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Toyota Kata - Habits for Continuous Improvements

Håkan Forss, Avega Group,, @hakanforss

Do you feel your team has plateaued? Is the team not improving as much? Is the team lacking the motivation to challenge themselves to improve? Are the improvements you implement moving you in many different directions with no focus? Are you collecting a long list of problems but you never get around resolving them?

Time to stop collecting problems and start improving!

Toyota Kata is a structured and focused approach to create a continuous learning and improvement culture. A kaizen culture.

Toyota Kata in a nutshell

Toyota Kata is a structured way to create a culture of continuous learning and improvement at all levels. It is an organizations daily habits or routines forming its "muscle memory" for continuous learning and improvements. The daily habits/routines help us to strive towards our vision, or our state of awesomeness in small focused experiments.

First, we need to Understand our desired Direction

Secondly, we need to Grasp our Current Condition

Thirdly, Set the next Challenge on the desired path

Fourthly, we Run small Experiments through the unknown towards our next challenge

Then we repeat!

This is Toyota Kata in a nutshell.

In the Toyota Kata book, Mike Rother describes the continuous improvement habits, routines, behavior patterns or Katas if you will, observed at Toyota during his research. The two main Kata described in the Toyota Kata book are Mike Rother's codification of these habits, routines and behavior patterns.

Let us look at the two main Katas described in Toyota Kata, the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata.

Improvement Kata

At the heart of Toyota Kata is the Improvement Kata. The Improvement Kata forms the continuous improvement habits of the method. The Improvement Kata guides the learners, the teams, through a four-step process focused on learning and improving your way of working.

The purpose of the Improvement Kata is to learn more about the organization processes. Building the organizations understanding of how work works. With this understanding and ability to learn the organization can improve their way of working striving towards a state of awesomeness in small focused experiments.

The Improvement Kata has four stages: Understand the Direction, Grasp the Current Condition, Establish the Next Target Condition and PDCA toward the Target Condition.

Understand the Direction

"A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at" ~ Bruce Lee

Having a shared understanding of the direction of how you want to improve is important. Without a theory of what you think is better, it is very easy to get lost and just randomly make changes that will not move you in a clear direction. Having a clear and shared understanding of the direction also creates a sense of purpose for the people doing the improvement work. Without a clear purpose, people have a much harder time to get motivated.

To create a shared understanding of the direction you should set up a Vision of how work is done in an ideal state. This vision should be process focused, not outcome focused. The vision is a vision of how work is done, not a business vision. The vision should describe how your processes work when at the ideal state.

This is Toyota's long-term vision for its Production Operations

  • Zero defects
  • 100 percent value added
  • One-piece flow, in sequence, on demand
  • Security for people (No injuries)

What could a potential vision look like for a software development process? There is of cause no right and wrong and you really need to develop your own for your context. Here is one potential vision:

  • Zero defects
  • Every check-in to production
  • Highest value first, on demand
  • Motivated people

Every organization has to define its vision. You have to look at your context. What is your ideal state? What is your state of awesomeness?

Grasp the Current Condition

When you have a shared understanding of your direction, it is time to understand where you are now. You need to create a true understanding of the current condition of how you are operating. How do you really do work? Create a description of your actual processes. You should describe how you really work, not how you are supposed to work. A simple block diagram of the different steps is usually good. You should also collect process metrics that describe how your process is operating. You should also start to collect two types of metrics: process metrics and outcome metrics. Process metrics describe how your process is operating. Process metrics are typically leading indicators that indicates the outcome of the process before the fact. Output metrics on the other hand describes the outcome of the process, the result. These metrics are after the fact and is the result of how we operated the process.

Here are some examples:

Process metric

Cycle time

The period required to complete an item, or task from start to finish in one part of the process

Number of people

Number people currently working in the process


The amount of items, or tasks currently in one process step

Queue size

The amount of items, or tasks currently in a queue in the process

Iteration length, Takt time

The duration of a process cycle, at what pace/cadence the process should run


The number of defects

Outcome metric


The time to complete an item, or task from start of the process all the way to the end of the process


The number of items, or tasks completed in a period of time


The quality of the product you produce

Establish the Next Target Condition

Now that you have a clear Understanding of your Direction and of your Current Condition, it is time to describe your desired state in the near future. It is time to Establish the Next Target Condition. A Target Condition should describe how your process should operate when you are at the desired state. The focus should be on the process, not the outcome. The outcome should be the result of how you run the process. The Target Condition should be a hypothesis that takes you one-step closer to your Vision. The hypothesis should align with your theory of what is an improvement, and with your operations strategy.

You set a Target Condition by copying the Current Condition. This includes your process description, the process metrics and the output metrics. Then, based on your hypothesis you make a change that will move you a step closer to your Vision. The Target Condition should be in absolute numbers, not relative. It should be absolute clear if you have reached the Target Condition or not.

