Experimenting at the Threshold of Knowledge

The title of this post was a repeating theme from KataCon 3. It is also heavily emphasized in Mike Rother’s forthcoming book The Toyota Kata Practitioner’s Guide (Due for publication in October 2017).

What is the Threshold of Knowledge?

“The root cause of all problems is ignorance.”

– Steven Spear

September 1901, Dayton, Ohio: Wilbur was frustrated. The previous year, 1900, he, with his brother’s help1, had built and tested their first full-size glider. It was designed using the most up-to-date information about wing design available. His plan had been to “kite” the glider with him as a pilot. He wanted to test his roll-control mechanism, and build practice hours “flying” and maintaining control of an aircraft.

But things had not gone as he expected. The Wrights were the first ones to actually measure the lift and drag2 forces generated by their wings, and in 1900 they were seeing only about 1/3 of the lift predicted by the equations they were using.

The picture below shows the 1900 glider being “kited.”. Notice the angle of the line and the steep angle of attack required to fly, even in a stiff 20 knot breeze.  Although they could get some basic tests done, it was clear that this glider would not suit their purpose.


In 1901 they had returned with a new glider, essentially the same design only about 50% bigger. They predicted they would get enough lift to sustain flight with a human pilot. They did succeed in making glides and testing the principle of turning the aircraft by rolling the wing. But although it could lift more weight, the lift / drag ratio was no better.


What They Thought They Knew

Wilbur’s original assumptions are well summarized in a talk he gave later that month at the invitation of his mentor and coach, Octave Chanute.

Excerpted from the published transcript of Some Aeronautical Experiments presented by Wilbur Wright on Sept 18, 1901 to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago (Please give Wilbur a pass for using the word “Men.” He is living in a different era):

The difficulties which obstruct the pathway to success in flying-machine construction are of three general classes:

  1. Those which relate to the construction of the sustaining wings;
  2. those which relate to the generation and application of the power required to drive the machine through the air;
  3. those relating to the balancing and steering of the machine after it is actually in flight.

Of these difficulties two are already to a certain extent solved. Men already know how to construct wings or aeroplanes which, when driven through the air at sufficient speed, will not only sustain the weight of the wings themselves, but also that of the engine and of the engineer as well. Men also know how to build engines and screws of sufficient lightness and power to drive these planes at sustaining speed. As long ago as 1884 a machine3 weighing 8,000 pounds demonstrated its power both to lift itself from the ground and to maintain a speed of from 30 to 40 miles per hour, but failed of success owing to the inability to balance and steer it properly. This inability to balance and steer still confronts students of the flying problem, although nearly eight years have passed. When this one feature has been worked out, the age of flying machines will have arrived, for all other difficulties are of minor importance.

What we have here is Wilbur’s high-level assessment of the current condition – what is known, and what is not known, about the problem of “powered, controlled flight.”

Summarized, he believed there were three problems to solve for powered, controlled flight:

  1. Building a wing that can lift the weight of the aircraft and a pilot.
  2. Building a propulsion system to move it through the air.
  3. Controlling the flight – going where you want to.

Based on their research, and the published experience of other experimenters, Wilbur had every reason to believe that problems (1) and (2) were solved, or easy to solve. He perceived that the gap was control and focused his attention there.

His first target condition had been to validate his concept of roll control based on “warping” (bending) the wings. In 1899 he built a kite and was able to roll, and thus turn, it at will.

At this point, he believed the current condition was that lift was understood, and that the basic concept of changing the direction by rolling the wing was valid. Thus, his next target condition was to scale his concept to full size and test it.

What Happened

Wilbur had predicted that their wing would perform with the calculated amount of lift.

When they first tested it at Kitty Hawk in 1900, it didn’t.

However, at this point, Wilbur was not willing to challenge what was “known” about flight.

Instead the 1901 glider was a larger version of the 1900 one with one major exception: It was built so they could reconfigure the airfoil easily.

Impatient, Wilbur insisted on just trying it. But, to quote from Harry Combs’ excellent history, Kill Devil Hill:

“The Wrights in their new design had also committed what to modern engineers would be an unforgivable sin. […] they made two wing design changes simultaneously and without test.4

Without going into the details (get the book if you are interested) they did manage to get some glides, but were really no closer to understanding lift than they had been the previous year.

They had run past their threshold of knowledge and had assumed (with good reason) that they understood something that, in fact, they did not (nobody did).

They almost gave up.

Deliberate Learning

Being invited to speak in September actually gave Wilbur a chance to reflect, and renewed his spirits. That fall and winter, he and his brother conducted empirical wind tunnel experiments on 200 airfoil designs to learn what made a difference and what did not. In the process, as an “oh by the way,” they invented the “Wright Balance” which was the gold standard for measuring lift and drag in wind tunnel testing until electronics took over.

They went back to what was known, and experimented from there. They made no assumptions. Everything was tested so they could see for themselves and better understand.

The result of their experiments was the 1902 Wright Glider. You can see a full size replica in the ticketing area of the Charlotte, NC airport.

I’ll skip to the results:


Notice that the line is now nearly vertical, and the wing pointed nearly straight forward rather than steeply tipped back.

What Do We Need to Learn?

Making process improvements is a process of research and development, just like Wilbur and Orville were going through. In 1901 they fell into the trap of “What do we need to do?” After they got back to Dayton, they recovered and asked “What do we need to learn?” “What do we not understand?”

The Coaching Kata

What I have come to understand is the main purpose of coaching is to help the learner (and the coach) find that boundary between what we know (and can confirm) and what we need to learn. Once that boundary is clear, then the next experiment is equally clear: What are we going to do in order to learn? Learning is the objective of any task, experiment, or action item, because they are all built on a prediction even if you don’t think they are.

By helping the learner make the learning task explicit, rather than implicit, the coach advances learning and understanding – not only for the learner, but for the entire organization.

Where is your threshold of knowledge? How do you know?



1We refer to “the Wright Brothers” when talking about this team. It was Wilbur who, in 1899, became interested in flight. Through 1900 it was largely Wilbur with his brother helping him. After 1901, though, his letters and diary entries start referring to “we” rather than “I” as the project moved into being a full partnership with Orville.

2The Wright Brothers used the term “drift” to refer to what, today, we call “drag.”

3Wilbur is referring to a “flying machine” built by Hiram Maxim.

4I’m not so sure that this is regarded as an “unforgivable sin” in a lot of the engineering environments I have seen, though the outcomes are similar.

The Importance of Prediction for Learning


One of the things, perhaps the thing, that distinguishes “scientific thinking” from “just doing stuff” is the idea of prediction: When we take some kind of action, and deliberately and consciously predict the outcome we create an opportunity to override the default narrative in our brain and deliberately examine our results.

The Toyota Kata “Experiment Record” (which also goes by the name “PDCA Cycles Record”) is a simple form that provides structure for turning an “action item” into an experiment.

Why Is It Important to Make a Prediction?

Explicit learning is driven by prediction.

Explicit Learning

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …’ “

— Isaac Asimov

Curiosity is sparked by the unexpected. “I wonder what that is…”

The only way to have “unexpected” is to have “expected.”

When we consciously and deliberately make a prediction, we are setting ourselves up to learn. Why? Because rather than relying on happening to notice things are a little unusual, we are deliberately looking for them.

