Toyota Kata: When to Switch Obstacles

Sometimes the situation arises where the learner has been beating her head against an obstacle with little or no luck overcoming it. The question comes up: When is it OK to give up and switch to something else.

The answer is, of course, a little situational. (Consultant speak: It depends…)

The natural progression of the Improvement Kata will provide an opportunity.

Improvement Kata steps by Mike Rother

As the learner is iterating against obstacles toward the Target Condition the clock is ticking because the Target Condition is always associated with an “achieve by” date. If the Target Condition is achieved OR we hit the “achieve by” date without achieving it, the learner should cycle back to the beginning and:

  • Verify understand of the direction and challenge. (The learner may well have gotten more clarity along the way.)
  • Get a complete grasp of the Current Condition. This is important because often while working toward a Target Condition the learner is only updating specific process and performance metrics, and may not be looking for collateral changes elsewhere. This is a time to take a step back, put up the periscope, and get a grasp of the complete picture.
  • Based on that new Current Condition, establish a new Target Condition, with a new “achieve by” date.
  • Now… identify the obstacles in the way of achieving that new Target Condition. Ideally they should wipe the obstacle parking lot clean and take a fresh look.

This process often helps clear the learner’s mind and see another way to get there, or see easier obstacles that were overlooked before.

This is also why it is important for the “achieve by” date to be relatively close (a couple of weeks) – because that date is a safety valve that forces a reset of the process if the learner is stuck.

If the learner asks if it is OK to work on a different obstacle, then the coach should become curious about the learner’s rationale.

Specifically, I want to understand why the learner thinks there might be an easier way vs. just saying this one is too hard. This may well require some more information gathering – a mini version of the reset I talked about above.

The key point here is to maintain the learner’s motivation. There is a fine line between struggling to solve a problem and getting frustrated. This might be a good time for the coach to engage in some empathetic questioning.

For example, name the feeling you are picking up to test your hypothesis: “It seems you are really frustrated by this…” Then listen. The learner will likely either agree, “yeah, I am.” or refute and give you more information, “No, I’m just trying to…” Then you might learn more about their threshold of knowledge with the process of problem solving.

That can open up a discussion for why the learner thinks it would be a good idea to try something else. Then use your judgement.

But as a coach, I don’t want to make switching obstacles too easy because there is a high risk of it becoming a whack-a-mole game. Some obstacles actually require digging and perseverance to overcome. Your job, coach, is to keep the learner in the game.

Sometimes, though, the learner gets fixated on a problem and doesn’t see another way. Even in this case, if the time to the “achieve by” date is short, I’d let it ride. But if that isn’t practical…

The coach may well have a broader perspective – in fact, this is part of the coach’s job.

If the learner is making progress on something I (the coach) consider a red herring, I generally let it go. There is always learning involved – so long as the effort doesn’t bog down progress.

Sometimes, though, the learner is getting frustrated and so focused that he just doesn’t see any other way.

This is time for gentle intervention with whatever questions might help the learner pause, step back, and see the bigger picture.

For example, perhaps something like “If this obstacle were cleared, how would the process operate?” This might not be the full target condition. I’m just trying to learn what “solved” looks like to the learner. Maybe just thinking about it will help them see the where they are trying to go and possibly another path to get there.

An interesting follow-up might be, “Hmmm, what’s stopping it from working that way now?”

“What would you need to learn to better understand what is going on?” might be another avenue to get the learner to look at his threshold of knowledge vs. the big ugly obstacle in front of him

It all depends on what you think will help the learner raise her head and take a different look at things.

But in the end, if you have a learner that is truly stuck, and after a few tries isn’t going to get unstuck, then, honestly, it’s time to go shoulder-to-shoulder with them and dig into things together.

What I would work very hard to avoid is direct intervention – “Why don’t you work on…” because this undermines the entire process by giving them the answers and can easily create a “what do you think I should work on?” expectation next time.

“A3” is an Obligation for the Coach

In Western business it is pretty typical for someone to be assigned to come up with a proposed solution to a problem, and then seek approval for that solution. In some companies that consider themselves more forward thinking, they might even say something like “bring me an A3.”

As a result I have seen a number of organizations that produce some kind of guideline for “how to fill out and A3.” They teach “problem solving” courses so people can learn to do this properly. I have developed, and delivered, a couple of those back when I was working in internal continuous improvement offices. We had case studies, exercises, all in an effort to teach people to be better problem solvers.

Similarly, a (very) long time ago, I recall an exchange on an online “lean” forum where someone had asked about Toyota’s “problem solving class.” The thought was that because Toyota has good problem solvers, that their course must be really good.

My response was that I have a copy of Toyota teaching materials for a problem solving course. It is good, but nothing magical. Because that isn’t how Toyota develops good problem solvers.

They do it with coaching.

What makes the “A3” process work isn’t the A3, or even the structure. It isn’t the instructions, guidelines, or the quality of the problem solving classes.

It is the almost continuous interaction between the problem solver and the coach.

The problem solver’s thinking is challenged. “What evidence do you have?” “Have you tested that assumption?” “How is that happening?” “Why do you think that is the problem?” “What are you planning for your next step?” “What do you expect to learn?”

And it is the coach’s stubborn refusal to give the problem solver the answer. Rather, they insist on following the rigor of the problem solving process using scientific thinking.*

The process is an application of the principle of “Challenge” followed by support to enable the problem solver / learner to meet the challenge. They have to bring perseverance to to the table, but the coach is there to make sure they actually learn to be better problem solvers in the process.