When you set a Target Condition, you define an expiration date. The expiration date is typically set one to three months out. The date should be set to create a sense of urgency that will motivate you to get going right away. Target Conditions expires. Either the expiration date is passed, or you reach the Target Condition.

The Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata has a very high focus on learning. As we learn more about how our processes work, we understand more what would be an improvement. Try to set the Target Condition just beyond your current knowledge threshold. It should force you to think outside the box. It should push you to try what you have not tried before. It should feel like putting a square peg in a round whole. Be aware of not setting a Target Condition that is too challenging, as this tends to demotivate people. Try to follow the Goldilocks rule: Not too hard, Not too easy, but Just Right.

Having a clear Target Condition is very important for effective process improvements. Toyota will usually not start their improvement work until a Target Condition is clearly defined.

PDCA toward the Target Condition

Time to start improving! We now have a shared understanding of our Current Condition, we have a defined Target Condition and when to archive it. We run small experiments, or Plan-Do-Check-Act cycles, to try to remove one obstacle at a time. We only address the obstacles that stand in the way to get to the Target Condition.

This process of running experiments is really about learning, learning how our processes work in our context. As we learn, we can adjust our theoretical model of how our processes work. As we adjust this model it will feed into our next experiment as we address the next obstacle.

Our experiments, or PDCA cycles, follows the scientific model.

First, we formulate a hypothesis based on our theoretical model. Secondly, we make an explicit and detailed predication of what we think will be the result of running the experiment. We also define the exact date and time the experiment will end. The third step is to run the experiment. As we run the experiment, we should closely observe and collect appropriate metrics to tell us how the experiment went. Forth, now it is time to compare the difference between the predication and the actual outcome of the experiment. This is the time to reflect and learn. The delta between the predication and the outcome is really our opportunity to learn. If we always get the expected result, we have not really learned anything. Based on what we have learned it is now time to adjust our theoretical model, take on the next obstacle with a new hypothesis.

We repeat this cycle until we have reached the Target Condition or the time has expired for the current Target Condition. When the Target Condition is reached or it has expired we loop back to step one of the Improvement Kata, Understand the Direction.

Doesn't sound like rocket sciences? It is not hard too intellectually understand how to do it. It may even sound as if it is too easy too really work. Intellectually understand and actually do it is two totally different ball games. You need to practice and practice too actually get it right. Toyota Kata is by design set up to give you support as you practice. The Coaching Kata provides this support.

Coaching Kata

The second and equally important part of Toyota Kata is the Coaching Kata. The Coaching Kata is supporting the Improvement Kata by helping the learners to focus on learning, improving, and pointing in the right direction. The Coaching Kata itself is primarily supporting the fourth step of the Improvement Kata, PDCA toward the Target Condition.


With the Coaching Kata the leaders of the organization should take a coaching and supporting role with the learners, the teams. The coach would be the one that is challenging the learners to take a small step beyond their current knowledge threshold, to challenge themselves.

When practicing the Improvement Kata the focus should be on one obstacle at a time. Only focus on obstacles standing in the way towards the next Target Condition. It is the role of the coach to help the learners to keep this focus.

In a full implantation, this means that there is a coaching-learner relationship throughout the whole organization on all levels. Every leader would be acting as coach for their team.

The 5 questions

The Coaching Kata 5 questions are used during the fourth step of the Improvement Kata, PDCA toward the Target Condition. For every PDCA cycle, experiment, we run to remove the obstacles that are stopping us from operating as described in the Target Condition we go through the following main questions as describes on Coaching Kata card.

Going through the question card

1. What is the Target Condition?

The purpose of the question is to reinforce the focus of where we want to move. It is a way for the coach to understand if there is an alignment of definition of the Target Condition. It is also an opportunity to understand if there is an alignment of the purpose of the Target Condition.

2. What is the Actual Condition now?

When asking this question the learners, the team, should be able to describe the how the process is currently operating. This is the same as the second step in the Improvement Kata, Grasp the Current Condition with an added focus on the current PDCA cycle. The learned should be able to show the current description of the process, the process metrics and the output metrics.

Now it is time to turn the card over. You can skip this if this is the first time you ran the Coaching Kata after you set a new Target Condition. Then skip down to question 3 below

----------------- Turn Card Over ------------------>

2.1 What was your Last Step?

With this question, we repeat what the last PDCA cycle, experiment, was. We have the opportunity to compare what we set out to do, and what we really did. If there is a difference, the coach has the opportunity to explore why we could not do what we set out to do.

2.2 What did you Expect?

We look back at what we expected would be the outcome of the last PDCA cycle, experiment. It is very easy to define what we expected after the fact. This step help us remember what we actually defined as the expectations so we can create a greater understand of what really happened.