Deliberate Prediction: The Key to a “Learning Organization?”

Steve Spear, in his book The High Velocity Edge, makes the case that what all high-performance organizations have in common is a culture of explicitly defining their expected result from virtually everything they do.

He studied Toyota extensively for his PhD work, and discovered that rather than exploiting a “lean tool set,” what distinguished Toyota’s culture was deliberately designing prediction mechanisms into all of their processes and activities. This was followed up by an immediate response to investigate anything that doesn’t align with the prediction.

This is the purpose behind standard work, kanban, takt time / cycle time, 1:1 flow, etc. All of those “tools” are mechanisms for driving anomalous outcomes into immediate visibility so they can say… “Huh… that’s funny. I wonder what just happened?”

The High Velocity Edge extends the theory into a more general one, and we see a common mechanism in other high-performance organizations.

OK… that’s one data point on the higher-level continuum.


Building 214

Back in 2009 I wrote about a culture change in a post titled A Morning Market. That story actually took place around 2002-2004, and I have just re-verified (Spring 2017) that it still holds.

But it really wasn’t until this afternoon as I was discussing that story with Craig that it finally hit me. The last step in their problem-solving process was “Verification.” To summarize a key point that is actually buried in that post, they could not say a problem was cleared until they had a countermeasure, and had verified that it works.

What is that? It’s a prediction.

Rather than simply putting in a solution and moving on, their process forced them to construct a hypothesis (this countermeasure will make the problem go away), and then experimentally test that hypothesis.

If it worked, great. If it didn’t work then… “Huh, that’s funny. I wonder what just happened?”

This, in turn, not only made them better deliberate problem solvers, it engaged deliberate learning.

What is critically important to understand here is this: That verification step was not included in the problem solving process they trained on. We added it internally as part of our (then kind of rote) understanding of “What would Toyota do?” But it worked, and I believe added a level of nuance that was instrumental in keeping it going.


The Improvement Kata

Mike Rother’s work extends what we learned about Toyota. Going beyond “How do they structure their processes?” he went into “How do they structure their conversations?” (And “How can we learn to structure ours the same way?”)

A hallmark of the Improvement Kata, especially (but not exclusively) the “Starter Kata” around experiments, is a deliberate step to make a prediction, test it, and compare the actual outcome with the prediction.

This, in turn, is backed up in Steve Spear’s HBR articles, especially Learning to Lead at Toyota and Fixing Health Care From the Inside, Today,”  both of which should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in learning about continuous improvement.


You are Always Making a Prediction Anyway

Any action you take, anything you do, is actually a hypothesis. You are intending or expecting some kind of outcome.

What time do you leave for work? Why? Likely because you predict that if you leave at a particular time, and follow a particular route, you will arrive by a specified time. You might not think about it, but you have made a prediction.

If you are running to any kind of plan, the plan itself is a prediction. It is saying that “If these people work on these tasks, starting at this time, they will complete them at this later time.” It is predicting that the assigned tasks are the tasks that are required to get the bigger job done.

A work sequence is a prediction. If these people carry out these tasks in this order, we will get this outcome in this amount of time at this quality level.

A Six Sigma project is a prediction. If we control these variables in this way, we will see this aspect of the variation stay within these limits.

An “action item” is a prediction. If we take this action then that will happen, or this problem will be solved.

In all of these cases you don’t know, for sure if it will work until you try it and look for anomalies that don’t fit the model.

But in the difference in day-to-day life is we aren’t explicit about what we expect. We don’t really think it through and aren’t particularly aware when an outcome or result differs from what we expected. We just deal with the immediate condition and move on, or worse, assign blame.

What About Implicit Learning?

The human brain (and all brains, really) is a learning engine. Our experience of learning typically comes from what we perceive as feelings.

Take a look at Destlin Sandlin’s classic “Backwards Bicycle” video here, then let’s talk about what was happening.


There is nothing special about a “backwards bicycle.” If Destin (or his son) had no prior experience with a regular bicycle, this would simply be “learning to ride a bicycle.” What makes it hard is that, in addition to building new neural pathways for riding a backwards bicycle, he must also extinguish the existing pathways for “riding a bicycle.”

The Neuroscience of Learning (As I understand it.)

Destin has a clear (very clear) objective (Challenge) in his mind: Ride the bicycle without falling down.

As he tries to ride, he knows if he feels like he is losing his balance then he is about to fall.

He (his brain) doesn’t know how to control the wheel to keep the bike upright as he tries to ride. His arms initially make more or less random movements in an attempt to stay upright. This is instinctive, he isn’t thinking about how to move his arms. (This is what he calls the difference between “knowledge” and “understanding.”)

Whatever neurons were firing to move his arms when he loses his balance are a little less likely to fire again the next time he attempts to ride.

Whatever neurons were firing to move his arms when he stays upright for a little while are a little more likely to fire again the next time he attempts to ride.

This actually starts with increased levels of excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitters in those neural synapses. No physical change to the brain takes place. But this requires a lot of energy. IF HE PERSISTS, over time (often a long time), the brain grows physical connections in those circuits, making those new pathways more permanent. (It also breaks the connections in the pathways that are being extinguished.)

Destin’s six year old son’s brain is optimized for this kind of learning. He creates those new physical neural connections much faster than an adult does. His brain is set up to learn how to ride a bicycle. His father’s brain is set up to ride a bicycle without thinking too much about it. Thus, Destin has a harder time shifting his performance-optimized brain back into learning mode.

All of this is implicit learning. You have something you want to learn, and you are essentially trying stuff. Initially it is random. But over time, the things that work eventually overpower the things that do not. This is also how machine learning algorithms work (not surprisingly).


What does this have to do with prediction?

Destin’s brain is running a series of initially random trials and comparing the result of each with the desired result. The line between a “desired result” and a “predicted result” can be kind of blurry in this type of learning. But what is critical here is to understand that learning cannot take place without some baseline to compare the actual result against. There must be a gap of some kind between the outcome we want and what we got. Without that gap, we are simply reinforcing the status-quo.

The weakness with implicit learning is it can reinforce behaviors and beliefs that correlate with a result without actually causing it. We aren’t actually testing whether our actions caused the outcome. We are just repeating those actions that have been followed by the outcome we wanted whether that is by causation or coincidence.

In the case of something like learning to ride a bicycle, that is generally OK. We may learn things that are unnecessary to stay upright on the bicycle1, but we will learn the things that are required.

In athletics, once the basics are in place, coaches can help shift this learning from implicit to explicit by having you practice specific things with specific objectives.

Moving from Implicit to Explicit

Bluntly, the vast majority of organizations are engaged in implicit, not explicit, learning. They repeat whatever has worked in the past without necessary examining why it worked, or if “now” even is similar to “the past.”

These are organizations that operate on “instinct” and “feel.” That actually more-or-less works as long as conditions are relatively stable. They may do things that are unnecessary but are also doing things that are required.

… Until conditions or requirements change.

When the organization has to accomplish something that is outside of their current domain of knowledge – beyond their knowledge threshold – those anecdotes break down. The narrative of cause-and-effect in our minds is no longer accurate.

That is when it is critical to step back, become deliberate, and ask “Where, exactly, are we tying to go?” and “What do we need to learn to get there?”