Likely (if you are reading this) you already know that. We knew that when we worked so hard to make those A3 guidelines and problem solving courses. But we did those things anyway.

Why? Because it is easier to develop and deliver those general class materials than it is to develop managers into coaches and leaders.

But the fact remains:

If you want to develop better problem solvers, what you need are better coaches.

The implications here are really profound for most organizations.

If you assign someone to solve a problem, to “do an A3” (or whatever structure you use), you are obligating yourself to coach them through the process.

This is far more than getting status updates. And it is far more work. Because you are teaching, not just supervising. If they fail, it’s on you, not them. “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

In Toyota Kata world we have reduced those questions down to the critical few in the Coaching Kata. That, of course, is a start. Your job as a leader is to practice until the flow of the logic is second nature to you, until you can go beyond the script. Until your first-nature, reflexive response to anyone proposing to do something is “What problem are you trying to solve?” or “What are you trying to learn?” and then carefully listening to their logic and pushing them to the edge of their ability with the next step.

When you can take your own coaching training wheels off, you can then (and only then) ask someone else to ride a bicycle for you, because you will know how to teach them to ride – and that involves more than sending them to a PowerPoint lecture on “Riding a Bicycle.”

“Because knowledge is not understanding” – Destin Sandlin.

———

*Some years ago I worked briefly with a manager who had been one of the key players in Toyota’s initial startup of their plant in Kentucky (TMMK). He told me an interesting story. In the beginning, he noted, the U.S. managers would go to their coordinators (Japanese Toyota senior leaders there to advise the new team) and ask for advice.

Then one week all of the U.S. team went through the problem solving / A3 course. The following Monday, he went to his coordinator with a question, and the response was “Doug-san, where is your A3?” After that day, the coordinators would not engage unless there was an A3 that outlined, in writing, what the manager already understood about the problem, what he was seeking to learn, and how he proposed to go about learning it.

Think about that story vs. sending people to “problem solving class” or even a “Toyota Kata” class. When they return, do you insist that they apply what they have learned whenever it is appropriate from that day forward? If you don’t then you are wasting their time and your money sending them to that class. They will never develop the skill without practice, and it is always easier not to practice something we are not comfortable doing.

Daily Management for Improvement

I’m digging through old archives again, and came across this graphic I put together around 2006 or so. It depicts more detailed version of “Organize, Standardize, Stabilize, Optimize” showing the continuous comparison between “what should be happening” and “what is actually happening.” It is the gap between these two that drives improvement forward.

Like the pocket card in the last post, this is built on a foundation established by the work of Steven Spear, especially his PhD dissertation that is summarized in Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. By the way, if you are in the business of continuous improvement, reading (and understanding) this breakthrough work is critical for you.

Other than generally sharing this, my other reason for putting this up is that in the Toyota Kata community there has been discussion for about a decade about whether or not the right hand loop – pushing for stability – is an appropriate use of the Improvement Kata.

I think that is an unfortunate result of some very early conversations about the difference between “troubleshooting” and “improving” a process. We get into semantic arguments about “problem solving” as somehow different from “root cause analysis” and how the Improvement Kata is somehow distinct, again, from those activities.

This makes no sense to me for a couple of reasons.

Scientific Thinking is the Foundation

Toyota Kata is not a problem solving tool. It is a teaching method for teaching scientific thinking, and it is a teaching method for learning to teach scientific thinking. In the books and most literature, it uses organizational processes as working examples for the “starter kata,” but exactly the same thinking structure works for such diverse things as working through quality issues, developing entirely new products and processes, working through leadership and people issues. The underlying sub-structures may change, but the basic steps are the same.

When I encounter an organization that already has a “standard problem solving approach” I do not attempt to tell them they are wrong or confuse them by introducing a different structure. Rather, I adapt the Improvement and Coaching Kata to align with their existing jargon and language, and help them learn to go deeper and more thoroughly into their existing process.

Stability is a Target Condition

I see a lot of pushback about working to “return a process to standard.” In reality, that is the bulk of the activity in day-to-day improvement. The whole point of having a standard in the first place is to be able to see when the actual process or result is somehow different.

Think about it: If there isn’t an active means of comparing “actual” vs. “standard” what is the point of having a standard in the first place?

Think of the standard as a target condtion.

What obstacles are preventing you from [operating to that standard]? You can guess, but the best way is to diligently try to operate to the target condition and see what gets in your way. That might not happen immediately. Maybe some time will go by, then BAM! You get a surprise.

This is good. You have learned. Something you didn’t expect has interfered with getting things done the way you wanted to. Time to dig in and learn what happened.

Maybe there was some condition that you could have detected earlier and gotten out in front of. Who knows?

This is all part of the continuum of Troubleshooting by Defining Standards.

You Cannot Meet a Challenge Without Working on Stability

As you are working to reach new level of performance – working toward a new challenge – there will be a point when the process works sometimes, so you know it is possible. But it doesn’t work every time because there are still intermittent obstacles that get in the way.

Nevertheless, you have to work diligently to see problems as they occur, respond to them, dig into causes (root cause analysis anyone?) and systematically protect your process from those issues.

The only real difference between covering this territory for the first time vs. trying to recover a previously stable process is that in the later case you can ask “What has changed?”

But, in the end, in both cases – stabilizing a new process vs. re-stabilizing an old one – you are dealing with conditions that are changing from one run to the next. That is why it works sometimes and not others. You don’t know what is changing. You are trying to figure it out by experimenting and learning.

What About Root Cause Analysis?

My challenge is still a stable process.

My current condition is my level of understanding of how the process works today, and the exact mechanism that results in a defect. Even defects are produced by a process – just not the process we want.

