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Improve Continuously by Mastering the Lean Kata

by Rose Heathcote & Daryl Powell
December 9, 2020

Improve Continuously by Mastering the Lean Kata

by Rose Heathcote & Daryl Powell
December 9, 2020 | Comments (10)

                 "The only secret to Toyota is its attitude towards learning." - Isao Yoshino, from Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn by Katie Anderson

Lean is widely known today and celebrated largely as a powerful system for eliminating waste and improving quality. And yet we believe that to frame lean as merely a set of tools and principles that improve processes and increase efficiency fails to capture its true power. We believe that the essence of lean—as it applies to all functional areas of the enterprise to different industries and sectors—is continuous improvement, with learning at its core, as noted by Daryl and Torbjorn Netland.

Lean is about learning. Learning to find real problems, learning to face the limits of our current knowledge in light of these problems, learning to frame the gaps as learning challenges, and finally, learning to form and share actionable solutions. As such, lean is really about learning-to-learn.

We believe that the essence of lean—as it applies to all functional areas of the enterprise to different industries and sectors—is continuous improvement, with learning at its core.Based on our cumulative experiences from studying and guiding lean transformations, we have come to realize that a lean transformation is in fact a progressive, transformational learning journey, consisting of at least three phases. Firstly, management might decide to embark on a tool-based lean implementation. Some implementations will then advance as journeys of transformative leadership development.

Then, the few that actually succeed will transpire towards building a learning-to-learn capability, both as individuals and as organisations.

Some years ago, one of us was leading a lean transformation in a multinational organization. What began as a global
initiative to adopt lean best practices quickly transitioned into one of lean leadership development, where A3 Management and Toyota Kata were identified as means for realizing structured problem-solving in operations. However, given the complexity and cross-functional nature of many of the problems that emerged, the limits of our Starter Katawere soon uncovered. The situation demanded something more.

Build Your Learning Scaffolding

In the absence of a culture of organisational learning, a structured playbook to scientific thinking is important. A3 Management and Toyota Kata, which Toyota practices regularly, serve up options from a buffet of lean tools together with the thinking process needed for purpose-driven problem-solving. Where zero improvement habits exist, installing routines based on these two popular best practice approaches to kick-start discovery and learning is sensible, and will drive benefit. But for how long?

Without this improvement foundation, learning becomes anecdotal, caged-in by the structured, over-mechanisation of thinking. It’s good (and necessary) to know where you currently stand in relation to your target condition, and indeed, to iterate towards new conditions. And while we value the improvement and coaching kata, we wonder if the rigid routines of these kata paradoxically hinder flexibility and the advancement of personal development?

To unleash curiosity, we suggest that there may be more to the story. The teacher-manager can steer the inquiry processThe truth is improvement routines and resultant optimization are never enough.  by posing thoughtful questions to the learner, which often unearths shared unknowns. Controlling managers, on the other hand, coax learners towards their own thinking, sometimes using Toyota Kata as the vehicle. Control-managers get what they want, and the learner believes it was their creation, but, in reality, thought-potential and creativity were unwittingly muzzled. The ultimate learning experience is suppressed.

When the driving force behind improvement flounders, routines are quickly abandoned, and learning decelerates. The discovery process should in theory perpetuate. And yet if the learner relies on structure and logical reasoning alone, without banking self-awareness along the way, continuity in learning also grinds to a halt. As such, the competence to pose fresh questions, to reflect and self-learn, remains uncultivated. The 'learning scaffolding' collapses, and there is nothing else to hold it up. Toyota Kata cannot be blamed for this outcome. It is merely a product of how this type of learning journey is designed and executed, and subsequently fails. Unfortunately, the Toyota Kata is too often adopted as the end rather than the means.

The truth is improvement routines and resultant optimization are never enough. Today we are diving deeper into stormy economic waters, and gains from process improvement will not secure survival and employment stability. The elementary rigidity created by routine will need to evolve into something more forgiving, and the tool needs to fulfil its duty to propel discovery. We need independent, perpetual, self-actualising thinking machines to hatch from the discovery process. We need more organic (not mechanistic) systems of enterprise. As such, we suggest a need to supplement the improvement and coaching kata with a third type of kata – the learning kata.

