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Sarah Burlingame


In Crisis, Manufacturers Can Look to Kata

Coaching can keep management and employees on track

Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2023 - 13:03

There is more to lean manufacturing than improving a few processes. Sustainable lean success requires a companywide culture of continuous daily improvement. Companies that develop their people to think scientifically, using facts and data to drive their decisions, are often the ones that most successfully achieve their goals. Practicing Toyota Kata, or kata, promotes this way of thinking, which can help companies become nimbler and more competitive so that they are able to not just survive but thrive during an adverse event such as a pandemic.

Kata is a Japanese word that refers to a structured way of doing things or pattern of behavior. As senior project manager for TDO (Train Develop Optimize), part of the New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the MEP National Network, I work with small and medium-sized manufacturers to practice kata, or behaviors, and apply additional lean manufacturing tools and techniques to solve business challenges. This gives them a competitive advantage.

During stressful situations such as a pandemic, it’s human nature to become overwhelmed and lose focus. But kata coaching can keep management and employees on track. The Toyota Kata framework can be a stabilizing force to guide manufacturers through rough terrain and uncertainty while helping them become agile enough to respond to changes in their environment.

The improvement kata

The improvement kata model, based on Mike Rother’s book Toyota Kata (McGraw Hill, 2009), helps manufacturers develop essential scientific thinking skills in their people. The model is based on four steps that are driven by coaching questions to guide management and employees during their continuous improvement journey.

The improvement kata serves as a foundation for manufacturers navigating a crisis. Building this foundation begins with relentlessly focusing on direction. Use the steps below to assess your progress.

1. Set the challenge
Through practicing kata and applying scientific thinking, companies can think about their challenge not only through quantitative metrics, such as numbers and routine ways of operating, but also in terms of where they need to be as a company.

Ask yourself: Where does your business need to be in the next 12 to 18 months? Establish a clear goal, which may include desired performance metrics, specific operating patterns, or other business-related outcomes that need to be achieved.

2. Grasp the current condition
Once a challenge has been identified, the next step is to get clarity on where you are now, where you need to be, and what obstacles are in your way.

This can be accomplished through various approaches. A detailed process map is a tool sometimes used to collect and visualize data and observed operating patterns. Physically going to the gemba—the place where the action happens, like the shop floor—will ensure that the most current and accurate information is collected.

To get to your current condition, describe the way your business is operating today.

• How are you performing?
• What do your processes and work environment look like?
• How are you using resources?

A thorough understanding of the current condition will be helpful in setting the first target condition. Think of the target condition as what needs to happen in the future that’s not happening now—or, conversely, what should not be happening in the future that is currently happening. When determining a relevant target condition, it’s important to consider a goal that would likely need to be achieved to get you closer to meeting the overall challenge.

Once a target condition is established and you have a clear destination, the fun part begins. Figuring out how to get to a destination can be riddled with unknowns, and that’s OK. If everything was already known, then you’d be there already.

3. Set the next target condition
Set a goal for yourself that’s one to two weeks out. The goal (target condition) should be something that, if achieved, will help you get closer to reaching your ultimate goal.

When setting your next target condition, consider things that are happening today that cannot be happening in the future, or things that aren’t happening today that need to be happening in the future.

Ask yourself: Why am I not at my goal yet? The answers to this question will uncover obstacles that are preventing you from already being at your desired target condition.

4. Experiment toward the target condition
Pick one of the obstacles preventing you from already being at your target condition. Determine an action to try that will allow you to learn something new about the obstacle you’ve chosen—and give it a go!

Once you’ve completed an experiment, you will have either learned something new to help you remove the obstacle or you will have uncovered additional obstacles that may need to be addressed. Either way, you’ll be moving closer to achieving your target condition.

Continue to repeat this cycle until you’ve removed all the obstacles that were previously in your way. Be sure to reflect on your target condition and assess your current condition in between experiments to help keep you focused on the right obstacles at the right time.

