Kata: a tool or a new way of thinking?

I introduced the improvement and coaching kata in a previous blog. The kata practice is not another instrument to pull right out of the box. It is about a structural change in your way of thinking and doing. The purpose behind kata is to grow scientific thinking capabilities in your organization in order to keep improving continuously. 

Our brain has a tendency to fill in the gaps when offered information or a problem. This can be helpful in certain situations, but there are also times when it is not helpful at all. For instance when you encounter a new problem with unknown causes, when the situation keeps changing and when our idea of reality does not match actual reality jumping to conclusions will take you down the wrong path. No project or day goes exactly as planned. So training yourself to deal effectively with the unexpected will help you to keep moving towards improvements. 

The learning zone

By practicing your brain to keep thinking with an open mind you will over time become more effective at solving problems and taking opportunities for improvement. Like any new skill this way of thinking and doing takes time, practice, humility and endurance to master. This way of thinking is called scientific thinking.

The importance of scientific thinking

According to Mike Rother scientific thinking is a process of deliberately engaging reality with the intent of learning. By continuously predicting what will happen, seeing what actually happens and adjust our understanding and actions based on what we learn from comparing prediction with reality we iterate our way forward. Because we tend to jump to conclusions this way of thinking and doing will feel awkward at first. Think of it like learning how to ride a bike or learning a new skill. You are not immediately good at it. You need to practice to get the new habits in your system. The same applies to scientific thinking. This means that while you are learning you are not only looking at how what you are doing, but also how you are doing it. Kata is about developing new thinking habits as a way to develop solutions.

The four steps in kata

So what is the improvement kata like. It consists of four steps. 

Kata steps

Source the lean thinker

Steps one, two and three are the planning phase:

  1.  Here you answer the question what is the purpose of your improvement. This should be a longer range goal. Typically you will not yet know how to get there. Reaching this goal will take several iterations. 
  2.  This is about understanding your current situation. You are still in the study and not doing phase. You go to the gemba, collect data and so on.
  3. Here you decide what should be your next current state. You need an achieve-by date, a measurable outcome metric relating to the performance of your process and a verifiable description of the next current state. 

Step four is the phase where you start executing your iteration. You work on the obstacles that distract your from your next current state. 

How do you get started?

The steps look easy enough, but when you think of your daily activities how often do you really take the time to do this without jumping to conclusions? You need to make a habit of this new way of thinking in your organization by looking at the following things: 

  • Every learner needs a coach. Coaches to be should have personal experience in the improvement kata so they are able to evaluate and give feedback on a meta level (how instead of what).
  • The manager becomes the coach. The coaching role is a normal part of management work. If management is not yet familiar with the improvement kata and/or not yet proficient in coaching you need someone to coach them as well. This can be someone from outside, but it can also be an internal person. If no one with the right skills in coaching the coach and the learner is available you may rotate roles during the coaching cycle. This helps in keeping an overview on the process.
  • Implement daily coaching cycles. Coaching takes 20 minutes a day everyday in a one on one setting. This means that the day of both the learner and the coach changes immediately. The time is needed to make sure progress is made and learning is immediate. It also ensures that continuous improvement becomes a normal part of your job and the managers job. This will meet resistance at first, but learning new habits takes practice and effort. So this is not negotiable. Without this commitment getting out the cards with the kata questions will not help you. 
  • Start small. The purpose is to learn a new habit of thinking, not to improve the world in one day. By choosing an easy to grasp process and a smaller problem you can free up your mind to really focus on the thinking routines instead of the complexities of the subject at hand. It is like riding a bike with training wheels. You need the wheels at first to keep yourself on the bike.
  • Keep a learner's mindset for the how and the what of your improvement. Learning a new skill will mean getting it wrong sometimes (a lot of the time). In kata the measure of success is improvement and learning. So when you do not reach your goal, but have learned from it it is still considered good progress. 

I will get into the role and starter kata of both coach and learner in next blogs. But for now it is very important that you are willing to put the time and effort needed to learn this new thinking habits. Like learning a new sport or skill it takes time, practice and you will make some mistakes. But it will be worth it. 

If you want you can test your knowledge on the improvement and coaching kata in this quiz

Infographic coaching kata



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