Toyota Kata and Culture Change

I am still digesting my experience at the Toyota Kata Summit (KataCon) and the TWI Summit but I wanted to reflect on one of the emerging themes, and some of the reactions.

One of the themes that emerged at both conferences – and to be clear, something I had a hand in influencing as well – was mechanisms for altering the culture of the organization. In other words, what we brand as “change.”

This is what I would call an “advanced topic”

What is Culture?

Books have been written about “organizational culture” and trying to create models that define “it” in some way. In the end, I think they all come down to various ways of saying “how people talk to each other.” This includes who talks to whom, and what structures and rules guide those conversations.

When we study “culture” we are looking at the groups’ default patterns of interaction. If we want to change those patterns, we have to alter people’s habitual behaviors. As I said in my KataCon keynote, This. Is. Hard. It is even harder when you are talking about group behavior vs. simply individuals.

Making Toyota Kata Work is Changing Culture

The point of using Toyota Kata is to practice and learn a scientific mindset. Getting an improvement storyboard set up that is focused on a challenge, and going through the Starter Kata of Grasping the Current Condition; Establishing the Next Target Condition; Identifying Obstacles; and Running Experiments Against Obstacles is a technically straight forward.

It is easier with an experienced coach to help you through it, but can be learned on your own if you are willing to be self-critical and persevere through things not working as well as you thought they would.

But beyond the scientific thinking pattern, we are also working to change the default behavior pattern toward one of working in Coach / Learner pairs on an ongoing daily basis. This is not the default mode of most organizations. (If it were, then Toyota Kata would be redundant.)

This means (to me) that, while actually practicing the Starter Kata is very important, getting people to do so in the first place often requires leading past the technical aspects. It requires altering the way people interact and work together.

Whose Work Is It?

Of course this is ultimately the work of line leadership, represented by the “advance group” or “steering team” or “shepherding group” or whatever you call them. Sometimes those people, too, have to learn a new way to lead and manage.


The Kansas Leadership Center, whose programs are based on the “Adaptive Leadership” model from Harvard, defines Leadership as:

“The activity of mobilizing people to do difficult work.”

They further assert (and I agree) that leadership is an activity, not a position.

I am bringing these things up because if we want an organization to begin practicing ways to engage one another differently, it is common to run into resistance. In other words, we must mobilize people to do the difficult work of changing their default thinking and routines of interaction.

In doing so, we will surface clashes of hidden values, senses of loss, anxiety and fear: Things which cause people to find reasons to opt out of participating.

Sometimes it isn’t as simple as saying “Just follow the Starter Kata.”

How to Deploy Toyota Kata

Actually the message of “adaptive leadership” has been present since at least the first KataCon back in 2015. One of the mantras that emerged that year was “Kata your Kata” – in other words, there isn’t a clear-cut path that works every time. You have to learn your way into it as an organization, as a leader.

The difficult part is that this requires going in deeper than the Starter Kata, and applying the underlying pattern of Challenge; Current Condition; Target Condition; Experiments against Obstacles.

The pattern is the same, but this isn’t about cycle time variation, it is about influencing (mobilizing) people, reaching agreements, encouraging them to “just try it” – in a process of discovering what works in that case, with those people, then doing it again.

A New Way of Working vs. Business as Usual

So… if we are going to get Toyota Kata out of the classroom, and past the first challenge or target condition into a sustaining, habitual process, we’ll have to address cultural issues.

The skill set for this is different than a technical process change skill set. We’ll have to learn our way through the grey zone for this part as well.

I’d love to see your thoughts and comments.

10 Replies to “Toyota Kata and Culture Change”

  1. Mark: Thank you for these reflections.

    This discussion (in your blog and at KataCon5/TWI Summit) reminded me of three parallel streams of thought.

    The first is a book titled “Praying Shapes Believing.” (Apologies to all those for whom the concept of god is laden with bad associations.) The general thesis was that how a person prays to whomever they conceive of as God, the words they use, actually drives their belief pattern. So, if you want to change your conception of who God might be, you have to use different words. If all one’s language is about a vengeful God, it’s hard to believe that God has any mercy.

