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Improvement Kata

It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.

– Winston Churchill

Earlier, when discussing how to engage and lead people with respect, I described the coaching kata, a process that helps managers teach employees to approach performance improvement scientifically. The key is to help workers focus on a target condition and the steps to get there, by running what are effectively experiments in a PDCA cycle. This approach, known as improvement kata, teaches workers to adapt to changing conditions and to overcome unforeseen obstacles when trying to reach the target condition.

As with coaching kata, the first step of improvement kata is to set a target condition. The target condition is different than a goal in that it is the ultimate condition, i.e., what has to occur for the process to be successful. For example, if the customer demand is ten units each day, then that is the target condition. A goal—to produce six units, for example—may be a great improvement, but it might not achieve what the customer needs.

The kata method is based on moving forward one step at a time using small experiments, creating rapid, small improvements or rapid, small failures. You start by knowing what the actual condition (current state) is. Once you have the actual and target conditions, you observe the process and identify what obstacles are preventing you from achieving the target condition. These may be training, equipment, technology, human talent, facility, and so forth. Do not spend too much time prioritizing obstacles or attempting to gauge the relative impact of the obstacles.

From your list of obstacles, identify one that can potentially be improved, and run an experiment. What is the result? What have you learned? And what is the next step? The next step can be another small experiment building on the success or failure of the current experiment, or it can be more analysis of the current experiment. They key is to simply keep moving forward toward the target condition with rapid experiments.

Note how different the kata method is from traditional improvement projects. Traditional improvement projects create a detailed action plan, with every step of the march toward the goal mapped out. With improvement kata, the end point is the ultimate target condition and instead of worrying about all the steps of the plan, only the next obstacle is acted on. This can turn traditional project planning on its head, but the rapid experiments create ongoing forward movement and, perhaps most importantly, lots of new knowledge.