The kata mindset

Practicing kata encourages a structured approach where one obstacle at a time is removed through experimentation. In a game of golf, the golfer must move the ball closer to the hole, one stroke at a time. Every time the golfer hits the ball, they’ll learn a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t and will likely get closer to the hole with each stroke. At times the golfer may end up in a worse position than before (have you ever tried getting out of a sand trap?) but still learns through experiments and will eventually work past each obstacle until arriving at the hole.

Practicing kata is most effective when a coach is there to provide gentle guidance to a learner to ensure the right patterns are practiced and to stay on track. The learner is the person who’s striving to reach a challenge and is performing the experiments along the way. Rather than directing a learner toward which steps to take next, a coach guides the learner to apply scientific thinking through experimentation and data-based decision making. This enables each person to focus on the destination rather than trying to address every small obstacle encountered along the way. And the best part is that it also develops a person’s capability to think scientifically about every future challenge they encounter.

Sustaining this mindset is particularly challenging in today’s turbulent environment. Supply chain disruptions, production demand changes, employee turnover—kata can serve as the manufacturer’s safety handle on the pandemic roller coaster. When emotions are running high, scientific thinking can keep everyone focused on the task at hand.

Kata in action

I previously worked with a metal manufacturer that had to shut down due to the coronavirus crisis. The first step was setting the challenge, including three accomplishments in the first week. To reopen, the manufacturer had to invent new ways to keep employees safe—such as moving workstations for social distancing—while meeting its production quotas. The manufacturer had to overcome obstacles, such as fearful employees who were reluctant to return to work during a pandemic.

Using a kata approach, I helped the manufacturer storyboard the steps for overcoming these obstacles, including:
• Ensure a safe environment for all employees.
• Assess the obstacles to reopening.
• Determine how to ensure social distancing.
• Create a safe, socially distanced environment by moving workstations.
• Develop a communication plan for all employees to help them understand the short-term and long-term necessities of returning to work.
• Ensure all government mandates are followed, even as regulations change.

The result? The metal manufacturer reopened its facility successfully. It now uses kata to ensure it stays in compliance while sustaining its continuous improvement culture.

Kata helps you stay focused for successful outcomes

Kata-based scientific thinking can help you stay focused and calm during a crisis. Some companies fail at kata because they’re unable to adapt their operational timelines during a crisis. During a pandemic, you’re looking at implementing changes a couple of weeks out, as opposed to a typical 12- to 18-month timeline.

When you’re calm and focused, you’re ready to set goals. I encourage manufacturers to limit their goals to three per week. If you start looking everywhere to bail water, you’ll lose focus on your key ingredients for business survival: your people, resources, and finances. Include achievable goals that can be accomplished daily. Even if your timeline must be expedited, set an experimentation pattern and stick to it.

When your employees feel overwhelmed, kata can remind them to take a deep breath and look at every challenge using a systematic, structured approach. Where do we need to be? Where are we now? And what is in our way? You won’t have all the answers at once, because we’re all human. Let the kata patterns take you where you need to go. They work.

Looking for kata support in your organization’s lean journey? Contact your local MEP Center to talk to a lean expert or other manufacturing specialists who understand the needs and challenges of smaller manufacturers.

Published Jan. 5, 2023, on the NIST Manufacturing Innovation Blog.


About The Author

Sarah Burlingame’s picture

Sarah Burlingame

Sarah Burlingame brings more than 20 years of experience in quality systems, continuous improvement and workforce engagement to TDO clients. She has a strong passion for workplace organization and efficiencies and believes in utilizing employee engagement and knowledge to reach and surpass any set goals. Her motivational techniques and ability to coach others are highly effective at driving cultural evolution in a workplace. Sarah has led many continuous improvement (CI) initiatives over the years and offers an enthusiastic approach to improving a business through the inclusion and education of all employees in a workplace.


Yet another Japanese term

Well it must be good, because it's a Japanese term, right?  If you practice kata, kanban, and kaizen on the gemba it'll help reduce the muri, mura, and muda, right?