The alternative is “just trying stuff” and hoping, somewhere along the way, you get the outcome you want. The problem with that? You’re right back where you were – it works, but you don’t know why.


1Sometimes we develop beliefs that things we do can influence events that, in reality, we have no control over whatsoever. Once we develop those beliefs, we bias heavily to see evidence they are true, and exclude evidence that they are not true.

KataCon 2017: Day 2

Today was the final day of KataCon3. As I have done the last couple of days, what follows is a more or less raw stream of my notes and thoughts from the day’s events and sessions.

My notes from Day 0 (Pre-Event) are here.

My notes from Day 1 are here.

Overall Thoughts

Thought I have been to a few, I rarely attend conferences. KataCon has been an exception as I have attended all three that have been held. I find it interesting that each developed a unique vibe, culture, unwritten theme.

KataCon1 in 2015 was a community coming together for the first time. “Toyota Kata” is (still) pretty new but by late 2014 there were enough people working on it to invite them together. The feeling was one of groups of people who had previously been working in isolation realizing that there are lots of others, all over the world (there was a very large European contingent) working on the same things. The ending felt like a launching ramp.

KataCon2 in 2016 had an emerging theme of “leadership development.” Overall the emotions seemed more subdued. This was a group of people coming to learn about what others were doing. The general feeling was more “technical” than “emotional.”

This year (KataCon3, 2017) the message is that “Toyota Kata” is “out in the wild.” It is evolving and adapting to different environments where it is being practiced. Overall the emerging theme seemed to be about organizations approaching the critical mass of a shift in default behavior – the ever elusive “culture change.”

At the same time, the discussions were more nuanced. Perhaps we are moving Toyota Kata beyond the “tool age.” A realization is emerging that this is about shifting the default thinking patterns of people in an organization, and that the kata are simply teaching structure and tools to help this.

At the same time, though, I get a little concerned that organizations will believe they can let go of the structure too soon.

I am going to expand on that more in a future post about Critical Mass.

Adam Light

Adam discussed the translation between the language of Toyota Kata / “Lean” and the language of Scrum / Agile software development as well as some of the similarities and differences between the process based systems such as production, and design activities such as software development.

He pointed out that, just as “lean” has organizations doing rote deployment of the tools – without the underlying thinking and continuous problem solving – so does software development.

Though his emphasis seemed to be about encouraging kata / “lean” based customers to adopt the language of their software developers, and understand how they work, I’m inclined to say it is the responsibility of the supplier to understand the language and working patterns of their customers. Just my initial thought.


“You have to be a learner before you can be a coach.”

Yet another organization has made this point. They tried to skip straight to teaching others, and ended up having to back up and allow the early adopters to take the role of the learner on live processes to build basic competency (and credibility).

1300 Certified Green Belts. 100’s of lean events. Same “certified” tool applied to every problem.

Continuous Improvement was PUSHED in. Measured by:

  • # of Green Belts certified
  • # of events
  • $ documented savings

No evidence of a lean culture.

This echoes the opening slide of my management training material (and my Toyota Kata training material).

They used Steven Spear’s HBR article Learning to Lead at Toyota to describe how they wanted to operate, then found Toyota Kata as a mechanism for learning to operate that way. (And, again, this echoes my own training material).

They noticed they had made dramatic improvements in their safety culture through implementing routines of behavior. This gave them a baseline that they could emulate to improve quality and delivery.

It’s not about the storyboard. – It is about the thinking behind what is written on it.

Current condition is critical before jumping to target condition. This is another very common mistake. Some teams even start with a list of obstacles – the action item mentality. This reinforces the value of having an experienced master coach to help get you started.


Mike Blaha and Dave Snider of Optum described some of the challenges in building stakeholder consensus for adopting a proposed solution that doesn’t fit their preconceived ideas.

Kata = “Show Your Work”

When a stakeholder or leader can see, or be led through, how the team arrived at a solution, they are more likely to understand. The kata experiment cycles support this process very well.

NOTE: Here is yet another reason why it is critical to be detailed when filling out your PDCA / Experiment Records. You need to be able to go back and understand, or reconstruct, your logic chain that got you to the final solution. Someone who wasn’t involved in your planning needs to be able to read the words and understand what you did and why.

Here is the coolest part. Their story actually described their process of making sure each stakeholder (who could say “no”) understood and agreed with the logical validity of their counter-intuitive proposal. During the break, I asked them if they had come across the term “nemawashi” in their original readings about “lean.” They had not.

Using the kata to solve a problem, they invented nemawashi. I have also seen teams invent SMED without any previous understanding of the process. But then somebody invented all of the so-called “lean tools” at some point. In each case it was done as a countermeasure to a specific problem or obstacle they were encountering in their effort to achieve better flow toward their customers.

Q&A Session

Mike Rother: “We have found no way to jump directly from “Aware of it” to “Able to teach it” without first passing through “Able to do it.”

  • All sorts of obstacles in the way of getting leaders to practice.
  • Bosch viewed constraints of leaders’ time and an obstacle and developed a countermeasure to let leaders practice when they visited the shop floor.

The question of “How to get leaders to practice” and “What about leaders that just delegate lean?” came up throughout the conference.

Many suggestions were offered, however I would add that none of them are guaranteed to work. In fact that is the case for ANY solution for ANY problem that is not EXACTLY your problem.

Something I have seen work sometimes (which is better than something that never works) is to reverse-coach upward. By this I mean using the format of the learner’s answers to the 5 Questions as a way to summarize status on any project. If the leader getting the report like the format, there is a possibility that leader will ask others to report in the same way. Apply the thinking to your answers when talking to the boss.

Question: How will you know this is successful? When asking about whatever change initiative is on the table, this could help clarify what the leader(s) think.

Question: Have you seen your results translate to top line growth? It was a great question, but I’m not sure anyone actually answered it. A lot of discussion about “savings” which isn’t the same.

Mike Rother: Clarification. A target condition has a hard achieve-by-date. It is experimentation with a hard deadline. It isn’t random, and it isn’t “we’ll just try stuff until we get there.” Teams don’t always hit the achieve-by-date, but they try very, very hard to do so.

Skip Stewart: When you are vague about everything, you are OK with whatever you get.

Kata in Healthcare Panel

At the end of yesterday I had planned to attend the Kata in Software Development panel discussion on the premise that it was the topic I knew least about. I changed my mind today for a number of reasons. Based on the feedback I heard from others, I’m glad I did.

In the last couple of years I have probably logged more hours in healthcare than any other environment. From that experience I predicted that although the context would be healthcare, the conversation would be about sharpening application and coaching. My hypothesis was confirmed.

Beth Carrington – Kata as achieving vs. doing. People tend to get a goal and make a list of stuff to do. Question is: What are we striving to achieve?

Challenge: Don’t use “doing” language. i.e. avoid a challenge that states what will be achieved followed by the word “by” and then how we are going to do it. Just stop at what will be achieved. That opens up many more possibilities for getting there.

“By ____(date a year from now)____ we will retain 90% of our freshmen by implementing a student mentoring program.”

“A challenge is a hypothesis that we will be tangibly closer to our vision when we get there.”

