Originating in martial arts, kata are structured routines consisting of patterns. Whether in martial arts, personal improvement, or business, Kata as we discuss it is a methodology that uses repeated, consistent practice and scientific thinking to train the skills that enable a person to make rapid, incremental improvements every day.
The suffix "kata" means “way of doing," and common definitions are:
All of the definitions of kata essentially refer to the same basic concept — a form, routine, or pattern of behavior that can be practiced to develop a skill to the point where it becomes second nature.
Practicing kata (patterns) consistently and deliberately forms a habit. Forming a habit develops new skills. With new skills comes increased confidence in one's abilities to recognize and make small improvements that keep a person (or a process) in top form continuously.
As simple as it sounds, Kata involves deliberate, repetitive practice to master. In martial arts, kata is choreographed patterns of movement that are practiced until mastery of a single form is achieved. The practice is applied again and again to learn and eventually master each small set of movements.
In business, Kata describes the foundational continuous improvement philosophy and culture exemplified by Toyota. By implementing Kata, your organization can develop the habits and skills to shift individual mindsets and the corporate culture toward truly continuous improvement that keeps processes efficient, customers happy, and companies profitable.
Familiar with Kata and ready to get started? Download our Starter Kata Kit with instructions & templates.
“Toyota Kata” is the term that Mike Rother (internationally recognized Lean guru and author of Learning to See) coined to help American manufacturers mirror Toyota’s successful practices of true continuous improvement.
"Through the adjustment of what is learned along the way, Toyota advances as a scientist would. With each new empirical observation, the scientist adjusts the course to take advantage of what he has learned. I learn every day what I need to know to do tomorrow's work." ~Mike Rother from the book Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results
Past observations of Toyota’s operations educated American manufacturers on the innovative company’s methods for improving process efficiency and eliminating waste (the traditional “Lean Tools”).
Decades later, however, the same observers were shocked that when they observed the same Toyota operations, they now saw different solutions to the same processes. Rather than implementing a one-time “Lean Tool” solution, Toyota had continued to adapt, improving their processes over time.
After studying Toyota’s production methods years earlier, Rother and others realized that while many companies knew a lot about Toyota, they were struggling to implement their successful methods. So, they went back to learn more.
In visiting Toyota again, Rother describes how the Toyota managers and executives helped the group realize that the questions they should be asking were not about the current tools Toyota is using to solve Toyota’s current problems, but rather what methodology they are employing to build the organizational skills to address all challenges over time.
Toyota is, of course, focused on its own long-term survival as a profitable organization. Rother recognized that to ensure long-term success, they had developed “consistent routines of Leadership and Management that help maintain an entrepreneurial spirit in the organization.”
By developing an organizational mindset where every employee is educated and empowered to make improvements constantly, the success of the company continues despite changes in company structure and leadership over time. Rather than having the typical “entrepreneurial phase” that most companies grow through and then settle in to maintaining the status quo, Toyota created a lasting entrepreneurial culture.
Studying Toyota again from 2004-2009, Rother now focused on learning HOW the company developed solutions rather than the specifics of the solutions. To do this, he focused on two key questions:
During the Toyota research, the group recognized that the Toyota managers’ approach to problem-solving is a scientific pattern of thinking and behavior. In his Toyota Kata book, Rother outlined this scientific approach as a four-step model they dubbed the “Improvement Kata.” Rother describes that while every manager has their own way of implementing it, the pattern generally follows these four steps:
Establishing the “Next Target Condition” allows for iterative experimentation and learning without the necessity of every next step needing to be “right.” The “fear of failure” that comes from needing every step along the way to be correct condemns you to only taking steps that are certain to succeed. This limiting mindset severely limits the capability for improvement and innovation. Having an entrepreneurial mindset means having the willingness to take calculated risks.
