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improvement kata

The improvement kata is a four-step routine for working toward a goal in a systematic way. This process is used to develop scientific thinking and creativity in order to work through challenges in organizations. On a large scale, this process enables organizations to become more adept in organizational processes and more adaptive in general.

The improvement kata provides fundamental patterns to build cultures of improvement. The four steps to the improvement kata are as follows:

  1. Understand the direction or challenges.
  2. Grasp the current conditions.
  3. Define the next target condition.
  4. Move toward the target condition through iterations.

This approach differs from randomly seeking opportunities for improvement or processes that may try to predict any paths to success. The improvement kata focuses on iterative learning by conducting small and rapid experiments to advance an organization's knowledge quickly and continuously. Each team that practices the improvement kata learns to adapt to its surroundings as it attempts to reach each new target condition. Consistently practicing this process provides new habits and creates a culture of continual improvement.

What is a kata?

Kata is a Japanese term meaning form and is commonly used in reference to martial arts. Katas refer to patterns, habits or routines used to create muscle memory. In martial arts, katas are choreographed patterns of movements or techniques that can be practiced alone or in a group. Practicing the kata consistently builds the techniques into muscle memory.

In the same way, the improvement kata strives to have practitioners consistently go through the same four-step pattern in order to promote attacking goals in a systematic, creative way -- eventually creating a culture of continual improvement.

Improvement kata in practice

Normally, the steps of the improvement kata are completed by individuals filling one of two roles. The learner is the person who develops systematic plans, comes up with target conditions and tries to reach the target conditions. Learners are supported by coaches who teach and guid the learners -- by following their own coaching kata.

The first three steps are considered the planning phase -- laying out what an organization knows, where it wants to be and what the next target condition needs to be to help get it there.

In the first step, learners ask what their overall goal is. This requires a sense of understanding of the organization's direction and challenges. This starts with an overall strategic vision with quantifiable variables. This step results in identifying a general idea -- not a list of daily actions. Instead, daily actions are determined by breaking down challenges into smaller pieces.

The second step includes defining what the conditions currently are. This means figuring out what the current way of operating is and what the starting point is. This step requires a thorough analysis in order to better detail how the current process operates and performs.

Step three involves defining the next target condition. Typically, this includes confronting challenges in a way of reaching that next objective. It is important to understand how to set a challenging but achievable objective. Learners should ask what performance they want to see regarding processes, operations or the rates at which tasks are being completed. This should also come with a target date to strive for -- for example, one week or three months. Any potential obstacles should begin to appear and be logged in this step.

Step four is the execution phase. This phase includes learning cycles where learners need to adjust and make changes rapidly. The target condition is worked on in iterations, while obstacles that appear are addressed one at a time. Experiments should be carried out daily to test hypotheses and learn from any apparent issues. New information is discovered, which eventually leads to the next target condition. Goals for completion dates should also be kept in mind.

Once the target condition or complete-by date is met, the kata coach talks to the learners, and they all reflect on things learned. The improvement kata steps are then repeated.

Improvement kata vs. Toyota kata and coaching kata

The Toyota kata is where the idea of the improvement kata originates. Mike Rother came up with the term to explain to American manufacturers how the Toyota company practiced continual improvement. This concept is explained further in the book, Toyota Kata. The term was used to mirror Toyota's practices. The Toyota kata was designed to be both a focused and structured approach to creating a culture of continuous learning and improvement. It's described as the muscle memory for continuous learning and improvement. The improvement kata isn't the only kata that makes up the Toyota kata, however. The Toyota kata is made up of two separate kata: the improvement kata and the coaching kata.

The coaching kata is the routine used to teach the improvement kata. Organizations can use the coaching kata as a supporting role to the learners, challenging the learners a little bit within each step. They should also ensure that each step is focused and deliberate. The coaching kata can involve a second coach who observes the cycles between the learner and the first coach. The second coach can then give the first coach feedback.

This was last updated in July 2020

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