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Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Six Sigma

A Kata for Developing Solutions

Creating a Toyota-style system involves developing your own solutions.

Published: Thursday, June 10, 2010 - 06:00

For more than 20 years, Toyota’s methods, known as “lean,” have made headlines. And that’s how long engineer, researcher, and author Mike Rother has been involved with the subject. Like many others, Rother began with Toyota’s production tools. And like many others, he found that these are difficult to put into practice at other companies. So he studied Toyota’s management approach, and his new book, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results (McGraw-Hill, 2010) describes what he found. In the book, Toyota actually plays a secondary role because the ways of thinking and acting that Rother discovered and describes are universally applicable. They do, however, present managers with some new tasks.

For more information on Toyota Kata, visit Rother’s home page.

Rother spoke with Quality Digest Daily about his findings and the changing responsibilities of managers.

Quality Digest Daily: From what I understand, you were never a Toyota employee, so how did you get these insights?

Mike Rother: Not being a Toyota employee turned out to be an advantage, because I had to figure things out myself by trying them. It was six years of intense focus on the issue, with some good leads into Toyota and relationships with other companies that were kindly willing to experiment. We concentrated on what wasn’t working as intended, investigating why, and trying again. After a while, I began to see patterns of thinking and behavior that are different from U.S. managerial routines. Toyota insiders often can’t articulate the patterns, because they are immersed in a system invisible to them, and Toyota visitors don’t see them at the surface.

During the late 1980s I, too, had begun asking why Toyota’s productivity and quality were better than U.S. competition. Toyota was doing something differently and we wanted to know what it was. The differences we could see were the production methods such as kanban, heijunka, assembly cells, and so on. But transferring those methodologies to other companies never produced the continual improvement we found at Toyota. I wondered why it did not work, and that was the start of my most recent research. About halfway through that came the “eureka” moment: The issue lies less in the visible tools and techniques, and more in our attitude toward the tools—how we use them and what we seek to achieve with them.

QDD: What is the difference?

MR: In our companies we often define a goal, then make a plan for how to get there, then carry out the plan. Say we want to save costs by smoothing a production flow with heijunka. We’ll calculate a leveled production pattern, try to implement it, and it doesn’t work. Frankly, doing it that way wouldn’t work at Toyota, either. At Toyota, a heijunka pattern is viewed more as a target condition to be approached step by step with the familiar plan-do-check-act (PDCA) methodology and a large bit of, “We are sailing into the unknown.” Bottom line: We can’t just adopt Toyota’s solutions; we should find our own way ourselves.

That’s the basis of the Toyota management system: To give employees a means to effectively go through the process of developing solutions. I call this the “improvement kata.”

A kata is a routine or method that is practiced and used time and again, whereby it becomes second nature. The intention is to learn a desired habit, skill, and mindset. Some definitions of kata you might find are:  

  • A way of doing something
  • A pattern, form, routine, or method
  • A training drill

So what I mean by improvement kata is a routine by which nearly all employees participate in improvement and innovation in their daily thinking, acting, and reacting. With the improvement kata, we activate a great potential for creativity, problem solving, and adaptation. That, in turn, generates a company culture that achieves sustained competitive advantage through continual improvement and innovation.

QDD: You’re using the words “improvement” and “innovation” together. What is the difference between those concepts?

MR: I think our understanding of what’s behind those two terms is evolving. We have tended to define “lean” as eliminating waste, but we can now see that this concept is too limited. And we have tended to think of “innovation” as new solutions and levels of performance that come from periodic leaps by certain creative individuals, like the inventors we learned about in school. But this concept is also too limited. If you look closely, those inventors are standing on the shoulders of many others who went through thousands of plan-do-check-act cycles, which made feasible inventions like the telephone, the manned engine-driven airplane, the personal computer, and so on. Time erases the smaller steps and leaves us with the concept of innovation as periodic leaps from certain individuals.

I think a more useful definition of innovation goes like this: “New solutions and levels of performance, whether large or small, that come from many iterative cycles pointed toward a vision and conducted with special focus and energy.” From studying Toyota I can say that’s exactly what Toyota-style lean is. Lean and innovation involve using our ingenuity to develop ways of achieving something we want but can’t yet do. That could be the ability to travel through the air, to operate an assembly cell with four instead of six operators (at the same output), to economically produce smaller batches (as a step on the way to a one-by-one flow for the customer), and so on. To me, lean and innovation overlap greatly.