Train –> Observe –> Feedback

The method of “See one, do one, teach one” (common in healthcare) makes critical assumptions:

  • There exists a common standard approach to doing it. (usually FALSE)
  • That this approach works when correctly applied. (usually UNTESTED)

Obstacles are what propel you.

– Marci McCoy, Baptist Memorial Health, Oxford, Mississippi

Deployment of a new approach –> Use a real issue as a vehicle.

Experiment with something meaningful vs. a thought experiment.

Concept of non-movable obstacles. These are obstacles that are truly built into the environment or the constraints. My note: While I recognize there are truly obstacles that cannot be addressed, I would be concerned that a team may liberally use this label and constrain themselves out of success.

Deployment: Don’t push the “go” button until you are ready.

TWI is about standard behaviors (vs. standard processes). I’m interpreting as TWI is what people do. It is about how they move their hands, feet, eyes. About what they say. All of these things involve muscle movement regulated by an active brain. Those things, are by definition, behaviors. Control behavior what the brain does. (Note – this doesn’t mean we are in conscious control of all of these things). I found this an interesting way to think about it.

Use TWI to drive toward a target condition.

Kata = mental model. Storyboard = teaching structure. No matter what the teaching structure, the target mental model is always the same.

Process Metric: Measures “How close am I to my desired pattern of work. NOT how close am I to the goal.

We don’t PDCA to achieve the target condition. We PDCA against obstacles. This was a huge take-away insight for me. In retrospect, doh!

(Look for a post about obstacles once I get the rest of my thoughts together)

Closing Comments

“What am I doing that impedes my people from doing this?”

– Michael Lombard, CEO

About the thinking.

  • Not the tools.
  • Not the forms.

KataCon 2017: Day 1

Today was Day 1 of KataCon in San Diego. Click here for my notes from yesterday, the pre-events.

Like yesterday, this is a mix of things I heard and things I thought of as a result of hearing them (or writing about them here). I’ll try to make a distinction between them, but no guarantees, I just write down what I think.

Be a coach. Have a coach. – Seek out someone to coach you, go find someone to coach.

Mike Rother:

A plan is really just a hypothesis. It is a prediction of what you currently believe will happen, based on the evidence you have. It isn’t, not can it be a definitive statement about how things will actually go. If you treat it as a hypothesis instead of a “this will happen” definitive statement, you will be in a much better position to respond smoothly to the inevitable disruptions and discontinuities.

A model alone is not enough. No matter how well you explain a concept, the challenge is (and always has been) how to actually transition it into reality. What I have seen in the past is struggle to develop the perfect model so “they will get it” when it is explained. “They” understand it. That isn’t the problem. The problem is it takes a lot of work, experimentation and discovery to figure out how to make things actually work like that.

The Improvement Kata:

  • A practical scientific thinking pattern (the model) PLUS
  • Daily routines for deliberate practice.

The model, by itself, only gives you the framework for what to practice, not how to practice it.

Mike showed a really interesting, quick little exercise.

“What is the next number in this sequence:

2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, _____ ?

Of course most people will say “14.” But that is a hypothesis. A prediction. You actually have no information about what the next number is.

Let’s say the next number is 2.

What have we learned?

  • It isn’t 14. The theory that the numbers are a series incrementing by two has been refuted by the evidence.
  • We have a new theory, perhaps the pattern repeats.

How would we test it? What prediction would we make?

Note this is a much, much different response than “I was wrong.” Instead, evidence that does not fit the theory simply redirects the direction of investigation.

What if it was 14? What if we ran it 100 times and it was 14? Could we definitely say that on the next iteration it would be 14? No. All we can say is there is no evidence that the theory is false.

I’m just throwing this in because I remembered it when I was writing this. From xkcd.com by Randal Munroe:

The Difference between Scientists and The Rest Of Us

Small experiments.

  • Learn quickly.
  • Limited “blast radius” –> Small controlled experiments are far less likely to have far reaching negative effects if things do not go as predicted.

You can’t say “This will happen” with this mindset.

My thought: Any statement about the future you make ALWAYS GETS TESTED, whether you do so deliberately or not. The future arrives. You have a choice. You can EITHER:

  • Be wrong –OR–
  • Learn

Which would you choose? Make the choice deliberately.

This feels awkward. That is how it is supposed to feel. If you don’t feel awkward with something new, you are not learning.

Karyn Ross:

Karyn is the co-author, along with Jeff Liker, of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence. I have a copy of the book and will be writing up a review for a later post.

People who provide service are motivated by saying “I can.” Customer facing people want to help the customer.

The creativity zone is between “I can’t” and “I can.” What targets must you set, what experiments must you run, to cross that gap between “I can’t” and “I can?” as a response to a customer (internal or external)?

Kata is a way to get from “I can’t” to “I can.” It is a model of human creativity.

Invention is the mother of necessity.

Who needed a smart phone before it was invented?

What is your organization’s purpose in serving others? This is a powerful question to ask top leadership.

Dan Vermeech and Chris Schmidt

Dan and Chris had a dynamic presentation about their journey to transition their company away from being an action item driven company  (that won the Shingo Medal for being so good at it!) toward being a learning organization.

Amy Mervak

Amy gave us an update on her journey introduced at a previous conference. She relayed how kata is helping build higher levels of performance AND higher levels of compassion and empathy in a hospice.


  • Cognitive – intellectual understanding of what another person is likely feeling.
  • Emotional – a state of co-feeling with another person.
  • Compassionate – response to another person’s feelings.

Her final question was “How does practicing the kata help you and your organization connect?


Prior to the break:

The gap between knowing and doing is far bigger than anybody thinks it is.

Joe Ross

(Joe Ross is the CEO of Meritus Health in Hagerstown, Maryland. They have been a client, and I nominated Joe to be a keynote at the conference.)

“It took me a while to be as happy about a failure as a success.” … “GREAT! We can try again tomorrow!”

Joe was connecting with the principle of predictive failure that Mike had described in the “it isn’t 14, it’s 2” exercise.

“Innovators appear in the strangest places and some superstars are lousy at daily improvement.”

Joe related some cases where the “hero culture” leaders were having a hard time adapting to no longer just “having the answers,” where some quiet more behind-the-scenes leaders are the ones with the breakthroughs.

“We learned that Kata isn’t just a problem solving tool – it’s a leadership development program.”

Jeremiah Davis

Jeremiah has the “Kata at Home” YouTube channel. I highly suggest you check it out. There is a compelling story about kids, family and parenting developing there.

A child’s mind is designed to learn. An adult’s mind is designed to perform.

My thoughts: We, in the continuous improvement community, have been telling people for decades that they must “think like a child” to have fresh ideas.

Jeremiah nails what is different about kids with this quote which I am already incorporating into my own material (with attribution of course). This is the difference. It reflects what a child’s brain, and an adult’s brain, are each optimized to do. It doesn’t mean, of course, that adults can’t learn. Nor does it mean kids can’t perform. But in neither case is it optimal.

What kids are learning, as they grow up, is how to perform. They are learning, through experimentation, which automatic patterns work well to get through everyday life.

If adults are willing to practice they can learn to learn the way kids learn naturally. This is what the Improvement Kata provides – a way to practice.