Towards a Learning Kata

The Toyota Kata – specifically the improvement and coaching kata – provides an excellent approach to create scientific thinking capabilities in people. However, in terms of learning, particularly action learning, the scientific method is only one piece of the proverbial puzzle. Thoughtful leaders can in fact develop this system intentionally. In Developing Effective Managers, Reg Revans (the originator of action learning) made a formal attempt to develop a theory of Action Learning based on three interacting systems:

  • System alpha - focuses on defining and understanding the problem (including the underlying management values that could well be causing the problem in the first place);
  • System beta - focuses on resolving the problem using the scientific method;
  • System gamma - focuses on the learning as experienced uniquely by each of the participants (through self-awareness and questioning).

Though the improvement kata partially fulfils the requirements of system alpha, and the coaching kata presents a scientific method which fulfils those of system beta, there seems to be a lack of a third kata to fulfil system gamma, what we will call the learning kata.

Solving complex problems requires reflective, insightful questioning. The first two systems build the scientific mindset. They essentially shift the learner beyond their preconceptions and unconscious bias to understanding the problem and its causality, with greater certainty. The scientific, evidenced-based nature of the learning is fundamental to decisions based on fact and observation, as opposed to gut-feel and confirmation bias. There is tremendous value in comparing what we think will happen in theory, to what actually comes from each experiment performed – as each failure brings with it further, incremental discovery. Combining the science behind experimentation with regular routines leads to the muscle memory of problem-solving skill. This aids in the development of a “community of scientists”, solving problems every day in a structured way. The manager and learner progress together through the learning routine. This is a critical part of the journey.

However, what this fails to do is prepare the learner for the extraordinary, as they progress from known knowns to facing unknown unknowns. To Revans, this first type of problem (known knowns) were simply "puzzles" – difficulties from which escapes were otherwise known. Solving complex problems, on the other hand, requires reflective, insightful questioning. In asking fresh questions, the learner can uncover any underlying assumptions and create new connections and mental models.

Make no mistake, the mechanistic nature of the improvement and coaching kata promises to cultivate problem-solving skill and an indispensable scientific mindset. It presents learning moments with each failure or each gap closed. Yet it falls short of transitioning the mature student to personal mastery and self-awareness – enabling them to think through situations more challenging than the familiar. Critically, the learning process must become "about the self".

In the spirit of action learning, specifically system gamma, the journey to self-awareness prevails in the absence of any As every good teacher-manager knows – to be a good teacher, one must first become a good learner.form of power-distance. System gamma presents a learning kata to arouse peers to advance beyond the limits of their current knowledge through synchronous learning, with each participant making a formal commitment to both action and learning. As such, the learning kata's triggers are more than just a standardised questioning process – and must foster challenge as well as unique questioning insight to spark curiosity through the deep awareness that comes from personal reflection. It is a pact that the learners must make with themselves.

This contrasts with the traditional scenario in which managers drive the subordinate's learning process (likely in a direction to suit the manager's value system and life goals) to achieve in many instances end-of-event learning. Instead, with the learning kata, peers drive the questioning and reflective discovery process together, sharpening and cleaning the lens through which they see, to understand and deal with new complex problems. In time they cross-over to independent, self-aware, self-motivated, life-long learners.  

The social learning that takes place in the learning kata enables symbiotic learning, between peers. At first this may seem rather uncomfortable to many managers – as they face the vulnerability of admitting the limits of their current knowledge in front of colleagues and subordinates. However, the overriding value that guides this learning approach is a pragmatic focus on learning for the sake of more effective instrumental problem solving. As every good teacher-manager knows – to be a good teacher, one must first become a good learner.

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10 Comments | Post a Comment
Daniel Jones December 09, 2020
3 People AGREE with this comment

Agree with these conclusions...but the next step is to look at the parallel path of capturing and sharing the knowledge gained from problem solving. This is a key part of LPPD and the final step in any Obeya room. Thinking about personal leaning and collective organisational learning together with their interactions is insightful. 

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Rose Heathcote December 10, 2020
2 People AGREE with this reply

Dan, thank you for your comments and ongoing encouragement. I really enjoyed working with Daryl on it. It triggered a few brave steps, and I think we should continue to explore the action learning that drives personal learning - and what this could look like in the context of new challenges. Capturing and sharing knowledge as organisation and student learn together, is such an important aspect. 