QDD: Are you saying the definition of lean is not “eliminating waste?”

MR: That definition of lean is what researchers call “knowing that” knowledge, as opposed to “knowing how” knowledge. Such a definition describes facts and information, but not how to do something.

Here’s a problem with the “eliminating waste” definition of lean. According to brain research, the neural circuits that constitute our current habits or patterns of thinking and acting—our current way of doing things—will automatically predominate unless we specify and repeatedly practice a different pattern and thereby develop new neural pathways. So we can say “eliminate waste” all we want, but unless leaders and managers can describe how to actually do that—in a way that is clear enough to be learned through every day’s practice—then not much is going to change. Not because people are bad, but because of how our brains work.

Eliminating waste is one outcome of a systematic way of thinking and acting that is taught to everyone at Toyota and used in everyday work. The knowing how is the improvement kata, which is Toyota’s fundamental approach for continuously improving, evolving, and innovating throughout the organization. But the improvement kata is not Toyota-specific. It is based on science and human psychology, and is universally applicable.

QDD: What is the improvement kata?

MR: In general, one can say that what is given to employees at Toyota is not solutions but an effective way of developing solutions. At many other companies, it’s the other way around. We decide via a return-on-investment calculation whether to pursue a goal, and make a plan for how we believe we will reach it. The plan lays out steps, and responsibility for those steps is assigned to individuals. People concentrate on the steps assigned to them.

But when we face a challenge, large or small, this approach is a dead end, because it involves deciding and planning based on existing knowledge. How can we know at the beginning what the steps will be that will best bring us to the desired destination? How can we predefine solutions when we do not know what we will encounter after the first few steps are taken? And if that’s true, how can we calculate in advance what the costs will be? Yet we do have time and budget constraints. So there is a paradox, and the improvement kata is designed to deal with that.

To cope with this dilemma and to mobilize the ingenuity of its employees, Toyota teaches an iterative approach. Although Toyota does plan in detail, the plan is seen more as a hypothesis than a decree. Toyota assumes that the path to a goal is largely in the dark, and that there are several as-yet-unknown ways to achieve the goal. Imagine you are at the beginning of a path holding a flashlight, but the light only illuminates part of the trail. When you take a step forward, you may spot things—an obstacle or an idea for a solution—that were not apparent back when you were calculating and planning. Toyota uses what it learns from those discoveries to take steps, if necessary, other than those listed in the plan to reach the goal in a creative manner within the quality, cost, and time parameters.

Toyota operates with a long-range, customer-oriented vision, defines interim goals and, perhaps most significantly, teaches all its members how to work scientifically through the grey area that lies between here and the next goal. To make people effective problem solvers and comfortable with the uncertainty of the path, they are coached in practicing the improvement kata, which can be summarized by figure 1.

Figure 1: The improvement kata

In every day’s work, using the improvement kata to move toward the next goal—what I call the “target condition”—involves continually repeating the following pattern:

  • Where do we want to be by when?
  • Where are we now?
  • What now stands in our way?
  • What is the next step?


In principle, this pattern is iterative discovery via the PDCA cycle, although a difference in how Toyota uses PDCA is that there it is made instinctive through repeated practice in short cycles, like the movement sequences in martial arts.

QDD: So what is the role of the manager in this system?

MR: The manager’s task is to ensure that people learn and utilize the improvement kata.

First, the manager sets the example himself. Second, he coaches employees in practicing. Reading, seminars, and so on don’t change behavior, as brain research confirms. Only through experiences do we form new neurological circuits, and the more we use those circuits, the more solid they become. Beginners need closer coaching than advanced students, who in turn are increasingly able to coach others. To assess where people are and guide them into the corridor of thinking and acting prescribed by the kata, the manager has to know the improvement kata from his own experience.

Assessing is done via observation and questions. The intention behind these is not to exercise control or have the learner guess a solution the manager has in mind. The manager is asking questions simply to learn how the person is thinking and acting, and she compares that with the pattern of the improvement kata. If, in practicing the kata, the employee arrives at a good solution that is not the one the manager would have introduced, that is accepted. It is the employee who has the task of achieving the desired condition, whereas the manager has the task of teaching her people the improvement kata.

In sum, you can say that the improvement kata is a way of mobilizing human ingenuity through good management.

