).

There are some previous posts on the topic that you can click through to review so I don’t cover it all again here:

With all of that background, let’s talk about the book.

Turn Your Ship Around!

The first thing to understand is this book does not stand alone. The reader must be familiar with the original book Turn the Ship Around!, its story and premise, or at least have that book available to provide context for he workbook. I have read the original book three times, and was still flipping back through it as I went through the workbook.

imageThe workbook also refers you to several scenes in the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as examples (actually counter-examples) of the Leader-Leader model.

The format of the original book, Turn The Ship Around is a series of stories and experiences on board the Santa Fe. Each described a challenge or problem and what the crew and leaders leaned about leadership in overcoming it. Then the general principle is described. The chapter ends with a series of bullet point questions for a leader to ask himself.

The workbook, Turn Your Ship Around! parallels the structure of the main book. Each chapter in the workbook emphasizes a key leadership principle, references specific pages in the original book for the reader to review, then asks a series of questions or (in some cases) proposes an activity, exercise, or “to do” with your organization.

The questions are improved versions of the end-of-chapter questions in the original book.

There is also some additional material that Marquet has developed since writing the original book, for example, his “Ladder of Leadership” model that focuses you on the language in the conversation as leaders are developed.

I’ll get more into that on another post.

Using Turn Your Ship Around!

As I mentioned above, this is a companion work for the original book. Many management teams conduct book study sessions, and this workbook would provide a great structure: Study a chapter and go though the pertinent section in the workbook individually, then come together and share your impressions and answers to the questions.

Other Material

My review copy also came with a deck of cards intended for structuring a role playing session. A scenario is drawn, and individuals representing the leader and the subordinate draw cards which lay out the language they should use.

Sometimes the leader might be trying to get a reluctant team member to step up and take more responsibility. Another scenario might have the team member showing more initiative than the leader is comfortable with. The idea is for the participants to experience how these various dynamics feel. I haven’t tried it with a group (yet), but it seems like it would be worth doing… with the caveat below.

The Caveat

There’s an old joke out there that goes “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

Trying to Change the cultural dynamic of your organization is going to challenge deeply hidden assumptions about people that are firmly entrenched in the mechanics and artifacts the organization uses to get things done. These are things like reports, the way meetings are run, how assignments are given and tracked. If you choose to go down this road, all of those things will be challenged, and you will need to be open to that.

Capt Marquet talks specifically about blowing up the reports, tracking files, chains of signatures during his journey on the Santa Fe. No matter what you say your values and beliefs are, the mechanisms of control define what your culture really believes about who can be trusted with what. This won’t work if you pay lip service to it.

More to Come

Though I’ve been talking this up to clients for the better part of a year (and probably “sold” a hundred or so copies of the book in the process), I haven’t gone into a lot of depth here. I’ll likely be digging into the concepts more in the future. This post is about the new book, so I want to try to constrain myself somewhat to that topic today.

Shifting Perspective from Getting Results to Developing People

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

Taken from an actual conversation.

“What is your target condition?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What result did you expect?”

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

“What actually happened?”

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

“What did you learn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

(he adds it to the list)

“Any other obstacles?”

“Um… I don’t think so.”

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

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


“OK, what is your next step?”

“I am going to assign the priorities myself.”

“What result do you expect?”

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

“How is that addressing the fact that your team leader doesn’t know how to assign priorities?”


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“What else might be in the way?”

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

“Write that down. Anything else?”

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

“Write that down. Anything else?”

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

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

pause… “yeah.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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