That understanding will be incomplete by definition – because if we truly understood what was going on we wouldn’t have the problem. So… what do I know (and can prove with evidence) and what do I not know.

What do I suspect? What evidence do I need to gather to rule out this possible cause, or keep it in play? Next experiment. What do I expect to learn?

I’ll write a more detailed post about this at some point. I think it is a topic worth digging into. Suffice it to say that I have absolutely used the Improvement Kata structure to coach people through finding the root cause of wicked quality problems.

It really helped that they were able to see the same underlying pattern that I had already been teaching them. It made things simpler.

Don’t Complicate a Simple Concept

It’s all “solving problems” (the term “problem solving” apparently has some specific form it needs to take for some people).

The underlying structure for all of it is scientific thinking. Some say it’s PDCA / PDSA. Same thing.

Splitting semantic hairs and saying “this is different” makes simple things complicated. Yes, there are advanced tools that you use when things get tough. But… addition and subtraction; basic algebra; advanced polynomials; basic differential calculus; advanced multivariate calculus – IT IS ALL MATH. You apply the math you must to model and solve the problem at hand.

DON’T apply more math than you need just because you can. That serves no purpose except, perhaps, to prove how smart you are… to nobody in particular.

Solving problems is the same. There are some cases where I need to develop a designed experiment to better understand the current condition – the interactions between variables. There are cases where other statistical tools are needed. Use them when you must, but not just because you can.

Use the simplest method that works.

A Lean Leadership Pocket Card

I was going through some old files and came across a pocket card we handed out back in 2003 or so. It was used in conjunction with our “how to walk the gemba” coaching sessions that we did with the lean staff, and then taught them to do with leaders.

There is a pretty long backstory, some of it is summarized in Earl’s recollection on this old post: Genchi Genbutsu in a Warehouse as well as here: The Chalk Circle – Continued.

A lot has happened, a lot has been learned since then. Toyota Kata has been published, and that alone has focused my technique considerably (to say the least).

Nevertheless, I think the elements on these little cards are valuable things to keep in mind.

With that being said, a caveat: Lists like this run the risk of becoming dogma. They aren’t. There are lots of lists like this out there, and the vast majority are very good. The key here is something that a leader or team member can refer to as a reminder that may bias a decision in the right direction. It is the direction that matters, not the reminders.

Fundamentals

The fundamentals are based on the “Rules-in-Use” from Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System, a landmark HBR article by Steve Spear and H. Kent Bowen. The article, in turn, summarizes (and slightly updates) Spear’s findings from his PhD work studying Toyota.

A. All work highly specified as to content, sequence, timing, and outcome.

B. Every customer-supplier connection is simple and direct.

C. The path for every product is simple and direct.

D. All improvements are made using PDCA process.

What we left off, though, is that in each of those rules there is a second one: That all of these systems are set up to be “self diagnostic” – meaning there are clear indications that immediately alert the front line people if:

  • The work deviates from what was specified.
  • The connection between a customer and supplying process is anything other than specified.
  • The path a product follows deviates from the route specified.
  • Improvements are made outside of a rigorous PDCA (experimental) process.

In other words, the purpose of the rules is to be able to see when we break them, or cannot follow them, so we trigger action.

To put this into Toyota Kata-speak – every process is set up as a target condition that is being run as an experiment – even the process of improvement itself!

Every time there is a disruption – something that keeps the process from running the way it is supposed to – we have discovered an obstacle. That obstacle must first be contained to protect the team members and community (safety) and to protect the customer (quality). Then goes into the obstacle parking lot, and addressed in turn.

If you think about it, the Improvement Kata simply gives us much more rigor to (D).

This ties to the next sections.

Key Leadership Behaviors

Note that this is behaviors. These are things we want leaders to actually strive to do themselves, not just “support.” It was the job of the continuous improvement people to nudge, coach, assist the leaders to move in these directions. It was our job to teach our continuous improvement people how to do that coaching and assisting – beyond just running kaizen events that implement tools.

A. PDCA Thinking

Today we would use Toyota Kata to teach this. But the same structure drove our questioning back then.

B. Four Rules:

1. Safety First

Even though this should be obvious, it is much more common that people are tacitly, or even directly, asked to overlook safety issues for the sake of production. I remember walking through a facility with a group of managers on the way to the area we were going to see. Paul stopped dead in his tracks in front of a puddle on the floor. He was demonstrating just how easy it was for the leadership to walk right past things that should be attended to. And in doing so, they were sending the message – loud and clear in their silence – that having a puddle on the floor was OK.

2. Make a Rule, Keep a Rule

This is a more general instance of Rule #1. But the it is more subtle than it may seem on the surface. Most people immediately interpret this as enforcing organizational discipline, but in reality it is about managerial discipline.

Nearly every organization has a gap between “the rules” and how things really are day-to-day. Sometimes that gap is small. Sometimes it is huge.

Often “rules” are enforced arbitrarily, such as only cases where a violation led to a bigger problem of some kind. Here’s an example: Say your plant has a set of rules about how fork trucks are to be operated – speed limits, staying out of marked pedestrian lanes, etc. But in general the operators hurry, cut a corner now and then. And these violations are typically overlooked… until there is some kind of incident. Then the operator gets written up for “breaking the rules” that everyone breaks every day – and management tacitly encourages people to break every day by focusing on results rather than process.

