By John Ayers
Sometimes learning something new and valuable first requires unlearning comfortable routines. Old dogs stumbling through new tricks often would do well to discard the old repertoire in order to gain the agility to do the new one effectively.
Mike Rother’s compelling book, Toyota Kata  (McGraw Hill, 2010), provides a roadmap for us old dogs.
Rother knows me too well. As a longtime non-profit manager, I am content with my routine for improving work processes. As the wise manager, I think hard and describe the problem we are confronting as clearly as I can, then lead a brainstorming session with the folks in the organization affected by the problematic process, and we democratically create a long action-item list of possible solutions, often with “stretch” goals in the mix.
Then it becomes my job as the seasoned manager to pick from this list of a dozen or more ideas, and as the hero leader I try to eloquently paint a picture of the desired future state of affairs that my careful choice will address in a targeted way. Everybody under me hops to the work of making that solution work. Sometimes we work on two items at once. We measure stuff, to be sure, but those measures become the frosting on the cake of our impending success. They simply serve to prove the wise manager right. The data is delivered to my office on a plate. “This is going to work!” we exhort one another. And, if the behavior change required is not too elaborate, sometimes a small change takes place, but just as often it returns to the old failed state in little or no time. We shrug, “Well, that didn’t work. Good try, though.” And often we simply go back to the trusty brainstorm list and pick another approach to try, and we repeat. Or we give up altogether — defeated by entropy and erosion.
Rother skewers this established sequence as standard operating procedures in most organizations, and then contrasts it to the way Toyota works. He also critiques the way Americans have mistakenly interpreted Toyota’s remarkable success in regularly updating processes and improving productivity. Hindered by our incessant list making, scattershot improvements, and ineffective and opinion-based judgment calls, we altogether miss the Toyota story.
Toyota works because of the way they embed the improvement kata in the daily life of the organization. By kata, he is referring to a Japanese word meaning, “style” or “way.” It is a pattern of thinking, a collection of careful routines practiced over and over. Kata is not easy to teach; in fact, the company has grown a remarkable coaching kata to inculcate the whole organization to use this approach. Thus it is not an idea described easily or to be found in any Toyota production manual, and thus the business professors and consultants pouring over Toyota plants have pretty much missed its power for over 20 years.
Rother claims it is far bigger than any tool or technique. It is universal and applicable in many settings — and that might include the reform of classroom practice in public education, the transformation of mathematics education, or any number of educational problems, as well as the management of a small, research-centered operating foundation, like Carnegie.
The improvement kata is a behavior pattern, a way of thinking and acting that is not visible but crucial. Rother does not eschew those big “stretch” goals managers love so. Indeed, he focuses on even bigger, frequently vaguer or seemingly unattainable goals — ones that might extend out 10, 20, or 50 years. He strongly endorses the careful articulation of target conditions, which are milestones on the road to the great goal, but closer, clearer and attainable in perhaps a few months or a year.
Then he advocates rapidly deployed experiments using the scientific method writ small. The method is called PDCA cycles – where the team Plans an intervention (the hypothesis), Does it, Checks the results (or Studies it, for those who prefer the moniker PDSA cycles, as Carnegie does), and then Acts again to learn more by utilizing a slightly different test of change.
It is by keeping these PDCA cycles surprisingly small and limited in scope that the useful learning takes place. Rother makes compelling arguments for this Lilliputian approach because it allows the experiment to catch “interaction effects,” or unanticipated change that occurs within the organization when the team collectively bites off more than it can chew. Push on a system one place and it causes change in another place — that is the essence of a system. Push it in many places and it is impossible to learn what is happening and why.
Rother also urges managers to get out of the comfort of their office to “go and see” the process being altered. This is more than “management by walking around” — it is a focused look at the work, armed with a good set of questions. He is a continuous improvement advocate, so he certainly doesn’t disdain data. He just argues against managers who sit in their offices and think of themselves as management scientists when the data is delivered by underlings in a way that is designed merely to make the manager look smart.
Measurements are part of the PDCA cycle, but numbers do not define it. If the reader can really “get” PDCA cycles, then you will understand the kata and you stand a chance of moving the organization systemically toward a state of permanent and effective improvement.