    In a very different context, Jerry Sternin wrote about innovation. He said, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”

    The third perspective comes from the world of discussion related to culture and ethics. I’ve been partial to two ways of framing the same thought: “it’s how things are done around here.” and “It’s the stories we tell.” In other words, culture is not what we say; it is what we do (and the stories we tell about those actions.) So if the story is told about sleeping on the job (something someone did), how the story is told will declare that community’s view of that action.

    From all three directions, the way to change the culture is to start acting differently.

    The point is that new actions are what makes the change in mindset happen. You have to DO it first, even if the first steps are small and halting. That’s why the starter kata are so useful. For leaders, this means that they have to start new behaviour themselves, first, before they can ask it of the rest of the organization. It’s why that advance group, that shepherding group is so critical.

    But unless the leaders act differently, there is no incentive for anyone else to do so, and in fact there is often disincentive.

    I know a few consultants who will not work with people who they conclude are not already on a personal journey. They say life is to short to try to make change in an organization where the leader is not willing to change her or his personal behaviour.

    When the leader won’t change his or her personal behaviour, and there are folks elsewhere in the organization who have come to embrace the scientific mindset, then we wind up with what Tracy Defoe describes as stealth kata.

    Like all cultures that work on engaging people, it is fragile. But that isn’t a reason not to try, even if it is stealth.

    1. Hugh –
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. (Which I think holds a new record for my longest one – which is good)
      From my perspective, I am observing cases where a “stealth” approach is actually working to alter the leader’s responses and behavior, so I’m not quite ready to dismiss that strategy. People respond to their environment. By working at the middle, operational levels of the organization we have created a different picture of the organization for the leader to see and respond to – and the responses are changing in a positive way.

      This has been a deliberate chess game organized as a series of experiments, not happenstance. It took a few tries before we saw anything getting traction. It also required taking advantage of opportunities and openings – fortune favors the prepared. But carefully building trust and relationships with, and between, key people seems to be influencing the organization as a whole.

      It has been a matter of understanding relationships, who influences whom, and sometimes working indirectly through people we can influence to reach the ones who are more difficult.

      To be clear, this approach takes far longer, so requires sponsorship that is patient, but it can work. As I mentioned at KataCon, there is nothing that is guaranteed to work every time, and there may well be situations where nothing will work – but we can’t prove that. So this, like everything else, isn’t a universal formula. It was worked out by having a clear purpose and vision, a willingness to experiment against obstacles moving toward intermediate goals, and never giving up.

      1. Hi Mark: One of the things I love about the TWI skills is that if a supervisor chooses to use them, they can, usually, use them without asking permission. JR and JM for sure, although you may need authorization to implement elements of the change. Even JI can be done without “permission”, although one might get challenged about how long it takes. So they are great “stealth” tools. Or can be.
        I agree. Stealth can be a strategy.

  2. Hello Mark, I’d like to share my favorite definition of company culture. I like it because it is crisp and actionable. It takes away the fuzziness of the casual use of “company culture”.

    “Our company culture is what we actually do, why we actually do it and how we actually do it.”

    Then it also because clear how to change the culture: We need to change the way we actually do our work. Is that not exactly the purpose of Toyota Kata?

    1. Tord –
      “Changing the way we think about doing our work” might be a tiny bit more accurate, but yes, I agree with you.

      When we say “what we actually do, why we do it, how we do it” we have to be clear that when we are discussing “culture” we are talking about these things in the context of the structure of how people connect with one another. In our engineering and process centric thinking, it is too easy to focus exclusively on the task at hand and forget that “culture” is something that people do.

  3. Mark,

    Where I work there is a underlining Us vs. Them mentality. All of the office personal have read or started learning about KATA and how to use it in their respective areas. We use the 5 questions and seem to be working the system. I like what you say about “Kata your Kata” because I think there are some instances where we have fallen back into some old habits. All in all, it doesn’t seem that the underlining culture has changed. One thing that I have always inquired about is how much of KATA should be taught and explained to the assembly lines and production personnel.