At the same time, Jeremiah is working very hard as a parent to teach his kids how to learn deliberately so, as their minds mature, their performance optimization – the habits his kids have learned to get through everyday life – is learning. How cool is that?

Adults have “Functional Fixedness” – we (adults) see things as they are. Kids don’t have that constraint.

They see things for what they could be, they see things with features that are only in their imagination, but those features are as real to them as the physical attributes.

And any parent will know this one (or will very much sooner than they expect):

“Puberty is when parents become difficult to deal with.”

Skip Stewart

Skip is the Chief Improvement Officer of Baptist Memorial Health Care, a large multi-hospital and clinic system in the Southeastern USA. He talked about his efforts to integrate various initiatives: Kata, TWI, A3, Hoshin, and more into a single system as well as his impressive scaling of the transition across a multi-state, multi-site 15,000 person organization.

Skip made a great distinction between coaching and scientific coaching. The term “coaching” is a major buzz word these days – I suspect at least some of this is the “Lean Bazaar” tracking in behind the Toyota Kata momentum.

A system cannot be separated into individual parts. Only the interactions between the pieces produce the system behavior.

An automobile consists of an engine, transmission, drive train, wheels, axles, steering system, brakes, body, seats, etc, etc. It’s purpose is to carry you from place to place. None of its constituent sub-systems will do that by themselves. You only have an “automobile” when all of the parts interact correctly.

Skip was quoting Russell Ackoff (Who I had the opportunity to listen to and meet a long while ago), perhaps one of the greatest systems thinkers ever. Skip’s point is that we have all of these different techniques and tools, but none of them, alone, is going to do everything. Furthermore, deploying them separately – without regard for integration – may well make things worse.

Q&A Session

Some notes I took during the Q&A session with the presenters:

Actions to take = hypotheses. They must be tested, not implemented.

Leader standard work is the responsibility of the leader above.

Don’t sweat the obstacle list. If you left something off the list, don’t worry. Obstacles will find you if you don’t find them. – Mike Rother

My follow-on to the above: The original question was asked by someone relating that, as a coach, he could see obstacles that his learner was missing. Mike’s response was right on – if the coach is keeping the learner on track in the improvement corridor, then the obstacles that must be found will, indeed, turn up.

My addendum would be that often times the learner’s path to the target bypasses the obstacles you thought were critical. The learner finds another way. As a coach, you must be open to the possibility that your learner will surprise you with creativity.

There was additional Q&A / discussion time after the day’s events as we ran out of time.

There was additional discussion about the value of the “Model Line” (See yesterday’s post where I discussed a couple of failure mode alternatives to the intended “let them see the power of this” outcome.)

Constancy of purpose is critical. What is your intent? Why are you doing it?

If you are implementing a model line as a learning laboratory for leaders (this is VERY different from a “demonstration”) then that is much more likely to work than if you are implementing a model line to “demonstrate the power of the lean tools.”

Breakout Session: TK in Software Development

These are more my notes upon reflection than things that were covered in the workshop directly.

There were a number of breakout sessions to choose from. I decided to attend the one with the topic I knew the least about.

The workshop itself was engineered to teach the Improvement Kata pattern to software developers rather than teach software development management to Kata Geeks. Still I got a lot out of the discussions about the overlaps.

To anyone casually aware of cutting edge software development today, it is obvious that “Agile” (with scrums, sprints, etc), “Lean Startup,”  and related software (and product*) development management techniques are built around the same underlying thinking pattern that Toyota Kata is intended to teach.

At the same time, it is equally obvious that software development suffers from exactly the same “copy the tools and you will be as good as the best” mentality that the “lean” community does.

It is an interesting topic that I want to learn more about. I’ll be attending the Kata in Software Development panel discussion tomorrow.


*The first use of the Rugby “scrum” analogy I have found in literature was in a 1982 HBR article about product engineering development at Honda. I found that quite interesting when the engineering development people were pushing back about using software development management to try to manage engineering design. Um… the software guys got the foundation from engineering, not the other way around.

KataCon 2017: Day 0

KataCon officially starts tomorrow as I write this but today was a couple of pre-events and I learned a few things worth sharing. These are from my notes.

Common failure modes for continuous improvement / kata:

Note that these titles and words are not necessarily what I heard in the presentation. They are my notes and interpretations, along with my own similar experiences.

Resistance from a support organization.

The presenter talked about a case where a manager was having great success applying the Toyota Kata thinking pattern, and improving quality in the process. However the corporate quality department didn’t see the records, paperwork, etc. in the format they expected and caused a lot of problems.

I have actually seen this myself in the case of a factory in a multi-plant company. A plant manager figured out good flow pretty much on his own and got there without kaizen events, and without the direct participation from the corporate “lean promotion office.” Very senior people from the LPO engaged in a subtle (and not subtle) campaign to discredit the success. Ultimately the plant manager ended up leaving the company for elsewhere.

In another case I counseled a local C.I. manager in a larger company to “make what you are doing look like what the corporate C.I. office expects to see.” By renaming some forms and using their jargon to describe what he was doing (even though it was a little different), he was able to protect his approach.

SHOULD anyone have to do this? NO!!! But sometimes it is necessary.

Key Point: Understand the political environment and develop countermeasures just like you would for any other obstacle. It doesn’t help to get made about it. Just deal with it.

Consultant as Surrogate Leader

In this “Fail” the external consultant was chartered to provide coaching to a couple of junior-level managers by the owner of the company who did not participate. Needless to say this can result in political problems as well, especially for the managers being trained when they start doing things differently than what the owner is used to seeing. (What did he think was going to happen?) Again: If you are a practitioner / consultant (internal OR external) be aware of this kind of situation.

Spotlight Showed Problems

The improvement effort begins with a deep look at the current condition. This inevitably makes issues visible that were previously hidden. Again, if the culture / politics of the organization are not friendly to revealing problems, the ground work needs to be laid first.

The Guru Model

The “Guru Model” is pretty common – actually relates to everything above, especially the first topic. If you are working on developing these skills in the line leadership, it can dilute the status of the experts – who may or may not be as truly competent as they claim. We are seeing a shift away from a model of doing what the expert tells us to, and toward a model of learning to figure it out ourselves. The second model is far more flexible and works in almost any situation. We need to let go of the idea of seeking “the answers” from Gurus, and embrace that we need to learn how to figure them out.

“Doing Lean” with a challenge of “Getting Lean”

Don’t be a solution in search of a problem. The traditional approach has been to have “lean program” that pushes deploying tools and models that resemble a snapshot of a benchmark company such as Toyota. That implementation becomes an end unto itself. In the example discussed, the target company was doing fine in the eyes of its owner, but the consultant was trying to sell him on “lean” to “eliminate waste.” Even if there is a lot of possible upside, if the owner isn’t feeling the need to do something different, you are probably not going to get very far.

Note: If you are an internal practitioner, it is even harder. Ultimately it is managements job to set a performance challenge for the organization that can’t be met by tweaking the status-quo. “The challenge is often challenge” came up a number of times – organizations are typically pretty bad at establishing challenges that actually… challenge anything.

The Value of a “Model Line” as a “Demonstration of the Power”

This was an interesting discussion. Traditional thinking, for decades, has been that those who want to implement a change find a single area to transform in order to demonstrate what is possible. The idea is that once management sees the power, they will want to spread the same approach across the organization.