Editor's note:

Mike Rother is  an engineer, teacher, and author on the subjects of management, leadership, improvement, adaptiveness, and change. He has been a researcher of manufacturing and management issues since 1998, and studying Toyota since 1990, which has brought him to many companies and hundreds of factories around the world. Rother has been an associate of the Industrial Technology Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the University of Michigan College of Engineering; the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation in Stuttgart, Germany; and the Technical University Dortmund in Germany.


About The Author

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest’s picture

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest’s editor in chief.


This is a must read

Hi Mike,
I just made it to Part IV of your book and just can't contain my excitement about the insight your book gives to how to make lasting improvements at a company. As the primary software developer for my company, my head is now spinning with ideas about how to incorporate this new knowledge into our software. Even though you indicate financial IT systems aren't used on the shop floor, it would seem like there is opportunity to support the learning kata and the records / metrics being generated. I mean wouldn't each process change basically involve a procedure, that defines the process, and a corrective action, to track, manage, and approve the effort to make changes and to ensure the kata was performed correctly before making the change?

I seem to have run into a "catch 22" paradigm revolving around a company's procedures, however. It seem that Toyota basically says "let's try to do it this way," which I assume is defined in a procedure so that everyone involved is trying to do it that way. However, they expect that problems will arise when trying to do it that way, so that they can learn.

Now the way most companies define their quality systems, an ISO auditor would come in and find all the documentation and records establishing just how often, or not, that procedure could actually be followed. It would seem that Toyota would effectively be tracking how often they couldn't follow a procedure, which many western companies would interpret as just asking for all kinds of audit trouble when the ISO auditor arrives.
The ISO standard simple states that the company gets to define how it is going to control their processes, so there is definitely room in the standard to change our existing paradigms.

How does Toyota balance the role documentation has in stabilizing a process, that at the same time is intended to be unstable enough to move forward through the learning kata?

Are there two procedures, one for the stable process, and one that introduces the new changes in a limited capacity?
You're book will be a game changer if enough people read it and "get it." Awesome job!

David Smithstein, Founder and CEO

Being a Mentor

Hi Mike,

OK, now I'm reading about the mentor / mentee roles that Toyota uses. Are you available for occasional on-line mentor/mentee interactions focused on supporting aspects of both the improvement and coaching katas via a quality management software application?

David Smithstein, Founder and CEO

Quality and the Martial Arts

Has anyone else noticed the quality professions affinity for the martial arts? We have six sigma black belts, and now improvement katas. I suppose is speaks to the underlying components needed to be successful in both endeavors, such as discipline, flexibility, speed, decisiveness, bravery, knowledge and confidence...just to name a few.

It's too bad our culture is so relatively young and diverse that we don't have our own martial arts heritage or terminology that embodies those qualities. As Americans we are told our diversity is our strength, and Dirk and others have stated we simply can't copy Toyota, we have to figure out our own way.

So proposing a way that has to rely on the concept of "kata," will make sense to someone from Japan, but unless you are a martial artist, "kata" isn't going to mean squat.

We are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place in that we need to figure out our own way, but at the same time we realize we need to be more like them. The closest thing America has to a "kata" is....I can't really think of anything, can you? Let's face it, are a quick fix society. "Plop, Plop, fizz, fizz..." let's just take a pill instead of eating right....for example.

So unless you are a quality professional, a martial artist, or a member of the armed services, where are you supposed to find the culture and training that would make an "improvement kata" make sense on that gut level needed to actually change behavior?

Maybe we need to call it the "improvement happy meal," or the "improvement Viagra." Isn't there a cultural concept closer to home we can use to bring understanding to the masses?

David Smithstein, Founder and CEO

Kata and other things Martial Arts

Being both a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a certified instructor of Martial Arts (Filipiino Kali, JKD, and Maphilido Silat), I have always found this cross current between the two worlds interesting. Perhaps to shed some light on the issue, a reason I think this exists is that in the martial arts you are always seeking perfection of execution. No matter how long you have been a martial artist, you continue to work, examine, and work on your abilities to refine and hone them toward the point where there is no wasted motion or energy and you accomplish your goal.

As to a kata, actually we do have something like it in America. Think of any sport and remember what a coach would always drill with the team. You always work on the fundamentals. A kata is a set of fundamentals of a martial art glued together in a way that you can remember them, and perform them multiple times (to build your muscle memory you need between 1000 to 2000 reps before you "own" a movement, thousands more are required to hone the movement). Kata isn't application any more than dribbling is playing basketball. However, you can not master application until you own the fundamentals. Once you are a master of the fundamentals, the applications flow from your ability to recreate and create solutions based upon the situation you face.

