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Bruce Hamilton


Zoo Kata

Bears’ learned behavior, called enrichment, is much like human behavior during coaching kata

Published: Monday, December 10, 2018 - 12:02

Last week I joined the New England Idea Generation Consortium (NEIGC) on a tour of the Stone Zoo where we had the opportunity to see how continuous improvement is expressed in an animal-care function.

In the open area for black bears, Senior Keeper Dayle Sullivan-Taylor explained to us the importance of animal enrichment. “It’s the best part of my job, working with the animals on operant conditioning,” she says.

We watched as she coaxed one of the bears to stand and place first its front paws and then its face against the glass. “They’re very food-motivated,” she notes and demonstrates, lofting food treats over the glass barrier as a reward for the bear’s response.

The behaviors the bears learn, referred to as “enrichment,” serve two purposes: First, keeping their minds and bodies active and in learning mode, and second, as in this case, teaching them to stand at the edge of the barrier.

“Behind the scenes the face behavior enables us to do many health checks and also give shots as needed without the need of anesthetizing the bears,” Sullivan-Taylor explains.

As Sullivan-Taylor described the regular pattern of exercise and small, constant increase in learning, I noticed a smile on the face of another of our consortium members, Jonathan Baum, a process improvement consultant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I think he and I simultaneously saw the similarity to Improvement Kata, a simple step-by-step routine for creating improvement, popularized in 2009 in the book Toyota Kata, by Mike Rother (McGraw-Hill).

Sullivan-Taylor continued. “We take very small steps with daily practice to enable the bear’s learning. After a while, the pattern becomes natural, however, and we only have to refresh once in a while.”

Next, our host described the importance of consistent behavior from the trainer. “Our role in interacting with the animals is critical to their learning,” adds Sullivan-Taylor. “The Animal Training Advisor regularly observes my interaction with the bear and is able to see things that I miss. Her suggestions are helpful. And occasionally, we switch roles; she works with the bears, and I observe her. It’s amazing how different that perspective is. I’ve learned a lot in that role, too.”

At that point, Jonathan and I turned to each other and uttered, “Coaching Kata!” Sullivan-Taylor, without apparent awareness of the kata concept, was now describing the coach’s role to support and develop enrichment, not only for the bears but also for the organization. Call it Zoo Kata,


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.