This effort could be taken on by an outside consultant, such as an MEP, or even an internal centralized improvement office (which may technically be “internal consultants” but they are “outside” to the other departments in the organization.

In either case, there is a lot of time and effort required, with no real assurance that even dramatic success will be seen in the light intended. My thoughts are there are at least two other equally plausible scenarios:

  • The one I discussed earlier: The success is discounted as an special case that can’t be replicated. This is what happened in the company where the company lean office that was the primary detractor.
  • Possibly worse: Management sees how great it is, and puts together a mass training / deployment plan to standardize the “new process” and rapidly spread it across the organization as a project – an approach that is doomed to fail.

Better, perhaps, to use a simple, short, mass-orientation exercise such as Kata in the Classroom to introduce the concept to as wide an audience as possible. Then see who is interested and help them learn more. You can’t force this stuff upon anyone. Ever.

Other Notes

Developing capability in the organization requires covering both technical and social (people relations, leadership) skills with leaders.


Target conditions and experiments means “you don’t have to boil the ocean or solve world hunger.” My thoughts: I have seen executives reluctant to accept or commit to a challenge because they did not know ahead of time exactly what would be required to reach it. The point of breaking down the challenge into target conditions, and further into obstacles, and addressing obstacles one-by-one makes the challenge seems less overwhelming.


The first group to get training needs to be the senior leaders. They learn by doing on the shop floor: Making actual improvements on actual processes. If the execs aren’t willing to learn, you probably aren’t going to get far. Further notes: This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything without full participation from the top. But you will reach a limit to what is possible.


Kata Ideas vs. “Suggestions” or simply soliciting ideas for improvement. A traditional suggestion program solicits any idea that the team member things might help. When there is a supervisor-as-learner working against a specific obstacle, striving to achieve a specific target condition, the ideas are much more focused.

Supervisor to team: “I’m trying to figure out how to solve this problem. Does anybody have any ideas we can test?” Then test them one by one as experiments.


“Real” scientists often don’t do true “single factor experiments.” They do mess around and try changing things up to see what happens. But if they see something interesting they then go back and run controlled experiments to isolate variables to understand what is happening.

This is totally different than the common approach of implementing a bunch of changes and hoping the problem goes away. If the problem does go away, and you don’t then rigorously investigate why, you have learned little or nothing. Now you are stuck in the position where you can’t risk changing anything at all because you don’t actually know what is important.


Measuring the success of “Toyota Kata”

We emphasize that you don’t “implement Toyota Kata.” Instead, you use the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata as practice routines to embed a new way of thinking into the organization’s daily habit of the way things are done.

The key is the thinking pattern that remains and self sustains. In companies that are very advanced, you sometimes see few, if any, “Toyota Kata boards” because the thinking pattern is embedded in every conversation they have.

Just as we say “Lean is NOT about the tools” – it isn’t about the physical artifacts, neither is Toyota Kata.

However (my current thinking) (THIS IS CRITICAL) – the artifacts are what provides the initial structure that lets you get that thinking started, allows people to practice it, and lets you observe how they are doing. My thought: DO NOT TAKE THIS DOWN until you are confident that someone new just joining your organization is going to learn it simply by picking it up from the way people talk to them every day.

These are just raw notes and some thoughts about them. If any of this sparks interest, leave a comment and I can expand on it with a more formal post.

People to Meet at KataCon

KataCon is a couple of weeks out. If you are considering going you are probably looking at the keynote speakers and KataGeekYellowbreakout workshops.

The other reason to attend KataCon is to meet other people and share experiences with them. I’d like to introduce you to two of those people.

imageHal Frohreich is the Chief Operating Officer of Cascade DAFO in Ferndale, Washington. Their product is custom pediatric foot / ankle orthotics that help kids walk. Yup, custom. Every one is different.

Since taking the position, Hal has been using Toyota Kata as a mechanism to develop the leadership and technical skills of the supervisors and, in doing so, make fundamental shifts to the culture of the organization. For you TWI folks, he has also deployed TWI, especially Job Instruction, along side the Toyota Kata for much more consistency in the way work is performed.



imageHal provides support to his Production Manager, Tim Grigsby. Tim coaches 4-7 kata boards every day and covers diverse areas including people development, I.T. issues, R&D, and production. Tim views his job as seeing that each work team has the time, education, direction, space, tools and help to improve their work. Toyota Kata provides the structure that he uses to help them develop critical thinking and clarity in their target conditions, obstacles, and their PDCA cycles.

Each afternoon the COO and CEO walk the floor and review the target conditions, obstacles and next steps. This helps keep things aligned as well as ensure nobody is “stuck” on a problem that is outside of their scope to fix.


I believe, and teach, that Toyota Kata is a mechanism for driving culture change, and this is the philosophy that Hal and Tim have embraced. While the performance of the organization has dramatically improved by every measure you care to ask about, that is not the real result of this work.

The real outcome has been to create a cadre of front-line leaders that are taking initiative and applying creative solutions vs. just getting through the day doing what they are told.

Come to KataCon and find these guys. They are worth talking to.

KataCon 2017 Keynote: Joe Ross

Joseph P. RossLast year I nominated Joe Ross, the CEO of Meritus Health in Hagerstown, MD to be a keynote speaker at the 2017 KataCon. I did so because I think Meritus has a compelling story.

Like many organizations, Meritus had engaged in several years of staff-led improvement focused on events and things like “A3 Training.” And like many organizations, while the individual events seemed successful, the actual long-term traction was limited.

A little over a year ago Meritus started exploring Toyota Kata as a possible way to change the cultural dynamic. The 2017 KataCon will be on the anniversary of our first training session.

In the meantime, Meritus also applied the same thinking to how they did their senior leader rounding, as well as applying the thinking shifting the way the staff interacts with patients and each other.

Joe’s talk will cover these key points and the lessons they have learned along the way.

I hope you will be there to hear his message and meet him as well some of his key people.


Learning = Extending the Threshold of Knowledge

“My computer won’t boot.”

Mrs. TheLeanThinker’s computer was hanging on the logo screen, keyboard unresponsive.

I know already that if the CPU were bad it wouldn’t get this far.

I also knew that the system hasn’t even tried to boot the OS from the hard drive yet, so that likely isn’t the problem.

Working hypothesis: It’s something on the motherboard.

Start with the simple stuff that challenges the working hypothesis:

  • Hang test a different, known good, power supply. No change.
  • Pull memory cards and reinstall them one by one. No change.
  • Pull the motherboard battery, unplug, wait a few minutes to possibly reset the BIOS. No change.
  • Try holding down the DEL key on power-up to get into BIOS settings. Nope, system still hangs, though it does read that one keystroke, the keyboard is dead after that.
  • Try Ctrl-Home to reach the BIOS flash process. Nope.


There is no evidence that the motherboard is not dead. Final test:

Get the numbers off the motherboard, find the same model on Amazon, order it for $37.50 to the door. (Intel hasn’t made this processor type since 2011).

New motherboard arrived today. Switch it out, takes about 30 minutes.

Boot up the machine, works OK, set the time in the BIOS, and pretty much good to go.

Convince Windows 10 that I haven’t made a bootleg copy.