    1. D –
      It is actually pretty rare to *not* start in production vs. in the office, so I find your comment really interesting.
      The ideal end state on the production floor is that leads and supervisors are “learners” – with supervisors also learning to be coaches of the leads – with the next level up as the “coaches.” This is an ideal state, and it is hard to begin there, but it reflects the benchmark companies.

      As a supervisor or lead is working on something, she would absolutely engage the team, because ultimately she is the team’s coach. She would solicit suggestions, experiments, things we can try, and use that collaboration and interaction to inform the next experiment. The group would do these things working together to solve the problem (address the next obstacle, in Kata terms).

      Manufacturing operations were the very first places where these concepts were developed into what, today, we refer to as “continuous improvement” or “kaizen” (which means the same thing).

  4. Hi Mark,

    KataCon5 was yet another great one, thanks in no small part to you. It’s neat how although Lean Frontiers doesn’t plan a theme in advance, different themes do emerge every year. I think the still-young and open Toyota Kata topic is evolving nicely thanks to the many practitioners around the globe. What a cool, ever-growing community.

    With regard to your posting above, one interesting point is that Toyota Kata gets used by individuals, teams and organizations alike. That is, the TK topic is not always or necessarily about modifying culture, at least at the start. At its root it’s simply about a person or people getting better at scientific thinking.

    However, in our own early practicing we started to notice a change in ourselves, in our way of thinking and in how we approached things. It’s like our “personal culture” was changing. We also saw that if a person practices at work it tends to spill over into their personal life, because although your mindset is something you can develop, it’s not something you can turn on and off. It was this personal effect that prompted me to write the 2009 ‘Toyota Kata’ book – ostensibly a business book, but actually about how to develop, mobilize, and channel human capability anywhere.

    Another interesting point is that the definition of “success” in the case of practicing Toyota Kata (or any Kata for that matter) is not the same as typical definitions of success in the Lean world. Once a person/team/organization has internalized the fundamental scientific-thinking patterns embedded in the TK Starter Kata and they are building on those patterns to develop their own style, TK itself may well disappear. And that’s probably how it should be. It’s the modified thinking and skill, not the Kata themselves, that’s important.

    So even in cases where an organization’s leaders and the surrounding organizational culture resist changing, it’s pretty clear that individuals there who practice Toyota Kata may still experience a useful modification of their own personal culture. Whether this is enough to satisfy the person or whether they should then seek to move to a more growth-minded organization is their call.

  5. Mark you mention that one of the most difficult things is changing the default mindset and routines of individuals. From past experiences that I have witnessed, I’d have to agree with this. I feel that most people would also agree that change is hard. However, in a working environment why is this the case? If you have facts to back up that change is for the best, why do we still find people resisting. I believe that most fear from change is linked to fear of the unknown. However, if you can explain to people that change will help, wouldn’t it be then easy to change their minds? What holds people back even when evidence is there.

  6. Hello,

    My name is Joseph Stratton and I will be graduating from URI with a degree in Supply Chain Management this spring. While reading your piece about leadership, it made me think of many instances that I have had in the position of RA while in school. I could not agree more with the part of your piece where you say that leadership is not a position, but an activity. My first year on the job, I learned this early on. I learned that people were not going to merely listen to you, or do something just because you asked them to and because you were the RA. People had to feel that there was a reason that they were doing something. Also, the relationship that you had with them often dictated their attitude towards a situation. If they respected you and knew you as more than “the RA”, they were going to be more inclined to move forward. Coming into the year, it was clear that people already had their perceptions of RAs, and that we are merely the police of the buildings. Trying to break that barrier down and knowing people on a more personal level is something that I think is integral when trying to be a leader. If they don’t know you and respect you, they are going to feel less connected to the environment they are in and care less for it. With that, there is no way that any positive change can truly happen. You may be able to get change on the surface, but underneath, you are still going to have many problems that will show up again at some point.

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