Thinking About Toyota Kata

Alphonse Karr Nadar1
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1980), a French critic, journalist and novelist, coined the phrase, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Image source: Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently I have been thinking about why kata has been so much more successful than genba kaizen, given that the continuous practice of kaizen is what led to the creation of TPS and the Toyota Way in just a few decades. Yet kaizen never really caught on among the organizations that pursued Lean management. It should have, given kaizen’s fundamental importance in building a new management system and a new way of building relationships between management and its stakeholders (employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities).

Additionally, none of the sensei from Shingijutsu, or others like them, ever talk about kata — for decades. They talk about many other things, occasionally PDCA, but never kata. Their primary focus was, and is, to teach individuals and teams how to create flow via kaizen by quickly eliminating waste using human intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity. Importantly, with kaizen, everything changes. But with the so-called “Lean tools,” things stay mostly the same.

Prior to kata, and in the years after companies experimented with Lean transformation and found it too difficult achieve, 5S somehow became the required starting point for introducing Lean in organizations. It is still used for that today. For some organizations, 5S is both the beginning and end of Lean (i.e., “We do 5S. We’re Lean!”). Then came various Lean tools, starting with value stream maps in 1999, followed by A3 reports, gemba walks, visual management boards, and coaching. Sure, some useful improvements are made with these tools and people learn and do some new things, but there are no changes as dramatic as what occurs with genba kaizen.

Kata is a practice whose origin is kaizen. As such, kata is a subroutine of genba kaizen, but extracted from the context of genba kaizen practice, just as all the other Lean tools are. This is likely why sensei rarely talk about kata. Being a subroutine of kaizen, it is not the primary point of focus that sensei think is most important for people to learn — which is to create flow by eliminating the many wastes inherent to batch-and-queue processing.

Like other Lean tools, kata has proven to be a valuable way to engage and develop frontline employees to become better problem-solvers for the kinds of problems that they face. It formalizes scientific thinking in a practical, hands-on way. Kata is an improvement over the typical problem-solving methods used by workers, but it is not nearly as good as genba kaizen and “Moonshine.”

However, kata, as with all other Lean tools, are non-starters for most senior executives. They do whatever they want to do and avoid, to the extent possible, being bound by the problem-solving tools that they require others to use. A kata-trained worker who rises through the ranks is unlikely to continue to think scientifically because that way of thinking is misaligned with executive culture (i.e., the Institution of Leadership and System of Profound Privilege).

Across generations of leaders, those who subscribe to classical management have been very astute at determining which tools and methods align best with classical management and secure its continuation, and which tools and methods conflict or undermine classical management and threaten its continuation. The latter is to be avoided, of course, because it is seen as disruptive and destabilizing. Kaizen, which changes everything, is not welcome because it does not perpetuate the status quo.

Lean tools do not alter the status quo in any way that is meaningful to senior leaders. That is why they can easily accept them into the pantheon of business problem-solving tools. Lean tools are, essentially, KPI (key performance indicator) and business metric improvers, something that top leaders eagerly hope to gain when lower-level people use them. The management system, however, is largely unchanged.

With artificial intelligence and other advancements, new tools will emerge to improve the KPIs and metrics that interest top leaders. From their perspective, Lean has done its job. It has provided an injection of several useful Lean tools to help workers solve everyday business problems and improve KPIs and metrics. And nothing much changes. Perfect!

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