The Threshold of Knowledge

I learned to code in 1973 on PDP-8 driving teletypes. Although my programming skills are largely obsolete these days, I am comfortable poking around inside the box of a PC, and I generally know how they work. Thus, the troubleshooting and component replacement I described above was not a learning experience. Yes, I learned what was wrong with this computer. (The “bad motherboard” was a hypothesis I tested by installing a new one.) But I didn’t learn anything about computers in general.

Rather than working through experiments into new territory, I was troubleshooting. Something that had worked was not working now. My experiments were an effort to confirm the point of failure.

Therefore, as interesting as the diversion was, aside from a little research on some of the more arcane troubleshooting, it was not a learning exercise for me. It was all within my Threshold of Knowledge.

In the Improvement Kata, “threshold of knowledge” refers to the boundary between “We know for sure” and “We don’t know.” Strictly speaking, we only say “We know” when there is specific and relevant evidence to back it up.


In this case, my challenge (fix the wife’s computer) was well inside the red circle.

But this wouldn’t be the case for everyone.

The Threshold of Knowledge is Subjective

Someone else with the same challenge may not see this as a routine troubleshoot-and-repair task. Rather, he has to learn.

I had to learn it at some point as well. The difference is that I had already learned it. I had already made mistakes, taken a week to build a PC and get it working many years ago. I learned by experimenting and being surprised when something didn’t work, then digging in and understanding why. On occasion, especially in the early days, I consulted experts who coached me, or at least taught me what to do and why.

Coaching To Extend the Threshold of Knowledge

Learning is the whole point of the Improvement Kata. That is why we call the “improver” the “learner.” If someone encounters a problem like my example and I am responsible for developing their skills, I am not serving them if I do something like:

  • Sit down at their machine and troubleshoot it.
  • Tell them what step to take, and asking what happened so I can interpret the outcome.

That second case is deceptive. The question is “Who is doing the thinking?” If the coach is doing the thinking, then the coach isn’t coaching, and the learner isn’t learning.

In this case I would also have to recognize this is going to take longer than it would if I did it myself. That is a trap many leaders fall into. They got where they are because they can arrive at a solution quickly. But the only reason they can do that is because, at some point in the past, they had time to learn.

“My computer doesn’t boot.” If my objective is for this person to learn, then I need to go back to the steps of learning. Given that the challenge is likely “My computer operates normally,” what would be my next question to help this person learn how to troubleshoot a problem like this?

I need to know what they know. “Do you know where in the boot sequence it is hanging up?” If the answer is “No,” or just a repeat of the symptom, then my next target condition is for them to understand the high-level sequence of steps that happens between “ON” and the login screen. That would be easy to depict in a block diagram. It’s just another process. But my learner might have to do a little research, and I can certainly point him in the right direction.

I’m not going to get into the details here, because this post isn’t about troubleshooting cranky computers.

General Application

“If somebody comes to me with a problem, I have two problems.”

  • The original issue.
  • The fact that this person didn’t know how to handle it.

You can easily translate my computer example into a production quality example. A defect is produced by a process that normally does not produce them. What is different between “Defect” and “Defect-Free?” Something is. We just don’t know what.

Is it something we need to learn? Something we need to teach? Or something we need to communicate?

If my working challenge for my organization is something like “Everyone knows everything they need to do their jobs perfectly.” then I am confronted every day with evidence that this is not as true as I would like.

If I look at those interventions as “the boss just doing his job” then I lose the opportunity to teach and to grow the organization. I am showing how much I know, and by doing so just extending the dependency. That might feel good in the short term, but it doesn’t do much for the future.

Think about this… in your organization, if the boss were promoted or hired out of the job tomorrow, would you look outside the immediate organization for a replacement? If so, you are not developing your people. When I see senior leaders being hired from outside, all I can do is wonder why they have so little faith in the people they already have.


*I remember when Gateway built their own machines, which I guess shows how long I’ve been playing with PCs. Then again, I remember when the premium brand was Northgate. Of course, I also remember programming on punch cards.

It’s “What must we learn?” not “What should we do?”

Darren left a great question in the Takt Time-Cycle Time post:

Question… Which system is more efficient, a fixed rigid Takt based production line or a flexible One Piece Flow?

In terms of designing a manual based production line to meet a theoretical forecasted ‘takt time’, (10 fixed workstations needs 10 operators), how do you fluctuate in a seasonal business (+/-25%/month) to ensure you don’t end up over stocking your internal customer?

Would One Piece Flow be more efficient on the whole value chain in this instance due to its flexibility?

That was a few weeks ago. Through its evolution, this post has had four titles, and I don’t think there is a single sentence of the original draft that survived the rewrites.

I started this post with a confident analysis of the problem, and the likely solution. Then I realized something. I don’t know.

My brain, just like every other brain on the planet (human and others) is an incredibly efficient pattern matching machine. I got a little bit of information, and immediately filled in a picture of Darren’s factory and proceeded to work out a course of actions to take, as well as alternatives based on other sets of assumptions.

NO, No, no!

Our Reflex: Jumping to Solution

This graphic is copied from Mike Rother’s presentation material. It is awesome.


It is likely that at this point you know that it doesn’t say “JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS” under the little blue square, and of course you are right.


But in spite of the fact that you know the truth, it is likely you still read “JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS” when you look at the first graphic. I know I do, and I present this all of the time.

Our brains are all wired to do this, it is basic survival. It happens very fast. Think about a time when you have been startled by something you thought you saw, that a few seconds later you realized it was nothing.

That pattern recognition triggered the startle. It was seconds later that your logical brain took over and analyzed what was really going on. This is good. We don’t have time to figure out if that movement in the grass was really a leopard or not. We’ll sort that out after we get away.

Our modern brains work the same way with learned patterns imagebut we are usually very poor at distinguishing between “what we really know” and “what we have filled in with assumptions.”

This is the trap that we “lean experts” (whatever that means) fall into all of the time. We take limited information, extrapolate it into a false full understanding, and deliver a diagnosis and treatment.

Boom. Done. Next?

What’s even worse is we often don’t hang around to see if the solution worked exactly the way we expected, or if anomalies came up.

In other words, everything comes down to takt, flow and pull, right? Kinda, but kinda not.

Some Technical Background

All of the above notwithstanding, it really helps to understand how the mechanics of “lean” tie together to create the physical part of an organic/technical process.

What I mean by “really helps” is this understanding gives you a broad sense of how the mechanics help people learn. Someone who only understands the mechanics as “a set of tools” is committing the gravest sin: Leaving out the people.

One Piece Flow

One piece flow is not inherently efficient. It is easy to have lots of excess capacity, which translates to either overproduction or waiting, and still have one piece flow.

This is the people part: One piece flow makes those imbalances very obvious to the people doing the work so you can do something about them, if you choose to. Many people think the goal is one piece flow. The goal is making sure the people doing the work can see if the flow is going smoothly or not; and give them an opportunity to fix the things that make flow less than smooth.

A pull system is designed to throw overproduction (or under-production) right into your face by stopping your line rather than allowing excess stuff to just pile up. Again, it is a tool to give the people doing the work immediate visibility of something unexpected rather than the delayed reporting of inventory levels in a computer somewhere.