None of this is revolutionary thinking. This Toyota method that Mike Rother observed and termed the Improvement Kata bears striking resemblance similar to other models of the creative process. Creative process models are similar in that they all reflect the questions that humans ask when they are working to create:
So, what is important to remember, in the words of Rother, is,
“It’s not about Toyota; it’s about humans.”
Rother called this model the Improvement Kata because it’s based on the Japanese word “Kata” or “way of doing” and this is the way of doing improvement. This is combined with the “way of coaching” or way of teaching that he calls the Coaching Kata.
The Coaching Kata is a master-apprentice approach to teaching like what is used in training in sports or in music instruction. The coach gives input on what is being practiced, corrects as they practice, and the learner continues to practice with the new input.
Put together, the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata create a management approach for creating a shared way of thinking and working, a way that is not specific to a certain problem, situation, or environment.
This capability is a “Meta Skill,” an overarching skill that can be used to work on virtually any challenge, problem, or objective. By teaching a “content-neutral” meta skill, the organization now has the organization-wide skill set to address challenges as they arise with a shared way of thinking and acting to improve and innovate continuously.
This culture of true continuous improvement is what keeps Toyota at the forefront of manufacturing excellence. The Kata enables improving every process every day. It’s not limited to management or customer-facing employees. Every employee from top management to janitors is trained to and expected to encourage daily improvements through their own actions. Practicing the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata will develop a habit that, over time, changes behavior, which ultimately changes culture.
In Kata, it is everyone's responsibility to encourage daily improvements through their actions.
Anyone who wants to develop the habit and skills of continuously improving daily actions can use Kata. Various manufacturing industries utilize the Kata methodology. Although Toyota Kata was developed to emulate Toyota’s Manufacturing culture, like the Lean Tools, it easily adapts to non-manufacturing industries. The Healthcare industry quickly embraced and has advanced using the Kata methodology. Agile Software Development can also use Kata for Agile Retrospectives. The opportunity exists to deploy Kata for startup businesses to drive progress and accountability.
Kata is a methodology that, with proper training and practice, will develop the habit, the skills, and eventually the culture/mindset of continuous improvement. As such, Kata can work on any service, any sport, and any process. (Hint: Check out the kata example at "Strive Fore Five".)
A “kata” is a set of practices that help develop a new habit or skill. A Kata Learner works through a set of practice routines and reviews with a Kata Coach what has been done, what has been learned, and what are next steps.
Throughout the process, small, incremental changes are made and tested and learning incorporated in working toward the larger vision or challenge. This practice is most commonly discussed as kata in martial arts (the term “kata” is of Japanese origin), but is easily observed in many sports, music, and other areas where a “learner” works with a “coach” to improve a skill.
In the world of Lean, the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata combine to form a similarly powerful method for building the skills of problem-solving.
Kata doesn’t compete with but supports and strengthens the effectiveness of Lean Six Sigma tools and techniques such as:
It is a way of training and supporting the members of an organization in approaching problem-solving using scientific thinking. As such, Kata can be applied to increase the effectiveness of any of Lean Six Sigma tool or technique by grounding it in logical, scientific thinking that delivers rational, provable results.
Approaching problems in business scientifically allows us to come to well-reasoned, logical solutions and discuss them effectively with others by being able to demonstrate precisely how the solutions were tested and evaluated again relevant criteria.
The Improvement Kata directly incorporates the scientific problem-solving method of Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA)–or as it is sometimes known, Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA)–to make continuous improvement a daily routine or habit.
What is critical in any discussion of kata, whether sports, music, or Lean Six Sigma, is that it is not something that can be simply shown, it must be done (and practiced).
Take the A3, for example, a common tool observed in use at Toyota and one that many individuals and organizations struggle to use effectively. Implemented in isolation, the A3 is a tool for tracking and reporting problem-solving process results in a concise format. Without mentoring from an experienced A3 coach, any biases, missing knowledge, and incorrect assumptions made by the reporter may be not only reported but incorporated in the eventual implementation.