When we say “make a rule / keep a rule” what we mean is if you aren’t willing to insist on a rule being followed consistently, then take the rule off the books. And if you are uncomfortable taking the rule off the books, then your only option is to develop something that you can stand behind. It might be simple mistake proofing, like physical barriers between forklift aisles and pedestrian aisles. But if you are going to make the rule, then find a way to keep the rule.

Do you have “standard work” documents that are rarely followed? Stop pretending you have standards or rules about how the work is done. Throw them away if you aren’t willing to train to them, mistake proof to them and reinforce following them.

3. Simple is Best

Simply, bias heavily toward the simplest solution that works. The fewest, simplest procedures. The simplest process flow. Complexity hides problems. “Telling people” by the way, is usually less simple than a physical change to the work environment that guides behavior. See above.

4. Small Steps

Again, Toyota Kata’s teaching covers this pretty well today. The key is that by taking small steps, verifying that they work, and anchoring them into practice before taking the next ensures that each step we take has a stable foundation under it.

The alternative would be to make many changes at once in the name of going faster.

We emphasized here that “small steps” does not equal “slow steps.” It is possible to take small steps quickly, and we found that in general doing so was faster than making big leaps. Getting big changes dialed in often required backing out and implementing one thing at a time anyway – just to troubleshoot! See “Gall’s Law” which states:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

John Gall, author of Systematics

and sums this up nicely.

C. Ask “Why, what, where, when, who, and how” in that order.

Here we borrowed the sequence from TWI Job Methods. The first two questions challenge whether a process step is even necessary: Why is it necessary? What is its purpose? To paraphrase Elon Musk, the greatest waste of time is improving something that shouldn’t even exist.

Then: Where is the best place? and When is the best time? These questions might nudge thinking about combining steps and further simplifying the process.

And finally we can ask Who is the best person? and “How” is the best method? The key point here is until we have the minimum possible steps in the simplest possible sequence, and understand the cycle times, it doesn’t make sense balance the work cycle or work on improving things.

Come to think about it – perhaps we should ask “How?” before we ask “Who” since improving the method will change the cycle times and may well inform out decisions about the work balance. Hmmm… I’ll have to think about that. Any thoughts from the TWI gurus?

D. Ask Why 5 Times

Honestly, this was a legacy of the times. Unfortunately it suggests that you can arrive at a root cause simply by repeatedly asking “Why?” and writing down the excuses answers that are generated. In reality problem solving involves multiple possible causes at each level, and each must be investigated. I talked about this in a post way back in 2008: Not Just Asking Why – Five Investigations.

E. Go and see.

Go and see for yourself. Taking this into today’s practice, I think it is something that the Toyota Kata community might emphasize a little more. We tend to ask the question “When can we go and see what we have learned…?” but all too often the answer to “What have you learned?” is a discussion at the board rather than actually going and observing. Hopefully the board is close to where the improvement work is being done. Key point for coaches: If the learner can’t show you and explain until you understand, it is likely the learner’s understanding could be deeper.

As You Walk The Workplace:

Check:

perhaps we should have said “Ask…” rather than “Check” but asking and observing are ways to “check.” All of the below are things that the leader walking the workplace must verify by testing the knowledge of the people doing the work.

A. How should the work be done? Content, Sequence, Timing, Outcome

This is another nod to the research of Steven Spear. The key point here is that before you can ask any of the following questions, you have to have a crisp and precise of what “good” looks like. In this paradigm, all processes are target conditions. And as the work is being done, we are actively searching for obstacles so we can work to make the work smoother and more consistent.

In other words, “What should be happening?” and “How do you know?”

Do the people doing the work understand the standard process as it should be done?

A few months ago I went into some depth on this here: Troubleshooting by Defining Standards. That probably isn’t the best title in retrospect, but there are too many links out there that I don’t want to break by changing it.

B. How do you know it is being done correctly?

Today I ask this question differently. I ask some version of “What is actually happening?” followed by “How can you tell?” We want to know if the people doing the work have a way to compare what they are actually doing against the standard.

C. How do you know the outcome is free of defects?

So, question B asks about consistency of the process, and question C asks about the outcome. Does the team member have a way to positively verify that the outcome is defect-free?

D. What do you do if you have a problem?

Again, we are checking if there is a defined process for escalating a problem. And we define “problem” as any deviation from the standard, or any ambiguity in what should be (or is) happening. We want someone to know, and act, on this, and the only way that is going to happen is to escalate the problem.

We want this process to be as rigorous and structured as the value-adding work.

And we want as much care put into designing production process as was put into designing the product itself. All too often great care and a lot of engineering time goes into product design, and only a casual pass is made at designing and testing the process.

Even better if these are done simultaneously where one informs the other.

For Abnormal Conditions:

ACT:

These are actions that the leader must take if she finds something that isn’t “as it should be” in the course of the CHECK questions above. Key Point: These are leadership actions. That doesn’t mean that the leaders personally carry them out, but the leaders are personally responsible for ensuring that these things are done – and checking again.

That is the only way I know of to prevent the process from continuing to erode.

A. Immediately follow up to restore the standard.

If it isn’t possible to get the intended standard into back place, then get a temporary countermeasure into place that ensures safety and quality.

B. Determine the cause of erosion.

We are talking about process erosion here, with the assumption that something knocked the process off its designed standard. Some obstacle has been discovered, we have to better understand what it is – at least enough to get it documented.

C. Develop and apply countermeasure.

Here we may have to run experiments against this newly discovered obstacle and figure out how to make the process more robust.


That is the end of the little card. But I want to point out that we didn’t just hand these out. You got one of these cards after time paired with a coach on the shop floor practicing answering and asking these questions. Only after you demonstrated the skill did you get the card – just as a reminder, not as a detailed reference. This exercise was inspired by a few of us who had experiences “in the chalk circle” especially with Japanese senseis who had been direct reports to Taiichi Ohno.

