I have spent 39 years in business and industry working on improvement. I have worked with companies that are global leaders and those struggling to change in pressured markets with financial demands. The last 8 years I have consulted. I have been teacher, coach, problem solver and cheerleader for companies of a wide range of sizes accomplishments and competitive challenges. In roles from frontline supervision to VP and consultant when I ask the client (or the boss) “what do you expect” the answer typically is consistent with one or more of these responses:
- Our team/organization/company to be the clear competitive choice for our customers
- To understand how our business process works and how we can develop a new approach that provides a clear advantage
- Something that will help us improve
- Something that will help us not have to work as hard to give a better result
- A change that makes sense to the people and top management
- Sustainability – when we make a change it sticks
When I ask people I work with how many know that improvement is expected of them, all of them always raise their hands – yes, all of them know that. The imperative to improve is not a strategic secret. When I explore business challenges and near term pain with key members of management, I also learn that the vendors of equipment and technology are generally available to anyone in the sector who has the capital available to spend. Once again, all of them know the difference is truly in the heads, hearts, and hands of the people who come to work every day and how the work system is defined.
My current focus is in the request for “kata.” Many companies are asking for “kata.” Mike Rother made the word popular in his book Toyota Kata. At its simplest, kata is a Japanese word that broadly means habits for continuous improvement. It does not mean “Toyota Magic Wand.” (I admit it. That is a bit sarcastic.) The decision that it is time to “do kata” is a strategic decision that has deeper implications than learning a new tool or a new app for IPads used in the operation. Typically, companies with an interest in kata have done training. They have established problem solving and improvement teams. They may have made substantial progress with CI (Continuous Improvement) managers and projects. A request for kata training often has the objective of adding improvement practiced daily by the full organization to the project process in place.
What do you need to understand about the kata journey?
The continuous improvement habit works on the process, not the people.
Continuous improvement works on the premise that an effective process will deliver the defined result that is needed. Processes are the steps taken to deliver a particular result. Thus, the focus of continuous improvement is to improve, or reinvent the steps taken, to deliver an outcome. A well designed process will allow an average performer to achieve the goal result repeatedly and reliably. The work of kata is to learn and practice the steps of understanding processes, how they work, and how to improve them.
The continuous improvement habit values the small improvement as well as the “home runs.”
Practitioners of kata understand that the cumulative impact of 1% here, .5% there adds up over time to provide robust processes that work well.
Success requires more than tools.
Simply stated management needs to develop daily practices that allow skills to be practiced and become habits. In addition, there needs to be means to evaluate both the output (what result did we get) and the process (using the standard improvement steps, sustaining the new process).
Kata, the continuous improvement habit, is a journey. I like to compare it to a fitness journey. Some organizations are world class Olympic marathoners. Some are just beginning to walk a mile a day. Both situations have challenges to stay the course. Know where you are and why it must change. Know where you are going and why it is important. Make taking the first step essential. Understand that tools alone will only take you so far. Sustained improvement requires a team, disciplined to do the work, engaged coaches, and strong desire to win.
Lean Learning Center
The Lean Learning Center was founded in 2001 to address the gaps and barriers that are holding back companies from successful and sustainable lean transformation. In addition to the advanced curriculum, the Center has developed a learning environment designed specifically for adult learning utilizing techniques that include discovery simulations, case studies, personal planning, and reflection – ultimately engaging people at a deep and personal level. We bring our unique lean understanding in creative ways to executives, managers, supervisors, change agents and front-line employees.