Used properly, however, the A3 is more than simply a report. It is a living document that evolves through the problem-solving process of examining, planning, building consensus, implementing, and evaluating the results (before starting again as many times as needed).
The A3 isn’t created and implemented in isolation but as a tool for systematically thinking and working through a challenge, communicating about it with a manager or “coach” (remember, the A3 is summary of a problem-solving process), and striving to develop ideas and solutions based on actual facts and data.
The value of adding the practice routines of the Improvement Kata + Coaching Kata is that the problem-solving process becomes clearer and more systematized itself. By adhering to the kata routines of deliberate Improvement and consistent Coaching, the A3 process becomes a practice in teachable, foundational skills of scientific process that can be applied to any tool, technique, or process. This creates both a shared way of thinking and communicating and facilitates the confidence that the effort and resources put into the problem-solving method will support rational, well-tested conclusions that can be verified and trusted.
You can not implement Kata. You can only practice a Kata to develop a skill. The Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata will not replace your current improvement methods — it will support them.
Rather than specialized staff members executing one-off, resource-intensive “improvement projects,” practicing the Kata helps every member of an organization become skilled in seeking improvement every day.
The Kata consists of the Improvement Kata (IK) and the Coaching Kata (CK), which form a structured pattern for making small incremental improvements every day.
The Improvement Kata is a model of the human creative process. It’s a four-step pattern of establishing target conditions and then working iteratively (scientifically) through obstacles by learning from them and adapting based on what's being learned.
The Coaching Kata is a pattern for managers to follow in teaching the Improvement Kata pattern in daily work, so that it becomes part of an organization's culture.
During the Planning phase of the Kata, the Kata Coach “plans” the upcoming Coaching Cycles while the Learner works through Steps 1 – 3 of the Improvement Kata:
During the Executing phase, the Learner performs small, rapid experiments using the Plan-Do-Check-Act format to iterate toward the Target Condition. The Kata Coach executes “Coaching Cycles” with the Learner, supporting and guiding the systematic analysis and learning from their experiments.
As the Learner goes through each cycle, rapidly experimenting on the path of discovery, the threshold of knowledge moves toward the Target Condition and, ultimately, toward the Direction/Challenge. The entire process is practiced systematically – planned and executed logically and scientifically.
Practicing the Kata as a consistent activity can help build a culture of true continuous improvement by teaching and empowering employees to be better, proactive problem-solvers.
Ready to give it a try? Download our Starter Kata Kit with instructions & templates.
We often don’t learn much, because we are not experimenting and fully understanding the root cause.
The focus becomes getting the action plan created and implemented rather than on solving the problem. Unfortunately, this often results in poor use of an organization's limited capacity and resources for making improvement.
In any dynamic environment or complex system, factors frequently arise that make the path forward unpredictable and non-linear. As you move forward with implementing the predetermined plan,
For improvement efforts to succeed and be sustainable, it is critical that the process be flexible enough to incorporate changes and new information.
If your methodology is not flexible enough to incorporate new learning, how can it possibly succeed? To be more effective, we must plan to manage uncertainty, empowering flexible learning and innovation at every step. This is where Kata shines.
What they discovered is that Toyota still uses the Lean tools and techniques that were observed decades before, addressing issues associated with quality, cost, and delivery with tools such as:
However, the real strength of Toyota’s approach something else entirely — a systematic, scientific way of thinking and working that managers teach throughout the organization. This is what Rother termed the “Improvement Kata” and the “Coaching Kata.”
The Kata provides a framework, a foundation for that makes using Lean tools and techniques work better and keep working. It supports any improvement method by creating a shared way of thinking and building the skills for scientific thinking.
Since the path to a challenge or goal cannot be predicted precisely, we use scientific thinking – experimentation – to advance our “Threshold of Knowledge” incrementally by testing, learning, and adapting based on what we learned.
Our Threshold of Knowledge is the point at which we have no facts or data – the limit of what we currently know. It is at the edge of this uncertainty that we begin to learn. With each experiment, we learn new information that is incorporated and moves our threshold of knowledge further toward our goal, our “next target condition.”
