In fitness, there’s nothing complicated about a push-up. But when executed properly, it’s an outstanding exercise that strengths your arms, chest, and core muscles. Adjustments can be made to increase or decrease the level of difficulty, so it is a useful training tool regardless of your fitness level. However, if you fail to use proper form and end up with your butt in the air or an incomplete range of motion, push-ups are not helpful at all. The way you do it really matters.
The same is true for Kaizen. Just like we’d all love to be strong and fit, every organization would love to maximize positive change. But not all teams that attempt continuous improvement succeed, often as a result of poor “form.” Improvement kata is the answer.
In Japanese, the word kata literally means "form." A kata typically refers to basic movements in Japanese martial arts but can apply to any basic form, routine, or pattern of behavior. In business, improvement kata brings form to process improvement by structuring the way people think about problem-solving and engage in change.
The kata process has four steps.
Understand the Direction
Kaizen does not happen in a vacuum. For improvement to be effective, organizations need a shared vision for success. That way, change can be aligned with the strategic priorities of the organization. Tools like Hoshin planning are helpful for establishing the direction. When the vision is clear, today’s challenges can be examined in light of the bigger picture.
Grasp the Current Condition
When you have a shared understanding of the direction, you are ready to get specific about where you stand now. Processes experiencing problems or those otherwise targeted for improvement should be fully documented. This includes collecting two types of metrics, process metrics, and outcome metrics. Process metrics describe how your process is functioning. They are leading indicators that might consist of things like cycle time, queue size, and defects. Output metrics deal with the result of the process, including measures such as throughput cost, and quality.
This is a step that often gets skipped. Our brains tend to jump from problem to solution in a reactive, “fight or flight,” kind of way. That’s what the kata is intended to short circuit. Just like full extension on an exercise, fully understanding the current condition is necessary for effective improvement.
Establish the Next Target Condition
Like in martial arts, kata is meant to be repeated. You probably won’t get from your current condition to the vision in one step. Instead, you will define and achieve one new target condition after the next until the process is perfected. So, think about what you see as a target condition that gets you one step closer to the vision. It is the process that should be targeted, not the result.
Determine the Solution
At this stage, the PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Adjust) experiment with possible solutions. The approach is scientific. First, you generate a hypothesis about what change will bring you closer to the target condition. Next, the team predicts what they think will be the result of implementing this change. Then it is time to run the experiment, carefully observing and collecting relevant metrics. Finally, the results can be analyzed to see if the prediction became a reality. If there is a difference between what was expected and what occurred, it is an opportunity to learn more about the process. If the expected result is achieved, it is time to take on the next obstacle.
Beyond the four steps, another critical feature of improvement kata is coaching. Just like the trainer in the gym points out when your form needs improvement and presses you to push further beyond your current abilities, a kata coach supports learners by ensuring that the kata is practiced correctly each time. Coaches often ask the following questions:
- What is the target condition?
- What is the actual condition now?
- What obstacles do you think are preventing you from achieving the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
- What is your next step? What do you expect as the result?
- When will we see what we have learned from that step?
When these questions are asked consistently, team members begin to think this way automatically. Kata becomes a habit, and the coach’s expectations are clear.
In the gym, it takes a while and some help to master the correct form for every exercise, but once you do, you build strength, flexibility, and confidence. The same is true for improvement kata. The more your team practices, the better they will get at thinking scientifically and taking calculated risks to reach the target condition. Once improvement kata becomes the standard practice, there’s no limit to what your team can achieve.