I started using Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata approach at a new client in NYC recently. The mechanics are young (18-25 years) old, and the education level is low. No one has been to college, and not all of them have even completed high school. 

Some of the obstacles I ran into were predictable to anyone who’s used kata before—people jumping to solutions rather than identifying real problems, focusing on symptoms rather than root causes, turning the discussion around obstacles into a (long and loud) general complaint session. 

But the big surprise for me was how difficult it was for the team to grasp the terms that I put on the learner’s storyboard. “Focus process,” “target condition,” etc. may be perfectly familiar to me, but they were about as accessible as a German language menu in an Applebee for the mechanics. They weren’t comfortable using those words, and they struggled to understand the meaning of a phrase like “focus process.” So not only was I presenting them with a new way of thinking about their work, I was essentially asking them to learn a foreign language. (Ironically, my book Building the Fit Organization was written precisely to explain lean principles without using Japanese buzzwords or references to Toyota.) This is a beautiful recipe for failure.

Of course, I wasn’t perceptive enough to see the problem. One of the managers had to point it out to me. 

So we changed the terminology to something more comfortable for the mechanics:

  • Focus process => Problem area
  • Challenge => Long-term goal
  • Target condition => Where we want to be next
  • Current condition => Where we are now
  • Experimenting record => Experiments
  • Obstacle parking lot => Obstacles

I haven’t run these changes past Mike Rother, but I think that he’d approve. After all, the terminology doesn’t really matter. What’s important is learning how to think—and experiment—scientifically. And if changing the language makes it easier to grasp the new way of thinking, so much the better.