by Mike Rother, Engineer, Researcher, Teacher, and Author

Lean training seemed fairly straightforward in the 1990s, as it focused on tools and general concepts. But deeper study of Toyota showed us that its visible tools and practices are built on an invisible, scientific way of thinking. At Toyota, you get challenging goals and you experiment your way toward them—adding to knowledge as you take steps—instead of trying to decide your way to them. That’s a way of thinking and acting you have to learn, because it does not come naturally to humans. The default way we think about problems often involves jumping to conclusions—not scientific thinking—because the brain doesn’t like uncertainty. The unconscious part of our brain takes bits of surface information, quickly extrapolates to fill in blanks, and gives us a false sense of confidence. And then we start making costly mistakes. However… we do have the power to change our thinking.

Deliberate Practice to Change Habits

Changing mindset involves weaving new neural pathways, by practicing a new way, which over time replaces old pathways. Want to lose weight? Practice new patterns of eating and exercise. This raises the bar on educating ourselves to think more scientifically, since books, seminars or workshops alone probably won’t change our habits. There are many practice guides for learning how to play music, cook, paint, play a sport, play chess, and countless other pursuits, yet surprisingly few for the useful skill of scientific thinking. The new Toyota Kata Practice Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2017) aims to change this.

Some Ingredients

We have a pretty good idea of what does work for changing habits of mind—daily practice sessions of some new routines, in the real workplace, with corrective feedback from a coach. Every time you think or do something you’re more likely to do it again.

First, we’ll need some model of scientific thinking, in components or steps that can be taught one by one. Second, there should be a coach who can provide corrective feedback to the learner, so the learner practices and internalizes the right new patterns. Finally, we need some specific routines to practice, especially for beginners. These ingredients are exactly what the Toyota Kata Practice Guide provides.

1. The Improvement Kata is a four-step scientific pattern that learners follow to experiment their way through obstacles and achieve tough goals.

2. The Coaching Kata is a pattern for teaching the Improvement Kata. It helps coaches practice sensing how the learner is thinking and giving effective feedback, in daily interactions called “coaching cycles.”

3. But wait, there’s more. There are small, specific practice routines—called Starter Kata— for each step of the Improvement Kata. This is where beginners start and is an entryway to developing new skills and changing your mindset.

Starter Kata Help Us Build New Habits

Practicing kata has been utilized for centuries as a way of preserving effective skillsets, transmitting them from person to person, and building effective teamwork. The goal is to master each Starter Kata’s fundamental pattern so you can then build on and adapt it under a variety of circumstances as a reflex, with little thought or hesitation. Starter Kata are like a beginner musician practicing a musical scale. That’s their role. You don’t stick with playing a musical scale forever, you build on what you learned from practicing it. And the next learner who comes along then begins with the same Starter Kata. This is particularly useful if you want to build a shared way of thinking and acting—a deliberate culture—in a team or organization, because everyone begins with the same basics.

Ultimately, though, kata are not the important thing. What is important are the skills and mindset that practicing them imparts, which you and your organization can use to achieve your particular goals.

Mike Rother is an engineer, researcher, and teacher. He’s the author of several books, including Toyota Kata, The Toyota Kata Practice Guide, Toyota Kata Culture, and Learning to See.


Side Note: Mike Rother will present at the Improvement Kata Workshop and Luncheon scheduled in Erie on December 7th from 10:00am-1:45pm at the Bel Aire Clarion Conference Center. Seating is limited and the cost is $65. While in our region, Rother will also present a free program to educators, Kata in the Classroom (KiC), for participants to practice Kata exercises and learn how to share with their classroom or group. KiC programs are scheduled in Meadville on Dec 6 and Erie on Dec 7th. See for details on all of these programs.