Managing for Continuous Improvement

Three components work together for operational excellence

Bill Kraus

September 19, 2019

Continuous improvement is generally considered to be a journey in pursuit of perfection and is regularly associated with the concept of lean manufacturing. In early 1990, reflecting on the Toyota Production System, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) created a six-part definition regarding the components of lean manufacturing:
• A systematic approach
• To identifying and eliminating waste
• Through continuous improvement
• By flowing the product
• At the pull of the customer
• In pursuit of perfection

In late 1990, our Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions (AMS) MEP team embraced lean and began promoting it to our manufacturing clients. However, in our enthusiasm, we inadvertently set about “doing lean to our people rather than with our people.” Considerable time and effort was expended in the teaching of “tools” (e.g., value stream mapping, 5S, quick changeover, kanban). Then, like hammers looking for nails, we descended upon the factory floor.

Lean, TWI, and kata come together

Our initial efforts to promote lean were appreciated by our client companies, but in the absence of a clearly defined purpose, we facilitated the playing of “industrial whack-a-mole” and affected little or no sustained improvement. We had not achieved the desired levels of success and came to realize that middle management was key.

Leaders were creating the vision with the expectation that managers, in addition to their everyday firefighting duties, would somehow implement lean and achieve the needed results from the value adders on the factory floor. However, while attempting to implement lean as a radically different concept, managers continued to struggle on a daily basis to simply maintain business as usual. Small wonder they were overwhelmed.

In early 2000, we became aware of the phenomenal back story of training within industry (TWI) found in Jim Huntzinger’s “Roots of Lean” article, which chronicled the accomplishments of our manufacturing “ancestors” during WWII (had it not been for them, we can only imagine how different the world would be today). Recognizing the power of the job instruction and job relations components of TWI and their potential value to middle managers, we pursued certification from the TWI Institute and proceeded to share the hopefulness of TWI with our manufacturing clients.

The TWI message was well received, but when it came to implementation, the proverbial elephant in the room was again acknowledged when we asked, “How are we going to find time to do this?” It was yet another case of, “We’re too busy cutting down the tree to find time to sharpen the saw!”

In 2011, our team read Mike Rother’s book, Toyota Kata, (McGraw-Hill Education, 2009), and everything fell into place. The four-step Improvement Kata, along with the 5 Questions Coaching Kata, provided a truly hopeful, and doable, approach to continuous improvement. No longer did teams need to solve world hunger or boil the ocean in one fell swoop. The journey could now be freely taken, one step at a time, with the use of a compass rather than a map. Purpose-driven activity in pursuit of a well-defined challenge, facilitated by 15-minute daily conversations in front of a tactilely developed storyboard, would ensure that teams worked on the right things, at the right time, for the right reason.

Managing for continuous improvement

AMS’s approach to continuous improvement has shifted significantly from promoting disparate tools and events to that of a comprehensive transformational journey. We now utilize:
• Toyota Kata to manage the journey
• The tools of lean to help get there
• TWI to sustain the gains

These three components constitute the basis for the Managing for Continuous Improvement (MCI) operational excellence program we share with our manufacturing clients. Further, for the past two years, our AMS team has used Toyota Kata as the means for managing our own continuous improvement journey. Each Monday morning, our team members log into WebEx to participate in a virtual kata storyboard discussion (which is embedded within our salesforce customer relationship management platform).

The next phase of the journey

During the past seven years, other MEP centers that are part of the MEP National Network have become knowledgeable about Toyota Kata. Many consider it to be the “next evolution” of lean, and some even consider it to be “the answer” (i.e., the vision within Toyota Kata essentially represents perfection for any given business and establishes the ultimate focus for all subsequent activities).

Through Toyota Kata, MEP centers serve as trusted advisors and coaches helping manufacturers:
• Leverage productivity to perform tasks faster and more accurately
• Cope with rapid demand changes—higher or lower production
• Create a teachable culture of daily improvement and flexibility among the workforce

To take advantage of the kata, TWI, and lean techniques that can help you on your continuous improvement journey, connect with your local MEP center. With a center located in each state plus Puerto Rico, along with 400 service locations and more than 1,300 trusted advisors, the MEP National Network puts resources within driving distance of every manufacturer in the United States, providing them with access to resources they need to succeed.

About The Author

Bill Kraus’s picture

Bill Kraus

Bill Kraus has more than 50 years of direct, hands-on manufacturing experience. He spent 28 years with Monsanto Chemical Co., Engelhard Corp., and two privately held companies at the superintendent, general manager, and vice president levels. His areas of responsibility involved construction, maintenance, and manufacturing within 12 manufacturing plants across the United States. He joined the Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions MEP in 1996.



Excellent Bill !

mohan India 

Thank you Bill!

Thanks for your continued thought leadership, Bill! You've become a fixture at KataCon, and the TWI Summit, for a reason. You always bring great insight and an ever-learning perspective. Keep up the good work!

Pursuit of Perfection

What is perfection? How do you know if you have attained it? When you do attain it, does that mean there is no more improvement? Personally I do not buy into the concept of perfection or the pursuit of perfection. I buy into the concept of the pursuit of being better. 


Hi, Dirk:

The conundrum regarding the pursuit of perfection is just as you’ve described it: unattainable.  The journey in pursuit of perfection serves simply as a north star indicator.  Without a clearly established and well understood direction (e.g., perfection), there can be a tendency to wander.  To paraphrase Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”. 

Jim Morgan, in his 2014 LEI post ( entitled “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection”, speaks of “Exceptional People” who pursue perfection:  “They are not perfect, far from it, and no one knows that better than they do. But this fact does not keep them from the pursuit of perfection. And that makes all the difference.  But a word of warning.  In a world of “shortcuts to the top”, “instant acclaim”, and “pivoting”, this journey will require a great deal of hard work and loads of perseverance. Yet as lean thinkers, value creation and the pursuit of perfection are after all, what we are all about.” 

As we understand, Toyota Kata begins with the notion of a “perfect” Vision, which then can lead to the development of a pragmatic Challenge, thereby permitting the journey to begin.  Daily Purpose Driven Activity is subsequently taken to address Obstacles that are preventing the achievement of a Target Condition.  Hence, as you’ve indicated, this translates to a journey in “pursuit of being better” and is about achieving, not achievement.  This perspective makes for a more freeing and hopeful journey.

Happy to hear more about your thoughts on this…

Best Regards,

Bill Kraus