We piloted and developed this process on a very patient and willing senior executive – but that is another story for another day. (Thank you once again, Charlie. I learned more from you than you will probably ever realize.)

The Perils of Weekly Toyota Kata Coaching

Outside of the actual operation, the default meeting schedule for most organizations is weekly.

This is OK when everyone understands what is expected and the default thinking and behavior is working for you.

With Toyota Kata, though, the intent is to practice a routine that is not default thinking or behavior. Yet many organizations fall into the default of a weekly coaching cycle.

What we have to remember is that the coaching cycle, and the learner’s preparation for the coaching cycle, are practice. The time(s) that you aren’t practicing you are engaging in the default, and if the default isn’t what you want it to be then it will easily overpower what you are trying to learn.

15 minutes a day is practice. 15 minutes a week is dabbling.

It is the same as a supervisor’s area experiencing one or two “kaizen events” a year. It is just dabbling with kaizen, not practicing it every day, and certainly not immersion. They aren’t going to learn to think differently with that kind of cadence.

Time spent on improvement vs. business as usual
Illustration courtesy of Mike Rother

Batch Production of Experiments

One of the reasons we want to drive toward one-by-one flow in production is so we can have one-by-one confirmation of products vs. waiting for a huge batch to be produced only to discover that they all have problems.

Breaking it down even further, we want one-by-one confirmation of operations so that we don’t keep working on something that is already unusable from something earlier.

Likewise, if a learner is running many experiments without checking in with a coach, he can get pretty far off track without realizing it. The coach can provide a valuable outside check to make sure the learner isn’t getting locked on to something that is distracting him from the bigger picture.

Remember: This is about developing people

Before you jump in and say “But I don’t have time…” consider the alternative.

How much time do you, as a manager, spend intervening in problems that you think people should be able to solve on their own? If you keep giving them the answers, they are going to keep brining those issues to you.

With a little bit of thinking, the Coaching Kata cycle can be easily spliced on to David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” and guide your conversations away from intervention and toward creating able problem solvers.

But before you can do that well, you have to practice the Coaching Kata until asking those types of questions becomes second nature to you.

This isn’t all about the learner’s development! If you only practice coaching once a week, whatever your default is today will likely remain so tomorrow. Change requires repetition and practice.

Just some things to think about this week.

KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Leadership

Photo by Michele Bucher / Lean Frontiers

Continuing my breakdown of Billy Taylor’s opening keynote at KataCon…

Key Bullet Points

  • People follow what you do before they follow what you say.
  • If you (as a leader) think you are above the process…
  • Deliberate practice on your practice of leadership. Focus on one thing.
  • Break down your leadership style [into elements]. Practice deliberately on one thing you want to reinforce or improve.

That second bullet is a real challenge for those of us who are in leadership positions (or even positions of influence). “If you think you are above the process…” – do you follow the standards and expectations you ask of others?

I think a good test would be “If a production worker corrected you, how would you respond?” If your internal emotional response (that initial feeling you have, not how you show yourself) is anything other than “Thank you for reminding me” then you are exempting yourself from the rules.

The other take-away:

Throughout his presentation, Billy was tying together the idea of “deliberate practice” and “developing leadership skills.” Leadership is a process, and processes can be broken down into their constituent elements and practiced.

This ties back perfectly to a broad spectrum of leadership development models. In the end, what we can control are:

  • What we say.
  • How we say it.
  • Who we say it to.
  • The structure of the environment that either inhibits or encourages the behaviors we want.

All of these things can be developed through experimentation, and then practiced. This is what Toyota Kata is about.

KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Deliberate Practice

The first official day of KataCon kicked off with a keynote on deliberate practice by Billy Taylor. I first met Billy back in 2012 when I was doing some work with Goodyear. When I saw him at last year’s KataCon it was like running into an old friend, but that is who Billy Taylor is – even if you just met him.

Billy Taylor on Deliberate Practice

Pull quotes and thoughts

The Concept of Deliberate Practice
  • Toyota Kata has two sides, like a coin. On one side is scientific thinking. On the flip side is deliberate practice.
  • Traditional practice is often just mindless repetition. Deliberate practice has focused attention on perhaps one aspect of the routine.

A couple of things come to mind for me here. First is that too many coaches go through mindless repetition of the Coaching Kata. They just ask the next question on the card, and never practice using the questions to nudge the learner’s thinking to the next level.

This means they never practice in a way that pushes them as coaches. More about that below.

The other is that we, all too often, take a learner through the entire process much too fast. We do this in classes to give them a taste of the whole process. But in real life, perhaps it would be best to anchor each Starter Kata step and ensure there is at least understanding before moving to the next.

When 2nd coaching it is equally important to focus both the coach AND the learner on improving a single aspect of the board.

As I am writing this, I am reflecting more, and parsing more. This slide offers a ton of insight for me:

From Billy Taylor’s KataCon6 Presentation

There is so much here on a lot of levels.

This is how I interpret the graphs: On the left we have “Just Practice.” Maybe I am learning to play a song on the guitar. As I practice I learn to play it better and better. Then I hit a plateau because I am comfortably good and not challenging myself anymore. I am just playing. And that feels awesome, because I validate to myself that I am pretty good.

