Toyota Kata: 5 questions to engage your work teams

toyota kata

In lean management, Toyota Kata refers to two linked behaviors: ‘improvement kata’ (for the learner) and ‘coaching kata’ (for the coach).

‘Kata’ typically refers to fundamental moves in Japanese martial arts, specifically patterns or routines, like learning a dance step by breaking it into pieces and practicing each piece until it is mastered. Just as mastering the musical scales is only a prelude to learning to play an instrument, the kata is the foundational structure for learning to apply the underlying thinking patterns until it has become a habit. In this blog, we’ll focus on coaching kata, for the coach.


Embedding kata into your daily work

Whenever you’re learning a new skill, you will progress through three levels of competence:

  • Aware of it
  • Able to do it
  • Able to teach it

Before you start coaching, you need to be able to competently do the improvement kata yourself. Once you’ve learned the improvement kata, the coaching kata develops your skill as a manager for teaching the scientific working pattern of the improvement kata in everyday work.  The ultimate goal is to embed the improvement kata into the daily work of managers, who are the day-to-day teachers by default in any organization.

As a manager you are the primary player on the ground that creates and perpetuates your organization’s culture. What you say and do every day should be reinforcing the desired way of operating. So if you are applying the Toyota Kata as an improvement tool, it is critical that you are reflecting on your thinking patterns as much (or more) than you are reflecting on your improvements. It might seem tedious at first, but it is there to build a foundation.


The five coaching questions

Mike Rother, author of Toyota Kata, has done an admirable job in creating the right approach for a coaching conversation. Based on research on how Toyota manages people, he has formulated Five Coaching Kata questions to establish dialogue. The questions are:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step? What do you expect?
  5. When can we go and see what we have learnt from taking that step?

DOWNLOAD the infographic The 5 Coaching Kata Questions, to either use as a poster or reminder when conducting coaching sessions or gemba walks.

These questions are the foundation of the coaching kata. They build upon one another and the better defined the answer to question one is, the better the ability to respond to question two, etc. It’s important to take one step at a time with the emphasis on working towards the next step. Again, by practicing the questions in a sequential way, it becomes a routine to learn improvement. The five questions apply in any situation, whether you are at senior management level or at the level of individual work processes.

The following video, developed in collaboration between Merck and The University of Michigan, demonstrates the pattern that gets practiced in daily coaching conversations in the workplace. It’s a must-view to really understand the scientific process that the improvement kata and coaching kata is all about.

The Toyota Kata is a useful way to practice and teach sustained continuous improvement habits to navigate unknown territory throughout every level of your organization. Coaching the improvement kata can also help develop your team’s bench strength for achieving challenging goals. And the more you and your team develop skill and confidence in the improvement kata pattern, the more challenges you can take on, and the faster your organization can move ahead.

The Five Coaching Kata questions form an important part of the gemba walk process. DOWNLOAD: How To Guide: Gemba Walks for Executive Leadership for a deeper insight into this crucial lean management practice.