Establishing a big “right” (rigid) plan can be costly, consuming many resources and likely to fall apart when faced with unanticipated (but almost inevitable) factors.
Practicing scientific thinking keeps us in the adaptive (flexible) mode of iterating forward as quickly and inexpensively as possible, experimenting to confirm or refute our hypotheses and learning from the results either way.
Not every step taken will bring a measurable benefit of its own. Using the PDCA cycle is about learning what will be needed to reach the Target Condition. Going through the scientific process and gaining information that moves toward the Target Condition (which is measurable and has an “achieve-by” date) is where the value lies. Small, rapid experiments advance knowledge quickly.
As discussed earlier, the path to the Target Condition will not be a straight line. Failed experiments, refuted hypotheses, are an important part of the process. When a result matches what was predicted, the hypothesis is confirmed. However, when a hypothesis is disproven, beliefs are challenged, new insights are discovered, and new knowledge is created. Though it can seem counter-intuitive, small failures in rapid experiments provide opportunities for learning and progress toward the Target Condition.
Since most learning happens when hypotheses are disproven, conducting quick, inexpensive, and frequent (ideally daily) experiments is ideal. Rapid, frequent PDCA cycles provide more learning and, therefore, more opportunities for adaptation and innovation. Whenever possible, it’s best to experiment at the process level (rather than the value stream or organization levels) since there are fewer variables (more specific information is available rather than macro-level conjectures) and adjustments can happen more quickly and less expensively.
Scientific thinking is a skill. Like any skill, the best (and really the only) way to learn it is to … PRACTICE. Scientific thinking is not our default mode as adults. Just like in sports and music, we have to learn how to do it and practice it until it becomes a new habit.
Neuroscience teaches us that our thinking patterns become set with repetition. Our patterns of thinking and acting build neural pathways in our brains. It’s a fast and efficient way for our brains to handle repetitive functions so that they require little attention or energy. For actions that are repeated often, those pathways become superhighways.
Each time we think something or do something a certain way, we are more likely to think or do the same thing again.
This is why learning something new often feels slow, awkward, and inefficient. Instead of speeding down a superhighway, we’re slogging through new territory, tripping over weeds and trying to find our way. It can feel difficult or even wrong, and we often want to avoid it.
This is also the power of creating a new, beneficial habit. Learning does require attention and energy until we have done it enough that we have created a new pathway. However, once the new habit is established — such as the habit of thinking scientifically about how to approach challenges — it becomes the more efficient and effective pathway.
This is the basis of the Improvement Kata Methodology: Scientific Thinking Pattern + Techniques of Deliberate Practice
The simple practice routines for each step of the Improvement Kata model are the basic repertoire of the methodology. Like learning basic dance steps, piano scales, or guitar chords, the Starter Kata are the foundational practice routines of the Improvement Kata + Coaching Kata. Practicing these routines will help develop the scientific mindset.
The Five Questions of the Coaching Kata and the PDCA cycles of the Improvement Kata are used together in daily Coaching Cycles at the Learner’s Storyboard. The two routines are used to teach and facilitate systematic and effective experimentation.
As the Starter Kata routines are practiced, the learner creates new habits and ways of thinking and acting which, with continued practice, become new problem-solving skills. Beginners should follow the Kata exactly without deviation so that the Learner can internalize the patterns.
With increasing proficiency, Learners (and Kata Coaches) can start to develop their own style (within limits, of course). Likewise, over time, organizations can evolve their Kata practices to suit their specific culture.
©Mike Rother Top: The “way of doing” - the Improvement Kata model; Bottom: Practice routines - Starter Kata implemented exactly as specified and repeated precisely until it forms a habit, then becomes a skill. In this way, “Starter Kata” begins to operationalize the Improvement Kata pattern.