2.3 What Actually Happened?

Now we take a real look at what really happened when we ran the last PDCA cycle, experiment. We look at the current condition. We look at what changed when we ran the last PDCA cycle, experiment. Doing this explicitly helps us learn more about how our process works.

2.4 What did you Learn?

This is probably the most significant question in the Coaching Kata, and Toyota Kata all together. Toyota Kata is about growing people, teaching people to learn how to learn. As we learn, we can use that learning to improve our processes. Do not haphazardly go through this step!

Reflecting on what we have learned and how that will feed into the next PDCA cycle is the focus of this question. We should compare what we expected would happen and what really happened. The delta between the two would be a big part of our potential learning. The bigger the delta, the bigger potential for learning. With no, or a very small delta, we are probably just late implementing the change.

With a big delta, we need take a good look at our understanding and assumptions of how things work. We need to update our theory and metal model of how things work. This can have a profound impact on our next experiments and Target Condition as we move towards our vision.

Return --------->

Time to return to the front side of the The 5 questions card

3. What Obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?
Which One are you addressing now?

We know the Actual Condition. We know our Target Condition. What obstacles do you think is standing in the way to get to the Target Condition? We are only interested in the current obstacles and only the ones preventing us to get to the Target Condition. There are many problems and obstacles that we want to remove, but we should only focus on the ones preventing us to get to the Target Condition. Why? As we are removing obstacles, some new will appear and some old will disappear. If try to fix everything we can spend a lot of time fixing things that are not really needed. We can very easily start to lose focus and direction.

After defining the current obstacles, we should select one obstacle that will get our focused attention. We focus on one obstacle at a time to make the learning of cause and effect easier.

Start addressing the obstacles that you have control over first. It is recommended to take on the easy and small obstacles first. By removing the easy and small ones that you have control over, you get some quick wins. Quick wins increase motivation and creates room to spend more time on the bigger obstacles. As we move forward, some of the big obstacles are no longer preventing you from reaching the Target Condition.

4. What is your Next Step (next PDCA/experiment)? What do you Expect?

You have identified the next obstacle to work on. Now it is time to formulate a hypothesis of that is causing the obstacle. When you have a hypothesis, you should design an experiment to try to remove the obstacle.

When you have an experiment defined, you should also as explicitly as possible describe what you expect will happen when the experiment is run. Spending some time at this step will really help you when you will evaluate what you learned from the experiment. It is very easy to skip over this part. If you do you will most often lose some valuable learning.

5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

This question has two main parts:

When. By defining a specific time when it is time to go through the next cycle we create a clear understanding when we are supposed to be done with the next cycle. To get the most out of the Improvement Kata you should favor smaller and shorter PDCA cycles, experiments. If you can ran at least one cycle a day or even more than one cycle per day you will get the most out of Improvement Kata.

Go and see what we have learned. Go and see for yourself where the work is really done is an important part of Lean Thinking. When we run the Improvement Kata we should do it where the work is done. Not in a conference room separated from the actual work. We should also focus on the learning, not the actual results. If you focus on the learning, the results will follow. If you focus on the results, it is easy to start cut corners to get the short-term results. This in not what the Toyota Kata and Lean Thinking is about. It is about developing people and looking at the long-term sustainable results.


Toyota Kata is a structured and focused approach to create a continuous learning and improvement culture. The improvement Kata and Coaching creates organizational "muscle memory" for continuous improvements. The two Kata will give your organization familiar routines, as you probe through the unknown, striving for your state of awesomeness.

What to learn more

Here are some useful links to more information about Toyota Kata.

What is a Kata?

Kata means pattern, routine, habits or way of doing things. Kata is about creating a fast "muscle memory" of how to take action instantaneously in a situation without having to go through a slower logical procedure. A Kata is something that you practice over and over striving for perfection. In the book "Managing Flow", Ikujiro Nonaka describes Kata as a traditional Japanese code of knowledge that describes a process of synthesizing thought and behavior in skillful action; the metacognition of reflection in action. If the Kata itself is relative static, the content of the Kata, as we execute it is modified based on the situation and context in real-time as it happens. Nonaka also describes Kata as different from a routine in that it contains a continuous self-renewal process.

Kata is not to blindly copy some else method, but to improve on it in an evolutionary way. You learn and evolve a Kata through the three stages of the learning cycle Shu (learn), Ha (break) and Ri (create). In the first stage Shu, you learn by following the teacher. You imitate the teacher's practices, values and thinking. You will only move on to the next stage when you have made the teacher's Kata your own. In the Ha stage, you break from the teacher's practices and make modifications based on your own creativity. In the Ri stage, you leave the teacher and you start creating your own unique Kata. As you expand your knowledge into new areas, you will loop back to the Shu stage for those areas in an ever-growing spiral of knowledge.

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This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Methods & Tools

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