At a higher level, this is the “lean plateau” that so many companies hit. They get really good at running kaizen events, or black belt projects, or whatever they do. They hit a pretty good level of performance, but things erode. They reach a plateau when the implementers are spending all of their time re-implementing what has eroded. They shift into mindlessly repeating the familiar rather than challenge themselves. What are we missing? Why is the skill concentrated into the same half dozen individuals who have been doing this since 1999?

The graph on the right represents something that is the same, but different. Take a look – each little squiggle repeats the graph on the left, only smaller. Each time a plateau is hit, the learner challenges herself to practice a new aspect. Things get a little worse for a bit, then as the new aspect is mastered, the process is repeated.

I see the job of the coach as two fold:

  • To challenge the learner in small steps, always looking for the obstacle to the next level of performance.
  • To offer up specific things to practice.

Billy’s presentation covered a lot of overlapping territory – enough for at least two more posts – stay tuned.

Thoughts and Notes from KataCon 2020

This is the first in series of posts I am drafting about what I saw, heard, learned at KataCon6 in Austin.

I was originally writing this up in huge chunks, maybe two posts. But when I bounced the “Part 1” draft off Craig Stritar, I got some good advice – there are a lot of topics here, and it might be more useful to break these up into smaller pieces, so that is what I am doing.

My intent is to generate discussion – so I would like to explicitly invite comments, questions and especially take-aways from others. In other words – let’s continue the great conversations that were taking place in Austin.

Day -1 and Day 0

Lean Frontiers traditionally runs the TWI Summit and KataCon back-to-back in the same week, alternating which comes first. This year the TWI Summit was Monday and Tuesday, and KataCon was officially Thursday and Friday.

Both conferences, though, have semi-formal activities and get-togethers prior to the first official day. Since there are things going on Wednesday, some people begin to arrive Tuesday evening. And because I was already on site from the TWI Summit, Tuesday evening is really when things got started for me.

Something I have observed in the past is that each KataCon seems to take on an informal theme of its own – a common thread or feeling that is established more by the participants than the presenters. Where the first KataCon was the excited buzz of a community coming together for the first time, this one seemed to me to be like a reunion. To be clear – it was a welcoming reunion. Unlike other conferences I have attended, there is nothing “clique-ish” about this one.

With that reunion theme, I want to give a shout out to Beth Carrington. She is a vital member in the fabric of this community and this is the first KataCon she has missed. I think I can speak for all of the regulars when I say “we missed you.” Those who do not know you still felt your presence and influence through your impact on the rest of us.

The other thing (for me) that was cool was just how much of the conversation took place after hours in the hotel lobby bar. There were long-time regulars catching up, and there were first-timers and newbies getting rich tutorials and insights from the veterans. That is why I titled this section starting with day “-1.” Those conversations were happening on Tuesday afternoon and evening as people started to arrive.

This is a community of sharing. Many of us are consultants and nominally competitors in an increasingly crowded market. Yet nothing was held back. We build on each other’s stuff, and pretty much everyone shares what they are thinking with everyone else. That’s pretty cool in my estimation.

The Kata Geek Meetup

Kata Geek Button from KataCon 1

The Kata Geek Meetup started at the first KataCon. At the time it was an informal mailing list invitation to attend a get-together before the conference started. Everyone got a “Kata Geek” button to wear with the idea that the other conference participants could identify those with a bit more experience under their belt if they wanted to ask questions, etc. The event wasn’t publicized on the conference agenda.

Over the years this has morphed into a mini-preconference that is open to all who can attend. People share brief presentations – maybe something they want to try out for an audience, maybe a rhetorical question, maybe a “what we are learning.” The pacing is much more flexible than the actual conference, and there is time for lively discussion and Q&A. Sometimes tough, challenging questions get asked – though always in the spirit of curiosity rather than trying to one-up anyone.

As I get into the actual content, I want to clarify my purpose in writing what I do. When I listen to presentations, I am more likely to take down notes of what thoughts or insights I take away than the actual content. These things are often a fusion of key points the presenter is making, or the way they are saying something, and my own paradigms and listening framework. That is what I am writing about here. I am not making any attempt to “cover” the presentations as a reporter or reviewer would or be complete in mentioning everything that was said.

PLEASE contribute in comments if something I didn’t mention resonated with you, or something written here sparked another thought for you.

Dorsey Sherman made a simple point: All coaching is not the same. It depends on your intention (as a coach).

Thinking about it a bit, the classic TWI Job Relations is coaching – usually (in its original form) to fix or change behavior in some way. TWI Job Instruction is coaching – in this case to teach / coach for skill. At a deeper level, the classes themselves are designed to give novice coaches a structure they can practice.

The Improvement Kata framework itself is a pretty universal structure that I can pour a lot of different intentions into and test ideas that I think will move me in a particular direction. I think all coaching is a process of exploring and experimentation simply for the fact that we are dealing with other people. We may begin with assumptions about what they think, know, feel but if we don’t take deliberate steps to test those assumptions we are just guessing in the dark.

Hugh Alley

Hugh is a friend from neighboring beautiful British Columbia. I recall telling an audience in British Columbia that Canada represents that nice couple living quietly in an apartment over a rowdy biker bar. 😉

A couple of take-aways I noted down as Hugh was speaking:

  • The storyboard represents a picture of the learner’s mindset – it is like an MRI.
  • Correction: Hugh informs me (see his comment below) that the MRI analogy came from Panos Eftsa.

I loved that analogy. When I look at the storyboard I am really seeing how organized the learner’s thinking is, how detailed, and whether or not they are connecting the dots of cause and effect from the levels of their target conditions to their metrics down to their experiments and predictions.