The learner's storyboard is a template that brings together all of the information from the Improvement Kata. The layout follows the pattern of the Five Questions of the Coaching Kata so that the document provides a framework for the coaching cycles.
In the Planning Phase of the Improvement Kata, the storyboard is where the Learner will build up the information section by section as the coaching cycles begin. In the Executing Phase, each section is reviewed and updated with each coaching cycle.
Structured layout comprised of the following:
The Improvement Kata + the Coaching Kata is not a tool by itself. The Kata practice routines will make the learner a better problem-solver able to use any tool more successfully.
Kata cannot be “implemented.” Like any fundamental skill-building routine, a Kata can only be practiced to build mastery.
Kata does not replace other continuous improvement methods — it supports them.
A model of the human creative process, the Improvement Kata provides a pattern for scientifically and systematically working through obstacles toward a goal (target condition). Rather than randomly seeking opportunities for improvement or causes for problems, with the Improvement Kata, we strive toward the next target condition through iterative learning—conducting small, rapid experiments to advance our knowledge quickly.
A “meta-skill,” the Improvement Kata provides a framework in which any Lean Six Sigma tool or technique can be implemented more effectively. Practiced consistently, it becomes a habit and helps create an over-arching mindset and culture wherein true continuous improvement becomes possible.
The steps of the Improvement Kata pattern are carried out by the Learner (mentee) who systematically plans, establishes target conditions, and then conducts experiments (PDCA) to work through obstacles and learn from them in the process of improving. The Learner is supported by a Kata Coach (mentor) who teaches them by conducting Coaching Cycles using the Five Questions of the Coaching Kata.
The first three steps comprise the Planning Phase of the Improvement Kata. In this phase we answer the critical question, “Where do we want to go?”
“Planning” in this model is not about planning actions, but about gaining understanding and perspective that provides the foundation for the Executing Phase. It’s critical to take time to analyze and understand Steps 1 through 3 to alleviate any biases or preconceptions before moving on to executing.
Let’s explore the 4 Steps of the Improvement Kata.
The first step of the Improvement Kata is to understand the Direction or Challenge. What vision are striving to meet?
Set at the leadership (organization or value-stream) level, the primary Direction or Challenge starts with an over-arching strategic vision that relates to better serving the customer. The Challenge is defined as specific quantifiable, numeric targets and a quantifiable, visual description that are planned to be achieved in the future, typically one to three years out.
To establish an effective Challenge, it may be necessary to grasp the larger Current Condition first using Gemba Walks, Value-Stream Mapping, and/or Voice of the Customer (VOC) processes. A future-state value stream map can clarify the vision and provide an effective basis for the Challenge.
The over-arching Challenge provides a cohesive objective for process improvement efforts throughout the organization. This “big-picture” vision is vital so that all of targets set at each level down through the organization or system are recognized as meaningful contributions to a larger purpose.
However, this vision is not an effective means of directing daily efforts since it is too vague and far into the future.
The Challenge gets broken down into successively smaller goals as it flows down the organizational structure. At the individual process level, the Challenge becomes the Target Condition from the next level above. From the largest Challenge to the individual process level, all link to the strategic goal that is related to better serving the customer.
Now that we are clear on the Challenge or Direction coming from above, we need to have a clear picture of where we are now, our Current Condition. What is the current way of operating? What is our starting point?
Grasping the Current Condition requires a thorough process analysis—getting immersed in the process to understand in detail how it currently operates and how it is currently performing. This step is the critical prerequisite to setting the next Target Condition. We have to know where we are before we can establish where we want to be.
[Insert more detail on the Kata Process Analysis or do separate page/post?]
Going through these steps deliberately and engaging with a Kata Coach will help the Learner see beyond their own biases and preconceptions during the process analysis. Stay with the Current Condition analysis until it is clear you have reached your Threshold of Knowledge about this process and the next Target Condition becomes apparent.
Now that we are clear on the Challenge and on our Current Condition, the next step is to establish the next Target Condition. What is a next step in our way of operating that will move us toward the Challenge?
