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Mark Rosenthal


The Improvement Kata PDCA Cycles Record

What learning looks like

Published: Monday, November 16, 2015 - 10:53

Improvement kata describes a routine for continuous improvement through four major steps. Those steps provide a structured pattern to enable consistent practice of each kata routine until it becomes habit—until it’s a natural way of thinking and acting. This change in behavior makes it easier solve problems, to grasp a situation, and to develop a solution.

The following images represent the four steps of improvement kata:

In the fourth step, “Iterate Toward the Target Condition,” we have a form, called the “PDCA (plan-do-check-act) cycles record,” that provides an additional level of structure for people learning kata and for those coaching kata.

When learning improvement kata, you are practicing behaviors repeatedly until the routine is second nature. If you no longer have to think about how to do the routine your mind is free to think creatively, and your capabilities can expand.

The following is the PDCA record form from Mike Rother’s Improvement Kata Handbook:

There are five questions that make up one coaching cycle. The intent is that as the coach asks the questions, the learner points to and reads the answers. In the five questions, it is the “Reflection” (on the back of the coaching card) and the fourth question that address the PDCA cycles record.

Let’s look at how this form structures the learner’s process.

The very first experiment or trial that the learner sets up is based on his or her understanding of the current condition and the current obstacles. The learner selects an obstacle, decides what to do first, and fills in that step in the first column, “Date, step & metric.”

The learner must think a bit and also fill in the “What do you expect?” column to describe what effect he or she expects to have on the process (or what he or she expects to learn) as a result of taking that step.

Then the learner hits the yellow bar in the middle of the form. It says, “Do a Coaching Cycle.” Do not pass this point without checking in with your coach.

The coach, this time around, is going to ask the 5 Questions, but skip the reflection step, because there is no previous step to reflect on. The coach is (or should be) looking for things like (and these are by no means inclusive, rather, they just came to mind as I’m writing this):
• Is the obstacle actually something which must be worked out, or something which must be learned to reach the target? Or is it just a “to do” item? The coach may ask some follow-on questions to clarify the connection.
• Is the next step actually something that addresses the obstacle? Does it reflect a step into “unknown territory” that includes learning?
• Is the expected outcome a logical consequence of taking the step being proposed? Does it have something to do with the obstacle?

By having the learner write down his or her intent prior to the coaching cycle, the coach can see how the learner is thinking without biasing that process. The coach can see if the learner is off track. If so, it’s pretty simple to erase, or even scratch out, the planned experiment and make some revisions during the coaching session.

Either way, as coach, I want to see the learner’s best effort before I influence or correct it. That is MY process for “grasping the current condition” and even checking the result of a previous experiment on my part by emphasizing something specific during the last coaching cycle.

Once the learner is good to go, the NEXT yellow bar says “Conduct the Experiment.” This is the “DO” of PDCA.

Once this is done, the learner is expected to write down his or her observations in the “What Happened” column, then reflect, and then complete the “What We Learned” column.

Then, based on what was learned, comes the planning of the next step. So, move down a row, and fill in the first block with the next step, and the second block with the expected result.

At that point, the learner hits that yellow STOP bar again. This time the coach is going to ask the reflection questions on the back of the card—reviewing the last step and expectation, and then covering the new information: What actually happened? What did you learn? Based on that, what is your next step? What result do you expect from taking that step?

My job as the coach is to make sure that the learner can connect the dots. I want him or her to write all of that down before we talk.

I have to see the learner’s “actual condition now” before I can effectively coach that person.

Why am I talking about this?

I have run into a few cases where I have gone into an organization with some prior training or experience with Toyota kata. They have asked me in to do some additional training, or coach them to the next level because they think they are “stuck.”

In a couple of those cases, I have observed a deliberate practice of filling out the blocks on the PDCA record during the coaching cycle. The intent seems to be for the learner to be guided by the coach as he or she fleshes out what actually happened, what was learned, the next step or experiment, and what is expected. All of those things are then written down on the form.

This is very effective if the intent is for the learner to “get it right.” From a coaching standpoint, however, I feel (and this is just my opinion) that this practice deprives me of information I need to ascertain how the learner would do it independently.

I also believe it runs the risk of building a dependency on the coach, and shift the psychological responsibility off the learner—it is easy to fall into the “tell me what to do” trap unless the coach is experienced enough to avoiding “leading the witness” during the coaching cycle.

In most organizations, the hierarchy that likely exists between the coach and the learner underscores the deeply seated habit of the boss providing all the answers. I want to avoid reinforcing this dynamic.

A caveat for beginners

When the learner is going through the Toyota kata steps the first few times, he or she won’t know what to do. It is completely appropriate for the coach to demonstrate, and guide, the learner through the steps, but the organization should not confuse this effort with the intended pattern of the improvement kata.

As soon as the learner has shown an understanding of the intent of the process steps, it is time for the coach to step back and let the learner try it: “Take a few swings,” to use a sports metaphor.

This gives the coach the best opportunity to see where to focus effort. The PDCA record may well be scratched out, revised, or rewritten in the process. It’s OK for it to be messy. That’s what learning looks like.

First published Aug. 10, 2015, on The Lean Thinker blog.


About The Author

Mark Rosenthal’s picture

Mark Rosenthal

Mark Rosenthal is an experienced lean manufacturing/quality director and manager with more than 20 years of experience implementing continuous improvement in diverse organizations. He brings deep understanding of the Toyota Production System and a proven ability to see any organization’s potential. Rosenthal is a change agent who facilitates the process of discovery to quickly make an impact on the way people think, enabling them to cut to the core issues and get things moving by engaging the entire team to develop solutions that affect the bottom line.