I thought of an image like this:

Public Domain: From Wikimedia Commons

Hugh was asking the audience about his situation of a client company that started up 13 storyboards at once. Some of the thoughts that came out:

  • Um… OK, you have already done that. *smile*
  • Establish a specific area of work for each board, each coach. Don’t try to bring them along all at once.
  • Work through each phase of the Coaching Kata, anchor success and mastery one-by-one rather than trying to batch everything through at once.

What was good about his client’s approach, though, is they are establishing a routine of people talking about why the work is the way it is – and that is awesome.

Toyota Kata Level-Set

At this point I am letting go of trying to write in the sequence of the agenda. There are topics I want to go deeper into, others I may combine.

Oscar Roche

The Toyota Kata Summit attracts people across a wide spectrum of knowledge and experience with “Toyota Kata” itself. Balancing the conference can present a real challenge. There are people who have been practicing this in the trenches for a decade and are pushing the boundaries. There are people who might have read the book and are curious about learning more.

One of the countermeasures is a “level set” presentation at the beginning of the formal conference. This is a brief overview of the fundamental principles of Toyota Kata and I think it is a good grounding for the veterans as well – it is always good to pull us back to the basics now and again.

Traditionally Mike Rother has done the “level set” presentation. This year, though, was a change and Oscar Roche stepped up. Oscar’s title slide drove home a critical point that we often miss:

  • “Kata is the a thing that helps you develop the a way”

His next slide answers the implied question:

Scientific thinking is a mental framework of continuous comparison between what we predict will happen next, and what actually happens, then adjusting our understanding based on the difference.
My thoughts – and a digression

A lot of practitioners get hung up on the idea that the way they know best is the best way, sometimes to the point of believing it is the only way. This is true for Toyota Kata practitioners, general “lean” practitioners, Six Sigmites, Theory of Constraints, TQM, you name it.

Sometimes I hear people make sweeping statements that dismiss an entire community, perhaps focusing in on one thing they perceive as flawed. “Lean addresses waste but not quality (or not variation).” “TOC doesn’t address flow.” “Six Sigma is only about big projects.” “Toyota Kata is only about the storyboard.” All of these statements are demonstrably false, but it is hard to have an open minded discussion that begins with an absolute.

All (credible) continuous improvement has a foundation of scientific thinking. Any approach you take has some basic “first moves” to get you started thinking that way. Toyota Kata is more explicit about that than most, but the underlying principles are the same across the board.

Oscar’s opening slide emphasized this point: Toyota Kata is a way, not the way. We can all learn to adapt vs. continuing to hammer on a nail that has hit a knot and is bending over.

Steven Kane

  • A teacher provides insight.
  • A coach pulls insight from the learner.
  • You may go back and forth between these two roles. Be crystal clear which role you are in at the moment.

I’ll probably write more about this in the future in a separate post. What I liked about this thought is that it is appropriate for the coach to provide direction or insight at times. My own presentation at KataCon kind of hinted at this – someone has to bring in the paradigm of what “really good” looks like.

Nevertheless, it is critical for the coach to drop into the “teacher” role only when necessary (which I think is a lot less often than we like to think it is), and then get back into true “coach” mode as quickly as possible. Why? Because unless I am in “curious” mode with my learner, I really have no way to know if my brilliant insights got any traction. 😉

Paraphrasing from Steven’s presentation, the question “What did you learn?” is there to see if there has been a moment of discovery.

  • The Power of Nothing

The most powerful follow-on question to “What did you learn?” is silence. If initial response is fluffy or vague, or you think there is more, just wait. Don’t try to say anything. The learner will instinctively fill in the awkward silence.

  • Target Condition vs. a Result

This came up a lot during the conference. Billy Taylor talked about the difference between “Key Activities” (KA) vs. “Key Indicators” (KI or KPI). What are the things that people have to do that will give us the result we are striving for? Leaders, all too often, push only on the outcome, and don’t ask whether the key activities are actually being carried out – or worse, don’t think about what activities are required (or the time and resources that will be required). I’m going dedicate a post on that topic.

And finally (and I am making this one bold so I remember it!) –

  • Don’t rob the leaner of their opportunity to make discoveries.

How often do we do that?

Michael Lombard

Michael had a brief presentation on “What we are learning” focused specifically into the health care field. His thoughts on medical students actually apply universally with anyone who perceives themselves as successful.

  • We need to de-stigmatize struggle. Productive struggle is part of deep learning. Medical students should not feel shame when they struggle to learn a new skill.

Why do they? Michael pointed out that the people who manage to get admitted to medical school are high-achievers. Things may well have come easily for them in high school and their undergraduate studies. Now they are in a group with other high-achievers, they don’t stand out from the crowd, and the concepts can be difficult to master.

We see the same things in other environments – a lot of people in senior positions of authority got there the same way. Many are ultra-competitive. Now we are asking them to master a skill that runs entirely counter to their paradigm of intuitive decision making. Note that that intuitive decision making has worked well for them in the past. But maybe they are at the limit of what they can do themselves, and have to find ways to engage others. I don’t know… there could be lots of scenarios that put them into completely unfamiliar territory.

Our challenge is how we de-stigmatize struggle.

Michael’s other key point touched one of the Wicked Problems in health care. I’m going to go into some more depth when I get to Tyson Ortiz’s presentation, but want to acknowledge the Great Question posed here:

  • “99% of activity needed to maintain wellness never involves a health system. Can we increase the striving capabilities and mental resilience of our patients, families, & communities so they can own their health journey?”

Amy Mervack

Amy tied our practice to the concept of “mindfulness.” One of her key points was learning to see that the pattern we are trying to teach may well be there in some form other than the explicit Improvement Kata.

