Remember the time when you first started to learn to ride a bicycle or started to learn to type on the keyboard. Every time you practiced the skill, you improved the skill and you did it subconsciously. Taking driving as an example, you would have to think consciously when you first started to drive. But as you improved, you did not have to pull brakes consciously when a speed breaker came ahead and you could dedicate more time navigating the way. The author of Toyota Kata, Mike Rother provides an effective definition for Kata. He says that Kata practices routines that help the person build skills and different ways of thinking. Using the improvement kata method, the team members and leaders practice a kata routine which helps the team to find ways to solve problems. The book Toyota Kata consists of experimentation which takes a complex goal and breaks it down into intermediate and smaller targets. The basic idea of improving kata is practicing a new skill or method to develop a product and constantly practicing it and improving it until it becomes a habit.
What is Improvement Kata?
Improvement Kata is a technique used by organizations to develop complex products where the team leaders and members practice their abilities to solve the problem and build the product. It is a set of practices which is outlined in the book Toyota Kata where complex goals are broken down into smaller tasks that are easier and immediate to achieve. Improvement Kata has a four-part model which approaches any problem in a directed and more creative way.
The four-part model employed are:
- Understanding the challenge or direction
- Grasping the present condition
- Defining the target destination
- Iteratively moving towards the target shows the obstacles that have to be overcome.
As the team understands the product requirements better, they develop more ideas for the project. This technique is designed for those teams who do not have a clear destination and have to discover their target as they develop and deliver the product. Improvement kata helps the organization to find unique solutions by understanding the problem better. Every step in the improvement of the kata has a starter kata which makes the pattern teachable and actionable.
Four-Part Model of Improvement Kata
1. Understanding The Direction
Any product development requires a clear direction of where the organization and customers want the product to reach. It does not matter if the team does not have a particular detailed goal as they have to discover it along the way. However, before the product development begins, the team has to know the purpose of the product and the direction in which the team has to work. When a team has a shared understanding of what work they are handling and the purpose of their work, they are more productive and motivated to work for the project. It is very easy to make many changes according to the market changes and fluctuations. However, when the team knows which features would be better for their product based on the purpose of the product, things would get clearer and simpler.
For the team to create a better sense of understanding the direction, a vision of how work should be performed in an ideal state should be explained. This vision should focus on the details of the process of development and not specifically on the outcome of the product. This vision is different from the business vision as the former is process-centered and the latter is revenue and income-centered.
Here are examples of Toyota’s long term vision for its Production Operations:
- Hundred percent value-added
- No injuries and security for people
- On-demand and in sequence one-piece flow
- Nil Defects
2. Grasping the present condition
After you have understood which direction to head towards, it is very important to know where you presently stand in terms of your process of product development. One simple method of going forward with this step is to create a description of the actual processes and listing out what the team is working on. This description is not about how the team is supposed to work, it is more of a reflection of what is the work process that is presently going on. A flow chart or a block diagram is often quite helpful to outline the work done by the team. This step also involves collecting two types of metrics- process metrics, which help the team understand how the process is operating, and outcome metrics, which show the results of the process.
Some of the examples for Process metrics are:
- Cycle time: This is the time taken by the team to complete a task or an item from beginning to end.
- The number of people working in the process.
- The number of tasks or items which are presently running in the current process.
- The size of the queue refers to the number of items that are in the queue and to be completed.
- The length of the iteration refers to the duration of the process of development.
- Defects are present in the process.
Some of the examples for Outcome metrics are:
- Quality: The quality of the product produced by the team.
- Throughput: The number of items that are completed in a given amount of time.
- Lead time: The duration taken by the team to complete a task or item from the start of the process to the end of the process.
3. Establishing the next target condition
After understanding the direction and current condition of the process, the team has to decide where the organization should stand shortly. This desired state which the team has to achieve is called target condition which has to explain how the process should operate in an ideal state. The entire focus should be on the process of development and not on the outcome. The result or the outcome is the end product of how the team runs the process. The target condition acts as a hypothesis or a vision that takes the person closer to the vision of the product. The target condition should be in absolute numbers and should not be relative. After looking at the target condition, the person should understand whether the team has achieved it or not. Along with the target condition, comes an expiration date which is about one to three months. This date should create a deadline and sense of urgency so that everyone works hard towards achieving the goal and feel motivated to work. Deadlines are very important in achieving the desired target as without them the team may not achieve their desired goals.