One of the most important components of practicing the Improvement Kata successfully is understanding how to set appropriately challenging but achievable Target Conditions. The purpose of studying the Current Condition so thoroughly is to gather the information and data needed to establish a clear and measurable Target Condition for this process that moves in the direction of the Challenge:
The next Target Condition will lie beyond your current Threshold of Knowledge and will have a specific “Achieve-by” date, typically one week to three months in the future. It will also describe with some detail how the process should be functioning when the Target Condition is achieved.
Once the Target Condition is clearly defined, Obstacles to moving from the Current Condition to this new state will become apparent and should be recorded in an “Obstacles Parking Lot.” These will become the basis of the experiments conducted in the Executing Phase. This list will continue to be updated throughout the Executing Phase as new Obstacles become apparent.
Creating the Obstacles list is fundamental to the Improvement Kata and to the PDCA process. After the Target Condition is set, the Learner(s) should brainstorm various issues that could hinder reaching the Target Condition and list these in the “Obstacles Parking Lot.” This becomes the list of items that form the basis for the PDCA / experimentation cycles. Important items to note about brainstorming the Obstacles list:
Steps 1, 2, and 3 are the Planning Phase of the Improvement Kata. Step 4 is the Executing Phase, the “How We Get There”. We now have our “learning zone.” This is the area of uncertainty between where we are now and where we’re trying to get to, and we’re seeking the most direct path through it. The way through will not be a straight line, but we will adjust frequently and quickly as we go through rapid learning cycles.
In Step 4, we “iterate” toward the Target Condition, executing experiments using a step-by-step process to work on Obstacles one at a time. Using the Plan-Do-Check-Act or PDCA [link to Methodology page], rapid, frequent (daily) experiments are conducted to test hypotheses and discover new information that will move us from where we are toward where we want to be next, the Target Condition. Though not every experiment will produce straightforward, linear “progress,” each will move out our Threshold of Knowledge.
Armed with the “Obstacles Parking Lot,” one Obstacle that seems to be preventing the process from operating in the way specified by the Target Condition is selected for experimentation. A couple of important things to note about Obstacles:
The achieve-by date sets an important boundary for this process. With only limited time each day and limited resources to apply in working toward the Target Condition, the achieve-by date helps keeps our focus on what needs to be done rather than wanting into resource-sucking “everything we can do” territory.
As discussed in the Kata Methodology section, every experiment creates learning, including and especially the “failed” ones that disprove our hypothesis about what we expect to happen. While experiments will happen rapidly, this is because they will be small and clearly defined, not rushed. As always, safety first! In each PDCA cycle, the “Check” phase is crucial for learning. This is where discovery happens. Keeping an open mind to new mental models creates opportunities for adaptation and innovation.
Once the achieve-by date is reached (or the Target Condition is achieved), the Improvement Kata pattern is repeated. Before that happens, however, the Learner and the Kata Coach reflect on what was learned through the steps and the PDCA cycles. Having practiced and learned from the Improvement Kata, a new Threshold of Knowledge and a new Current Condition are established, and the Learner is ready to repeat the cycle.
Remember the Improvement Kata combines scientific steps and techniques of deliberate practice. While using the Improvement Kata to work systematically toward a strategic challenge, the value of repeatedly practicing the scientific approach is to develop effective problem-solving skill. And like any skill, mastery is only achieved through repeated, systematic practice.
As a manager, ones primary responsibility in agile organizations is to help their people develop their capacity to meet challenges and adapt in a rapidly changing environment. Practicing the Improvement Kata develops the problem-solving skills to do just that. And Coaching Kata is how managers develop those skills in their people.
Coaching Kata is quite simply a manager or mentor supporting the learning of the problem-solving method of the Improvement Kata (IK) by an employee or mentee.