She wrapped up with some guided practice of “being mindful” for the audience – which she said stretched her a bit as she had never done it with a group that large.

As a change agent, a mindfulness approach is critical. We have to learn to find everything about the way things are being done that we can leverage and extend. This means paying attention vs. the mindless approach of dismissing them out of hand with a single statement. Making people feel wrong may get attention focused on you, but it rarely helps make progress.

Experientials

The afternoon was “Experientials” – four hour breakout sessions that went deep into a particular topic. As Craig Stritar and I were hosting one, I didn’t attend any of the others. Always a downside of being up-front – I see more of my own stuff than the awesome things others bring.

As I mentioned above, I am going to be digging into some of the topics in more depth, and I want to keep those individual posts focused vs. trying to cover a rich diversity of discussions all at once. Hmmm… one-by-one vs. batching. That might be a concept. 😉

Notes from the 2020 TWI Summit – Part 2

Tyson Ortiz

TWI Job Instruction Card

Tyson zeroed right in on one of the biggest problems with “training” – getting people to adopt the new process or method after we have taught it to them.

Compounding this was that, in his example, the training was TWI Job Instruction – how to train. Tyson took a quick show-of-hands poll and informally confirmed his hypothesis that most people who take the TWI Job Instruction 10 hour course are already engaged in training and teaching.

This means that they have to do more than learn a new habit – one which will feel awkward to them at first. They also have to unlearn their current way of doing things – a way that is likely comfortable and familiar to them. To paraphrase from a slide of mine that seems to keep coming up: This. Is. Hard.

Taking what he has learned from Toyota Kata, Tyson saw the 4 Step Method for what it is: A routine for practice, not the end-all. For that to work, there must be actual practice using the routine. The 10 hour class is telling them about it* – and telling alone is not enough!

What Tyson did was add structured follow-on practice with real work, but not real training where the participants can practice, make mistakes, and learn in a safe environment. Then they move to live environments, but are still being coached. Then they are graduated and put on their own.

Transition of a learner through Recruiting, the 10 hour JI Class, a "safe zone" practice, "real" practice, then graduation.
Clipped from Tyson’s presentation.

Another key is that passing each stage is based on performance, not a time line. It is up to the coach, since the coach is the teacher, and “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”


*Yes, the class includes demonstrating the four steps – but each participant typically only gets one repetition, hardly enough for us to know that they know.

Roger Bilas

Roger actually built on the theme that Tyson was developing – the process of getting Job Instruction incorporated into the daily routine of the organization.

We often call this “managing change” or more cynically “overcoming resistance” but I think both Roger and Tyson are operating at a much more fundamental and human level. It’s called paying attention to what is causing stress and fear and make sure you deal with it effectively and with empathy.

And it is empathy where Roger begins.

He used the Stanford design school model to experiment his way toward a solution that used the framework of Job Instruction in a way that worked for the particular situation. And isn’t that the whole idea?

The design thinking model steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test
Clipped from Roger’s presentation.

As I was listening, I scribbled a note in the margin: “this is Menlo’s model” – the design process that Menlo Innovations. It isn’t really – this model uses different words. But the structure, intent, purpose is the same and is followed by all robust design and product development processes.

Roger was operating in an environment that was unfriendly to paper, had lots of high-variety and low-volume tasks that people had to get right.

Once he understood that he had motivated people in a tough situation, they began working together to develop simple solutions that worked – starting with simple sketches and hand-written notes on laminated cards.

Iterating through, always asking “What small step can we take?” toward the goal, always asking “How can we test that assumption or idea?” they converged on a solution that worked really well.

Not surprisingly, it was very visual and simple, and captured “Key Points” from the Job Breakdown.

There was a lot more good stuff at the TWI Summit. I’ll cover my own keynote separately. And I missed the 3 hour “Experiential” sessions because I was presenting one. And for the afternoon of Day 2 I was attending Oscar Roche’s version of a Toyota Kata class that follows the 5 x 2 hour structure of the classic TWI JI, JR, JM classes.

Thus, the next big thing for me to report on will be KataCon – which will be my next post.

That Broken Bolt is Speaking to You

The factory is running complex automated equipment. At the morning meeting today we heard “machine x was down for broken bolts.” Actually “again.”

Background – the bolts in question resist pressure in molding equipment. The details of how the equipment works aren’t relevant here. This isn’t the first time I have heard of “broken bolts” being the source of downtime.

After the meeting, I saw the production manager on the shop floor. “So, tell me about the broken bolts.” We know each other, he is happy to.

We went to the machine in question. “How do bolts break?” (These days I ask “how?” rather than “why?” because I am interested in the mechanism of failure rather than whatever mistake is being made.

I am asking that question for a simple reason: Grade 8 bolts don’t “just break” in equipment that is properly engineered and assembled as designed. Something, somewhere, is stressing things beyond their limits.

Normalized Deviance

By accepting that “bolts break” and “shafts get stripped” and “hoses fail” we move into the realm of “normalized deviance” where we accept as OK something that actually is a sign of a serious problem.

image

This is no different than accepting that “o-rings burn through sometimes but it hasn’t caused a problem so it must be OK.”

How do Bolts Break?

A few possibilities came up.

  • The bolts might be just a bit too long allowing movement.
  • The might be loose.

“Why is a ‘too long’ bolt even needed in the plant?” – that is still an open question.

“What is the torque spec?”

“… I don’t know.”

Now we are getting somewhere.

Once we hit the threshold of knowledge, we know the next step.