Toyota Kata: Obstacles Are Not Action Items

Continuing my observations about old patterns that get in people’s way as they try to practice Toyota Kata…

“What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target?” (I also like to insert the word “now” in there sometimes to emphasize what I am writing about here.)

The intent (and to be clear, as I am interpreting it) here is for the improver / learner to give some thought to the things that have to change before the target condition can be reached.

It is not a list of stuff to do.

I am speculating here, but I suspect that there is a legacy from (mis)use of “Kaizen Newspapers” since, in actual practice, they often look similar to obstacle lists. (I believe the original intent of the “Kaizen Newspaper” was to function more like the Toyota Kata PDCA record, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Remember that there are two routines defined in “Toyota Kata,” the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata.

The Improvement Kata has four major steps, and the “five questions” that get the popular attention are actually part of the Coaching Kata.

Yes, it is the Coaching Kata that managers actually have to learn, but to be any good at it they (hopefully you!) need to fully understand the improvement kata so they can effectively coach a poor answer to one of the questions into a good answer. Without that baseline skill, the “5 questions” exercise turns into asking the question, waiting for the other person’s lips to stop moving, ask the next question. Doesn’t work (which is why I didn’t say “learner” – because no one is learning in this scenario).

Once the target condition is established, the improver / learner should then set back to the perspective of the current condition and assess what is keeping her from just moving directly to the target.

With all of that as an introduction, let’s look at Obstacles in context.

This is Mike Rother’s schematic of the Improvement Kata from the Improvement Kata Handbook (<– click on the link to download it from his web site).


In this model, “obstacles” are the things in the way of getting to the target condition. Saying the same thing, with more emphasis, “obstacles” are only the things in the way of getting to the next target condition.

But obstacles are not action items.

Obstacles are the issues, problems, etc. that you (as the improver) see at the moment. They are based on your current understanding of the current condition.

As you progress by running your experiments, or gaining more information, you are changing your understanding of the current condition.

That is why we ask “What is the actual condition now?” rather than “What was the condition you started from.

The current condition is just that. (Which is why, as a coach, you should insist that your improver / learner keep the current condition up to date.)

As your understanding changes, your view of what might, or might not, be an obstacle changes.

Obstacles are sometimes rendered irrelevant. You might have eliminated a troublesome process step entirely. Or solving one problem might have done “collateral damage” and taken out a couple of others.

As you advance your knowledge, you will likely change your understanding of the obstacles, reword them, clarify them, edit them. New ones might come into view (for the moment).

“What did you learn?” is often at least partially answered by pointing out changes in the obstacle list.

Obstacles are not action items because it is unlikely you will have to deal with all of them.

So… don’t worry about getting the obstacle list “right.” It’s just a reflection of your current understanding which can, and should change as you go.

Jeff Liker: Is Lean a Waste Elimination Program or Striving for Excellence?

Jeff Liker asks (and answers) the title question in a great Industry Week blog article by the same title.

One of the biggest obstacles we in the lean community need to overcome is our own inertia around “Lean is a process for finding and eliminating waste.”

In the article, Liker brings up a point that is often lost on us: Looking for the problems and negative things kills morale.

The “waste” that you see is the result of underlying issues and culture. Stop overproduction in one place, and it either returns or pops up elsewhere because the underlying reasons for it were never addressed.

Operations that are not operating at a high level of lean typically are lacking underlying process discipline, which leads to these problems and they proliferate daily as the company is in a constant firefighting mode. Trying to eliminate waste in the current system and culture is like identifying and fighting problems—it is debilitating and a losing proposition.

[Emphasis added]

I bolded that phrase for a reason.

We aren’t talking about a technical implementation here. We are talking about a shift in the underlying culture – the habitual ways people interact with one another, with the process, respond to challenges and problems.

Today we have, thanks to Jeff Liker and a few others, an excellent picture of an ideal version of Toyota. We know what it looks like.

Getting there is an entirely different proposition, as most companies that have tried this stuff know first hand. It is hard.

What is beginning to emerge, though, is that the thinking pattern that is learned through solving these problems the right way (vs. just implementing tool sets) is the same thinking pattern required to shift the culture.

It is hard. You have to do the work. But the way to get there is emerging.