The primary role of the individual Kata Coach is to ensure that the Learner follows the scientific method precisely during the Improvement Kata process and practices it consistently. Organizationally, it is the Coaching Kata that helps incorporate Kata mindset into the company culture.
The foundation of the Coaching Kata is the “The Five Questions of Coaching Kata”. The questions are structured to provide a clear means for the Kata Coach to guide the Kata Learner deliberately and methodically through the improvement process toward the target condition.
The Coaching Kata Card below is a helpful tool for Kata Coaches. The card provides the framework for the Kata Coaching Cycles.
Click the button below to download a PDF with 4 printable Coaching Kata cards per page.
In his recent manual for the effective Kata practice, The Toyota Practice Guide [link to LAS sales page], author/guru Mike Rother explains,
“... a job description for an Improvement Kata coach, especially with beginner learners might be: To accompany the learner and give procedural guidance as needed to ensure that although the learner struggles, he or she is ultimately successful in learning to use the Improvement Kata pattern to achieve challenging, real target conditions.”
Simply knowing how to step through a process is not enough for good skill development (or for continuous improvement). Continued and deepening practice, learning from mistakes, celebrating successes, and not becoming complacent or overwhelmed are all vital components of mastering a new skill. Kata Coaching helps the Learner with all of these.
With the Improvement Kata, coaching can help ensure that the Learner,
Like any good coach, a Kata Coach won’t do the work for the Learner … but they will plan the plays, teach the fundamentals, develop the skills, support and encourage the Learner, and take responsibility for ensuring their success.
[future idea … either recreate or update/create our own concept of “dialogue conducive to learning” … establishing good rapport/communication/expectations before getting started with coach-learner relationship]
Organizationally, Coaching Kata can help with the following:
Like the beginner Learner, a beginner Kata Coach will need to practice to build mastery of the coaching skills. The Coaching Kata provides a practice framework for this purpose.
Coaching cycles should be scheduled daily for approximately 20 minutes near the beginning of the workday. The Coach-Learner dialogue needs to take place in front of the Learner’s Storyboard, which should be near the focus process if at all possible. The “living document” of the Kata Storyboard is the ongoing record of the Learner’s work with the Improvement Kata. It documents the process and provides the framework and information needed for an effective coaching cycle.
The Five Questions of the Coaching Kata form the basis of the “coaching cycle,” the planned, structured daily interactions between the Kata Coach and the Learner. One Coaching Cycle is going through the Five Questions one time. The primary purpose of daily coaching cycles is to review the Learner’s current work with the Improvement Kata, to discuss how the Learner is working, and to give feedback on potential improvements.
Although progressing toward the established “target condition” is the goal of the work, the primary purpose of Coaching Kata is to develop the Learner’s use of the Improvement Kata so that it becomes a mastered skill, a “second-nature,” natural, useful habit that promotes and supports an ongoing attitude and practice of scientific thinking and acting.
Repeating the same pattern in every cycle builds mastery for the Learner. Similarly, for the Kata Coach, daily work with the Coaching Kata helps build their skills as well.
To learn and grow in skills mastery, the Learner must go beyond their current comfort zone, but also have enough “wins” to affirm their ability to be successful. Kata Coaches can do this by both pushing the Learner to reach for a challenging goal and providing feedback on their IK procedure, not the content of the challenge, to build their IK skills.
The Five Questions are vital to beginning Learners and Coaches in developing skills. The questions form a structured routine of scientific thinking and acting. When practiced consistently and regularly, the Kata routine strengthens the scientific thinking skills.
What is the target condition for this process? What are we striving to achieve? At this point in the Coaching Kata, the Coach asks the Learner to state the next Target Condition they are trying to reach, stated as a measurable destination. Ideally this next target condition will be a step in the direction of the larger challenge.
While it may be tempting to skip over what seems to be a fairly obvious question, don’t! Restating the target frames and anchors the dialogue for the rest of the process. It confirms a shared understanding between the Learner and the Coach and allows the Coach to ask clarifying questions if needed.
