Book review: “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother

I have been learning about “Lean” since the mid 2000s. As a self-described systems thinker, I’ve liked Lean concepts because the tools fit so well together: 5S for optimizing your work environment, kanban cards for linking processes together and limiting excess production, and A3 reports for helping managers talk about problems they’re investigating, for example. They fit well, but I didn’t understand why they fit together. Then I read Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results by Mike Rother.

Mike does a great job of introducing western management systems and then contrasting them to Toyota’s management system. He shows, for example, that Toyota’s focus on improvement led it to build hybrid cars because they saw customers wanted them. He then introduces two “kata,” or patterns to be practiced, to build a problem-solving organization: (1) the improvement kata, and (2) the coaching kata.

I grew up taking Tae Kwon Do. In the martial arts I’m familiar with, you have “kata” or forms that you practice. These forms you repeat until you understand them perfectly and can execute them subconsciously. The forms teach you common combinations and patterns and they also help transfer knowledge from teacher to student. So, the concept of these kata resonated with me as the patterns you can practice until they become habit.

Here are my key take-aways from the book:

  • An organization’s primary goal and vision can be about improvement rather than production. This allows the organization to evolve as needs change.
  • Build habits in people to (1) use the PDCA cycle for themselves and (2) teach others to use the PDCA cycle. The PDCA cycle should be used by everyone in an organization, all the time.
  • Use rapid PDCA cycles changing only one variable at a time. Rapid=many times a day. Implication: you need in-process measures so you can test more rapidly.
  • Nothing–not lean tools, not organizational restructuring, not even these katas themselves–should be implemented to improve things before the current situation is well understood.

Note: the Lean Enterprise Institute has a “Improvement Kata & Coaching Kata” web site that includes complementary materials for the book, such as a card with “The Five Questions” used in the coaching kata.