Perhaps that is where we are missing the point. We are trying to copy the end results we see without putting in the hours of practice required to master the fundamentals.

Kata and other things Martial Arts


Thank you for the good explanation of kata. You might like “teaching a kata” and, in particular, the Dreyfus Levels of Skill Acquisition, which are both on the Toyota Kata Homepage. Here are the links:

- http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother/How_to_Teach_a_Kata.html

- http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother/How_to_Teach_a_Kata_files/Dreyfus...

A coach (manager) can’t give solutions, because we don’t know in advance how a game will go. So what he can offer his people is to teach them how to play, eg. dribble as you point out.

Interestingly, at Toyota training and application are not separated. To practice and internalize the pattern of the improvement kata, learners apply it in actual situations at actual work processes. The improvement kata provides the form, and the gemba provides the content. Of course, the degree of challenge that is meted out to a learner depends on the skill level the learner has attained.


Mike Rother

Quality and the Martial Arts

Dear David,

Thank you for your comment. Wow, you're right, six sigma has black belts. I never thought of that connection while working on the book Toyota Kata.

What you see in Toyota Kata is the result of careful investigation into Toyota's management approach, and Kata is the word that simply came to best describe what I found. (I have no connection with martial arts.) For example, during the latter part of the research I was discussing my findings and mentioned the word to a Toyota person who remarked, "Yes, what we do is all kata really."

In Japanese language, kata is a widely-used word meaning “way of doing things" or, specifically, any routine or pattern of behavior that is practiced to various levels of mastery. Kata in general is a teaching and learning method. Then there are many specific kata, which you practice to acquire a particular skill. This fits closely with recent brain research and is analogous to training in sports. We have perhaps mistakenly associated the word too closely with martial arts.

To learn more about the word "kata" and how dead-on it fits in describing Toyota-style management, I can suggest the following resources:

• Boye Lafayette De Menthe's book, Behind the Japanese Bow, Chapters 1 & 2.

• Kazuo Ichijo and Ikujiro Nonaka's book, Knowledge Creation and Management, page 25.

• The Toyota Kata Homepage: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother

Ultimately the book Toyota Kata is not about Toyota, but about a routine of thinking and acting that harnesses our capability to improve, solve problems and innovate. Toyota Kata presents this behavior pattern - the improvement kata - at a level where we are talking about human psychology, and I think it can be practiced and learned in any organization. We'll see.

As a side note, the working title of the book was Beyond What We Can See, which is a play on words meaning:

a) Toyota's management system is beyond what we can see when we visit Toyota.

b) The improvement kata is a means for achieving challenging objectives that lie beyond what we can see.

c) The book describes things we've learned since writing Learning to See.

Best regards!

Mike Rother

Quality and the Martial Arts

Thanks Mike.
Excellent response. I believe you are correct about the narrow definition of Kata in the US. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense that we as Americans have to look outside our culture for answers. We as Americans don't have a cultural heritage that evolved over thousands of years, so a concept like Kata would have to come from somewhere else.

I think one of our country's strengths is our ability to adapt and absorb from other parts of the world, since that pretty much defines who we are as a nation. Unfortunately, from a psychological perspective, it's easy to fall into the mind set of "not invented here," which is especially dangerous for Americans, as the "Happy Meal" isn't much to fall back on.

The sooner we can solidify our national self concept with the idea that our strength lies in our ability to adapt solutions from any source, the faster we will be able to innovate and solve the problems we face.

Thanks again, and I'm looking forward to reading your book.
David Smithstein, Founder and CEO

thanks great article

I was disappointed to see the phrase "Managing People" in the title of Mike Rother's book but more than pleased to read what he learned at Toyota. It is interesting to discover that managing is not managing but coaching and teaching. It is how we at the Leadership Preventive Medicine Residency Program in New Hampshire help residents learn the skills of improvement and leadership to change a health care system to provide quality care for patients that they serve. The residents take a year to assess a specific gap or suboptimal process of care for a group of patients. They do come up with a plan and over the following year they start to implement the plan. By trying to resolve a problem the resident learns more about the process and more about whether their initial idea had value. Lots of lessons are learned along the way and it’s through their reflection and coaching that this result is achieved. So thanks for sharing what I always believed that improvement is not just about tools or didactics it is about people engaged in learning and discovering how they can be a part of making things better by unfolding the path before them and the journey is not predictable – thank goodness.