by Brian Lagas, Technical Manager, NIST MEP

“Why are our changeovers taking so long?” If you’ve asked this question on the shop floor, more than likely you were met with blank stares by your employees. Open-ended questions like this are overwhelming, so employees try to find quick answers that don’t really address the problem. They don’t have a starting point to form an answer.

But what if you asked a question with a specific, achievable goal? “What steps can we take to reduce changeover time by 15 minutes?” You’ve then provided your employees with a measurable goal in the form of a question. Your workers may feel empowered to answer with some hands-on suggestions for incremental changes, such as reducing setup steps or combining workstations. This in turn could not only reduce changeover time, but significantly eliminate wait times and inventories.

NWIRC’s Tom Weible (right) working with SEPCO’s Paul Brown, on the challenge to decrease equipment set-up time using Improvement Kata.

This approach is often described as Kaizen, or “continuous improvement,” which serves as the backbone for lean manufacturing. Kaizen uses the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) problem-solving cycle to encourage manufacturers to use small ideas to solve big problems, such as costly, time-intensive changeovers. These methodologies are the building blocks of Toyota Kata, an innovative, lean way of thinking described in the book by Mike Rother, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. In essence, Toyota Kata goes beyond problem-solving to teach management, engineers, and operators a new mindset to develop their creative and scientific-thinking skills to make them more effective, lean manufacturers. This approach looks at lean manufacturing as a culture, rather than a single process.

With the world of manufacturing evolving at a breathtaking pace thanks to developments such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), labor skill gaps, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Toyota Kata gives smaller manufacturers a lean strategy to help them grow with these developments. It empowers employees with the skills they can use to continuously improve, adapt, and generate ideas for a strategic, competitive advantage.

While smaller manufacturers may not have the level of strategic resources like the behemoth Toyota, they can apply the same methodologies of Toyota Kata, including:


  • Developing new habits and allowing people to think differently about problems and goals
  • A way of working, and of working together
  • Using scientific thinking as an ingredient to make teams and organizations more effective and successful
  • Developing a culture of continuous learning and improvement at all levels through deliberate practice


Implementation of Toyota Kata begins with the aptly-named Starter Kata. Starter Kata focuses on small protocols and processes that, when practiced early and often, help manufacturing employees learn faster and teaches them to work more collaboratively. The two main elements of Starter Kata are Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata.

The Improvement and Coaching Kata help employees 1) understand the direction or challenge; 2) grasp the current condition; 3) establish the next target condition; and 4) experiment toward the target condition. By integrating Toyota Kata as part of your manufacturing best practices, your employees can successfully overcome obstacles and develop more confidence and scientific thinking to solve problems.

Brian Lagas manages NIST MEP’s Continuous Improvement, Toyota Kata, Sustainability, and Export initiatives. This article is an abbreviated version of the original that appeared on the Manufacturing Innovation Blog at

Side Note: NWIRC will offer a Introduction to Improvement Kata session in Dubois on August 13 from 9:00-11:00am. There is no charge for the session and the facilitator is NWIRC’s Tom Weible, a TWI Certified Instructor. More details at