I introduced Toyota Kata to a new client last week with a short simulation. It was the first time that I formally taught this approach to problem solving, and it was probably as educational for them as it was for me. (Note to self: need to get a few more cycles in to adequately model the coaching kata!)

The people in the class loved the approach. Not only could they see improvement from the first round to the last, they could feel how different this kind of structured experimentation was from the way they typically solved problems at work. But what really struck me—and them—was the way that kata improved teamwork.

This is a small company that suffered through layoffs last year, which caused people to emotionally hunker down in their silos. Problems were always due to the other department, not their own. People pointed fingers rather than looked into mirrors. The relationship among functional silos may not have been acrimonious, but it certainly wasn’t open and cooperative.

However, during the kata exercise they were all on the same side, trying to solve a shared problem rather than assign blame. And the emphasis on rapid experimentation eliminated the fear about suggesting the “wrong” solution. As Mike Rother frames it: “We know this isn’t going to work, so don’t worry about it being “right.” But by trying it, we can learn what might work.”

The participants said that the atmosphere during the simulation was totally different from what they regularly experienced at work. And the atmosphere in the classroom changed, too—they interacted with each other far more after the simulation than they had prior to it. The exercise had changed their behaviors as students, not just employees.

Kata isn’t the answer to all problems, and it may not be the way to introduce continuous improvement to all companies (any more than 5S is always the right first step). But in this case, it worked perfectly for this company.

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And in an only tangentially related note, James Dyson (of Dyson vacuum cleaners) was the subject of a recent How I Built This podcast. His description of improving his vacuum (through 5000 iterations!) epitomizes the kata mindset:

It was entirely empirical . . . .I was building one prototype at a time, making one change at a time. So I knew what difference that one change made, and so I progressed. There were quite a number of problems to solve. Firstly, at that time the state of the art was that cyclones were only good at separating dust down to 20 about microns, whereas I had to get it down to half a micron – cigarette smoke type particles. So that was the first problem. And the second thing was that I found that hairs and fluff would go straight through the cyclone and not be collected. And I built 5,127 prototypes before I got it right.