On improvement kata

In martial arts, a kata is “a routine you practice deliberately, so its pattern becomes a habit.” Kata it’s a way of transferring skills and developing the mindset, helping in the translation of concepts into practical reality.        

For sure kata sounds familiar for martial arts enthusiasts but what is Improvement Kata?

The Improvement Kata, as explained by Mike Rother, is a general-purpose framework and a set of practice routines for reaching goals where the path to the goal is uncertain. It requires us to proceed by iterative, incremental steps, using very rapid cycles of experimentation.

This model is described in the Toyota Kata book. The author emphasizes that there aren’t the solutions themselves that provide sustained competitive advantage and long-term survival, but the degree to which an organization has mastered an effective routine for developing fitting solutions again and again, along with unpredictable paths. This requires teaching the skills behind the solution.

For a successful implementation, the Improvement Kata needs to be first adopted by the organization’s management, because it is a management philosophy that focuses on developing the capabilities of those they manage, as well as on enabling the organization to move towards its goals under conditions of uncertainty.

Each organization wants to make continuous improvement a habit so that when faced with an environment in which the path to own goal is uncertain, we have an instinctive, unconscious routine to guide our behaviour.

What does each step in the above diagram represent?

1) Direction or Challenge -> Is derived from the vision set by the organization’s leadership. A good vision is one that is inspiring—and, potentially, unattainable in practice.

2) Grasp the Current Condition -> After we have understood the direction at the organizational and value stream levels, we incrementally and iteratively move towards it at the process level. Rother recommends setting target conditions with a horizon between one week and three months out, with a preference for shorter horizons for beginners.

For teams that are using iterative, incremental methods to perform product development, it makes sense to use the same iteration (or sprint) boundaries for both product development and Improvement Kata iterations. As with alliterative product development methods, Improvement Kata iterations involve a planning part and an execution part. Here, planning involves grasping the current condition at the process level and setting a target condition that we aim to achieve by the end of the next iteration.

3) Establish the Next Target Condition -> A target condition identifies the process being addressed, sets the date by which we aim to achieve the specified condition, and specifies measurable details of the process as we want it to exist. Examples of target conditions include WIP (work in progress) limits, the implementation of Kanban or a continuous integration process, the number of good builds we expect to get per day, and so forth.

4) Iterate Toward the Target Condition -> Since we are engaging in process innovation in conditions of uncertainty, we cannot know in advance how we will achieve the target condition. It’s up to the people doing the work to run a series of experiments using the Deming cycle (plan, do, check, act).

The Take-Away

“If you go through the Improvement Kata process you’ll get to where you need to get to. And the more times you do it the better you will get at it.” (Jim Huntziger)

Following the Improvement Kata model increases the capabilities and skills of the people doing the work because it requires them to solve their own problems through a process of continuous experimentation, thus forming an integral part of any learning organization.

Having difficulties embracing Improvement Kata in your organization?

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