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Mike Rother December 10, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Cool. Dan brings up a topic that isn't already addressed by Toyota Kata, and worthy of investigation and development. Could dovetail nicely with TK!

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Daryl Powell December 10, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Hi Dan. Thanks for feedback. I fully agree. Sharing the individual learning and new emerging actionable knowledge is just a first step. When we framed our lean supplier development program using an action learning lens, we also considered organizational and inter-organizational learning. The real essence is in the reflective questioning process.

Of course, the organizations must also be capable of exploiting the learning. This makes appropriate learning mechanisms even more important - be it procedural, structural or indeed cognitive. Thinking about and understanding learning issues is key to progress!

Read "Rethinking lean supplier development as a learning system" here: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/IJOPM-06-2019-0486/full/html?skipTracking=true

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Simon Gary December 15, 2020

I have read this article a couple of times now, and find it absolutely fascinating.

For me, learning occurs in within the periods of deep personal reflection - so perhaps we need to be more active in recognising this activity as ultimately value-added, and proactively create time and physical spaces for it?

While the original goal of waste elimination was to create space for more value-added work, can we also use the time for rigorous, personal hansei?

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john Spoerry December 15, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Interesting  stuff

 Thanks for sharing. Learning by doing seems so obvious, but sometimes we don't  recognise it. They key phrase I picked out was 'Of course, the organizations must also be capable of exploiting the learning.'. Unfortunately this is the problem. What happened to the concept of the Learning Organisation? I suspect that we dont have enough time allocated by the controllers who like to tell us what and how we should learn.

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Daryl Powell December 15, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Hi John. Thanks for sharing your reflection. I think the fact that 'learning by doing seems so obvious' is part of the problem. Action Learning is often reduced to learning by doing, but it goes much further. There are three underpinning assumptions to AL:

1) Learning is cradled in the task and formal instruction is not sufficient,
2) Solving problems requires insightful questions,
3) Learning involves doing, is voluntary, spurred by urgent problems or enticing opportunities and is measured by the results of action. 

What emerges is actionable knowledge that can and should be shared with and exploited by others in the organization (and indeed beyond the organization, e.g. Suppliers). Obeya, A3, and Yokoten are recognized means of sharing new knowledge - but further learning is dependent upon further questioning insight. As such, organizational learning involves a tension between assimilating new learning (exploration) and using what has been learned (exploitation).


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Rose Heathcote December 15, 2020

Simon, thanks for your comment. 

A few years ago, I helped out at an ICT company, and I was quite taken when employees, somewhat desperately, explained how they wanted to learn and improve, but needed time and space to think. It got me thinking, that we need to help our teams by creating space for them to progress and climb the learning ladder. Without that, we're expecting a lot, but not really doing our part to make it happen. The approach we describe here I believe sets the scene for just that. We just need to make sure we push for all three systems and not just bits and pieces of it, to realise full potential. It's actually quite exciting when you think about the possibilities of people and organisations learning together. We have to make time for it! 

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Robert Joffre December 15, 2020

Really appreciate this perspective. See a connectivity to Toyota Kata overall and wanted to share. The structure of Strategic Deployment cascading up & down throughout the organization with the Challenges being directly connected to Toyota Kata underpins direction and practice. The point of interested for learning is that exploration and peer engagement is a critical aspect of the Kata practice which can be overlooked. Observed that lack of exploration is a top contributor to Learner dependence and Coach projecting bias. In order to expand this exploration have added a TWI based Job Methods sheet to the 5 steps of process analysis tool set. This method is practiced with peers offering an expanded and more reflective question base. Based on this exploration the Learner can deterimine the next step and involves peers in experimentation as well as reflection on what was learned. The deeper thinking is also encouraged with room to ask expanded questions as the coach, learner and team move forward.

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Rose Heathcote December 17, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thank you, Robert - pleased you enjoyed it. It's a pity when peer engagement is overlooked. We'd like to see peers supporting, challenging each other, to grow the thinking that comes with structured practice, into something more. We believe there is real potential to go beyond optimisation. Take a look at the link Daryl provides above - superb paper.

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