Any given level of capacity has a sweet spot for efficiency. Even “inefficient” systems are most efficient when their capacity (usually defined by a bottleneck somewhere) is at 100% utilization (which rarely happens).

If other process steps are capable of running faster (which is the very definition of a bottleneck), they will, they must either be underutilized or build up work-in-process. This is part of the problem Darren is asking about – flooding his downstream operation with excess WIP to keep his line running efficiently.

If your system is designed to max out at 100 units / day, and you make less than, that your efficiency is reduced. If the next operation can’t run at 100 units / day and absorb your output, then it is the bottleneck. See above.

Now, let’s break down your costs of capacity. In the broadest sense, your costs come down to two things:

  • Capital equipment. (And let’s include the costs of the facility here.)
  • Labor – paying the people.

The capital equipment cost is largely fixed. At any rate of production less than what the equipment is capable of holding, you are using it “less efficiently” than you could. Since machines usually operate at different rates, it is you aren’t going fully utilize anything but the slowest one. It doesn’t make sense to even try.

People is more complicated. In the short term, your labor costs are fixed as well. You are paying the people to be there whether they are productive or not.

When the people are operating machines, your flexibility depends on how well the automation is designed. The technical application of “lean tools” to build flow cells pushes hard against this constraint. We strive to decouple people from individual machines, so the rate can flex up and down by varying the work cycles rather than just having people wait around or over produce.

At the other end of the labor spectrum is pure manual work, like assembly. We are striving for that same flexibility by moving typically separated operations together so people can divide the labor into zones that match the desired rate of production.

All of these approaches strive for a system that allows incrementally adjusting the capacity by adding people as needed. However this adds costs as well, often hidden ones. Where do these people come from, and frankly, “what are they doing when they aren’t working for you?” are a couple of questions you need to confront. The people are not parts of the machine. The system is there to help the people, not the other way around. This is people using tools to build something, not tools being run by people.

Handling Seasonal Production Efficiently

“Our demand is seasonal” is something I hear quite a bit. It is usually stated as though it is a unique condition (to them) that precludes level production. In my nearly 30 years in industry, I haven’t encountered a product (with the possible exception of OEM aircraft production and major suppliers) that didn’t have a seasonal shift of some kind.

Depending on the fluctuations and predictability of future demand, using a combination of managing backlog and building up finished goods is a pretty common way to at least partly level things out for planning purposes.

That being said, I know of at least one company whose product is (1) custom ordered for every single unit and (2) highly seasonal (in fact, they are in their peak season as I write this). They don’t have as many options.

Solving the Problem

With all of that, we get to Darren’s specific question.

The short answer is “I don’t know, but we can figure it out.”

There isn’t a fixed answer, there is a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome.


I am interpreting the challenge here as “Have the ability to flex production +/- 25% / month without sacrificing efficiency.”

Just to ensure understanding of the challenge, I would ask to translate the production capacity targets into takt times. What is the fastest takt time you would need to hit? What is the slowest?

In other words, the +/-25% makes me do math, even if I know the baseline, before I really know what you need to be able to do. Let’s get some hard numbers on it so we will all agree when we see it, or don’t.

Remember, takt time is simply a normalization of your demand over your production time. It is a technique for short-term smoothing of your demand. It doesn’t mean you are operating that way.

Current Condition

We need to learn more, so the next questions have to do with the current condition.

While this post is too short to get down to the details, there are some additional questions I would really need to understand here.

Known: There are 10 fixed workstations with 10 operators.

Assumed to be known: The high and low target takt times (from the challenge).

How are the workstations laid out?

What are the cycle times of each operation?

What is actually happening at each of the workstations?

What are they currently capable of producing in relation to the takt times we want to cover in our +/- 25% range?

A good way to start would be to get exit cycles from each of the positions, and from the whole line. What is the current cadence of the operation? What are the lowest repeatable cycle times? How consistently is it able to run? What is driving variation?

Since we are looking for rate flexibility, I am particularly concerned with understanding points of inflexibility.

I would be looking at individual steps, at distance between the workstations, and how easily it is to shift work from one to another. Remember, to be as efficient as possible, each work cycle needs to be as close as possible to the takt time we are striving to achieve this season. Since that varies, we are going to need to create a work space that gives us the smoothest transitions possible.

What is the Next Target Condition?

I don’t know.

Until we have a good grasp of the current condition, we really can’t move beyond that point. While I am sure Darren knows much more, I am at my threshold of knowledge: 10 workstations, 10 operators. That’s all I know.

However I do know that it is unlikely I would try to get to the full challenge capability all at once. Even if I did have a good grasp of the current condition, I probably can’t see the full answer, just a step that would do two key things:

  • Move in the direction I am trying to go.
  • Give me more information that, today, is hidden by the nature of the work.

For an operation this size, (if I were the learner / person doing the improvement here) I would probably set that target condition for myself at no more than a week or two. (This also depends on how much time I can focus on this operation, and how easy it is to experiment. The more experiments I can run, the faster I will learn, and the quicker I can get to a target.)

Now… I will re-state the target condition to answer this question:

“We can’t… [whatever the target condition is]… “because ________.” as many times as I can. That is one way to flush out obstacles.

Another way is just to tell the skeptics we are going to start operating like this right away, then write down all of the reasons they think it won’t work. Smile

Then the question is “OK, which of these obstacles are we going to address first?”

Iterate Experiments / PDCA to learn.

Once I know which obstacle I am choosing to address first, I need to know more about it. What do I want to learn, or what effect do I want to have on the process? Those things are my expected result.

Now… what do I need to do to cause that to happen? That is my next experiment.

And we are off to the races. As each learning cycle is completed, your current condition, your current level of understanding, changes. As you learn more, you better understand the obstacles and problems.

When you reach a target condition (or realize you are at the deadline and haven’t reached it), then go back to the top, review the challenge, make sure you understand the current condition, and establish a new target. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This Isn’t About “The Answers.”

imageA long time ago, when I first started this blog, I wrote a post called “The Chalk Circle.” I told the story of one of my more insightful learning experiences in the shadow of one of the original true masters, the late Yoshiki Iwata. My “ah ha” moment finally came several years later, and a year after his death. He wasn’t interested in the answers, he was teaching me the questions.

We don’t know the answers to a problem like “How do I get maximum efficiency through seasonal demand changes.” The answer for one process might give you something to think about, but copying it to another is unlikely to work well. What would work for Darren’s operation is unlikely to work in Hal’s. Even small differences mean there is more learning required.

When confronted with a problem, the first question should never be “What should we do?” Rather, we need to ask “What do we need to learn?”  What do we know? What do we not understand? What do we need to learn, then what step should we take to learn it? Taking actions without a learning objective is just trying stuff and hoping it works without understanding why.

What works is learning, by applying, the thinking behind sound problem solving, and being relentlessly curious about what is keeping you from moving to the next level.

I have come a long way since my time with Mr. Iwata, I continue to learn (lots), sometimes by making mistakes, sometimes with unlikely teachers, at times and in ways I least expect it. Sometimes it isn’t fun in the moment. Sometimes I have to confront something I have hidden from myself.

One thing I have learned is that the people who have all of the answers have stopped learning.

Darren – if you want to discuss your specific situation, click on “Contact Mark” and drop me an email.

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.


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.