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.

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