The target condition is usually set such that it is beyond the current knowledge threshold. It should force the team to think outside the box and encourage them to try whatever they have not tried before. However, you should not set a target condition that is too challenging and which cannot be achieved by the team. This demotivates people as they already know that they cannot achieve it before they begin their development process. The target condition should be not too easy, not too hard, but just right. Hence, having a target condition would make a significant difference in the productivity of the team.
4. Moving towards the target condition Iteratively
Now that you have set the target condition, it is time to work on it iteratively. This means that the team can do small experiments and see what works for them the best. The team designs a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle which helps in removing one obstacle at a time. The time spent in running experiments is the time the team spends learning about the process and how it works in their context. They understand their theoretical model of work and practically implement them in their development process. The PDCA cycles follow a scientific model which is as follows:
- Step 1: Formulating a hypothesis based on the theoretical model.
- Step 2: The team makes a detailed prediction of what they think the outcome or the result of the experiment would be. And also defining an exact date on which the experiment would end.
- Step 3: Running the experiment and closely noticing the metrics and collecting them to formulate how the experiment went.
- Step 4: Comparing the actual result and the predicted result and understanding their difference. This creates an opportunity to learn and reflect on how the process has to proceed in the next experiment or outcome.
This cycle is continued till the team achieves the target condition or reaches the deadline on which the target has to be completed. And once the team has completed the target, they go back to the first step of improvement kata where they understand the direction of the process.
What are the advantages of Improvement Kata?
With the advent of many product development methodologies and the complex problems that it aims to solve, improvement kata proves to be an efficient, goal-oriented, and scientific method of approaching the process of development. This technique helps the person to master the challenges and has various other advantages as listed below:
- The team is focused on a single goal as they share a common definition of success and aim towards achieving the same goal. This helps them to communicate and collaborate and give their best to achieve their objective.
- The team has a sense of ownership of the project which helps them to strengthen their commitment and vision and encourages them to make decisions that are best for the process.
- With experimentation, the team tries out various methods and finds out whichever works for them. This encourages the team to see uncertainty as a tool that can take them to their final goal.
- The team does not fear making mistakes as they know this is a trial and error basis of learning. This helps them to learn better and not repeat the mistakes which they previously would have made.
- The time, energy, and resources wasted on activities that do not contribute to the solution could be significantly lowered. This helps the developers and managers to focus on only those features that can be completed in the given time. This would be analyzed by looking at the previous performance of the development team.
What are the differences and similarities between Agile and Improvement Kata?
Agile Methodology has many frameworks that may have a resemblance to improvement kata. One of the most used frameworks is Lean which compliments the use of Improvement Kata. Lean is the process that has to be implemented and Kata is the method or technique practiced. Hence, Toyota used the kata technique to implement lean in its system and became successful in its product development and delivery. There are major differences between Lean and Kata where kata is a group of habits that is targeted at a personal level and lean helps organizations or teams to improve their process.
A kata could be used in Agile environments as it promotes learning through experimentation and continuous improvement which is quite similar to Agile. Kata just like Agile can be used for understanding and handling problems that are uncertain and helps the Scrum or Agile team to face the challenges and obstacles without fear. Hence, Improvement Kata is a method that could be used in various aspects of product development including that of Agile, Scrum, and Lean. Once the Agile process is established, the team uses kata techniques to focus on optimizing it and being as efficient and fast as possible.
Examples of Improvement Kata
Suppose you are building a service-based platform by keeping a specific idea in mind, but you are not sure that it would work. Then rather than planning the entire product platform from scratch and developing it in detail, you could pick up some features of the product which would bring the most value for your targeted audience. This feature should help the product come closer to the envisioned system and should deliver some value to the users. There would be numerous unknowns as there is no particular structure of development. However, one could work on the product based on different ideas, results from experimentation, feedback from the customers, etc. After reevaluating a target condition, the team would have enough data to develop new features which would help the target audience.
Improvement Kata is a technique employed in the book Toyota Kata which helped Toyota become productive and effective and reach the milestone which it is presently achieved. Improvement Kata is a goal-oriented and scientific process through which the teams can achieve SMART goals and reach their vision for their product. When employees implement this technique, they feel motivated as there is a particular structure to approach in the development process. This technique also gives the freedom to experiment on various methods during the process and makes use of uncertainty as a vehicle towards success. One of the major benefits of improving kata is that it uses the limited resources to their maximum level and minimizes waste. Teams can also track their progress using process and outcome metrics which makes it much easier during the planning of the target condition. Using improvement kata, organizations become efficient and productive and create an environment of innovation.