What is the current state of the process? Where are we actually at this moment. This can be measured both in terms of outcome metrics (such as productivity, cost, output, etc.) and process metrics (such as patterns of working and work cycle times).
At the beginning of the work, the purpose of the current state analysis is simply to establish a baseline, an understanding of the current pattern of work and outcomes for the focus process. Because the Kata Coach must also understand the focus process, it is helpful to work with the Learner to understand the current condition.
Grasping the initial current condition is a necessary step for establishing a first target condition. Note, this is not the place to identify problems and obstacles, only to establish the starting point of the process that is the focus of the improvement kata.
Identifying the current condition is critical to avoid jumping to conclusions and making assumptions based on lack of understanding of the focus process. Once the current condition is clearly understood, then the target condition can be defined in the same terms.
After the initial current condition is established at the beginning of the process and reviewed for the first few cycles, subsequent coaching cycles will focus this step on a review of the condition of the process now. It is vital that the current condition includes current data at this point and is stated in relation to the target condition.
On the back of the Five Questions card is another series of questions to guide the “reflection,” a review of the Learner’s last step to help clarify what was learned and to determine the next step. The four questions correspond to the four columns of the PDCA (Experiment) Record that the Learner keeps as part of the storyboard.
The Learner should have recorded the information on the PDCA Record prior to the coaching cycle. During the review, the Learner points and uses information and data from their PDCA record to respond to the following questions and makes immediate adjustments to the record if needed.
Kata Coaches should remember to maintain a posture of open questioning and coaching to help the Learner recognize that prediction errors and disproven hypotheses are not failures, but lessons learned.
What obstacles are preventing us from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing right now?
Learners experiment against obstacles, issues that are thought to be keeping the process from operating at the target condition. The initial list of obstacles is brainstormed in the planning phase. However, the Learner should continue to update the Obstacle Parking Lot prior to a coaching cycle by adding any new obstacles discovered and eliminating those that are no longer relevant.
This is not a list of "action items," but a list of possible impediments to reaching the target condition. Obstacles should be stated as specific and measurable issues related to the target condition. The Learner selects, typically, one Obstacle at a time and runs PDCA cycles/experiments on it until it is overcome (a solution is created). Additional obstacles may be identified in this process and should be added to the Obstacle Parking Lot prior to the next coaching cycle.
What is your next step? (Start of the next PDCA cycle)
When a Learner reaches their “knowledge threshold,” they no longer have any facts or data and begin guessing. This is the point there the next PDCA cycle (experiment) should begin.
At this point, the Kata Coach should help make sure that the Learner has a well-design experiment ready to go by asking about the following:
Either the Coach will accept the the Learner’s proposed experiment or will as that they do more preparation and analysis first and revisit the proposed experiment in the next coaching cycle.
As soon as the Coach accept the Learner’s proposed experiment, the Learner should take the next step as quickly as possible while the insights gained from the coaching cycle are fresh in their mind.
When we can see the result of this step (establishing due date)?
The final question in the Coaching Kata is the setup for the next coaching cycle. It is designed specifically to ensure a quick turnaround, pushing the Learner to perform the experiment as quickly as possible (ideally the same day) and scheduling the next coaching cycle right away (if not already part of the daily schedule).
Since both the Coach and the Learner are the their “thresholds of knowledge,” nothing further can be accomplished until the Learner completes a PDCA experiment cycle and brings back the results.
Try Starter Kata: Starter Kata are structured routines that you practice deliberately, especially at the beginning, so their pattern becomes a habit and leaves you with new abilities. Your first implementation of Improvement Kata can be your "Starter Kata" routine that will help your team learn fundamental skills.
Practicing Starter Kata increases the speed of learning and is particularly helpful when you want to create a shared way of thinking and acting in a group of people, because everyone starts with the same basics.
Click below to get our Starter Kata kit, complete with explanation, instructions, and templates to get you going on your Kata journey!
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