GA 004 | Leveraging the Toyota Kata Approach to Learning & Coaching with Michael Lombard

By Ron Pereira Updated on June 16th, 2021

During this podcast Michael Lombard and I explore the Toyota Kata topic.

Michael, a long time lean thinker, is the Director of Operational Excellence at a major hospital here in the Dallas Fort Worth area.

Specifically, during this show, we talk about how Michael’s hospital leverages the Toyota Kata approach to learning and coaching and how it’s made an incredibly positive impact.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Michael’s favorite quote… think Aristotle!
  • What the Toyota Kata is all about
  • The differences between the Improvement & Coaching Kata
  • How Michael and his team have leveraged this new way of learning
  • How to get started learning about the Toyota Kata
  • Michael’s excellent responses to our Quick Fire segment!

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Full Transcript

Announcer:  You’re listening to episode 4 with Michael Lombard.

[background music]

Announcer:  Welcome to the Gemba Academy podcast… the show that’s focused on helping individuals and companies achieve breakthrough results using the same continuous improvement principles leveraged by companies such as Toyota, Del Monte, and the US Department of Defense.  And now, here’s your host, Ron Pereira.

Ron Pereira:  Hey there, this is Ron Pereira with Gemba Academy and I’d like to welcome you to this episode of the podcast.  And first of all, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to listen to the show.

And I also wanted to say thank you to everyone that’s gone over to iTunes and left us some really nice 5 star reviews.  I really do appreciate that.  I really do love doing these podcasts but  hearing positive feedback like that is great to hear and very rewarding so thank you for that.

Well today we have a really good show planned for you.  We’re joined by Michael Lombard.  Michael and I explore the Toyota Kata topic… so let’s get to the show.

Michael, thanks for joining us today. Why don’t you give us your background and tell us what you’re up to these days?

Michael Lombard:  Sure. Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure. I’m currently working as the Director of Operational Excellence at a hospital in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.

I came to healthcare through an unconventional route. I wasn’t a clinician and don’t have any real healthcare experience prior to starting to work for hospitals. I worked in manufacturing. Came across the whole concept of lean. Quickly realized that’s what I wanted to do with my career. Somehow or another, ended up working at a hospital in Dallas. Just taking it from there.

Ron:  I mentioned to the listeners before we came on here that we’re going to follow a new format here. Let’s go ahead. Give us your favorite quotation related to continuous improvement or leadership, or anything business related.

Michael:  My favorite quote is from way back in the day. When I say “way back,” I mean really way back. Ancient Greece, Aristotle, the great philosopher. I don’t know how his English was so good, but he said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” That fits well into everything that I’ve learned from lean and from the Toyota approach about how that’s made a difference, so that’s the one that I like the most.

Ron:  Would you say that this habit‑building is instrumental to some of your recent success?

Michael:  Yeah. Not only professionally but life in general. It dawned on me when I started studying the Toyota Kata approach that habits really do drive success in many different facets, whether it’s maintaining good health or being successful at work.

Ron:  You mentioned Toyota Kata. As I mentioned in the intro, that’s the focus of our talk today. Why don’t you give us a high‑level explanation as to what this whole Toyota Kata thing is all about? What is it?

Michael:  Sure. I’ll caveat my explanation by saying that I’m still very much a learner in this process. I have a little under a year of experience with the Toyota Kata approach. I had 10 years of experience learning about lean, but the Toyota Kata approach came to me later. I’ve been fortunate the past couple of months to have coaching and feedback from Mike Rother himself, who wrote the book, “Toyota Kata,” and also Jeff Liker, who wrote “The Toyota Way.” They’ve helped me see where I was misunderstanding things a little bit.

Ron:  They helped you personally? You spoke to these guys?

Michael:  They’ve been going me some feedback through email and through different discussion boards and that sort of thing. It humbles you. You think that you’ve hit onto something, that you’ve learned something, and I have, but you realize how much you have yet to learn. I’ll caveat this whole discussion by saying that I’m still at the beginning of my kata trajectory.

Ron:  Fair enough. What is it, though? High level, elevator speech, Toyota Kata.

Michael:  Toyota Kata is a series of routines that form continuous improvement habits. That’s the one‑sentence version of what the Toyota Kata approach is. The word “kata” is Japanese. It loosely translates to “a set of routines.” You can imagine having everybody in the organization, from the person on the front lines to the middle manager to the senior leader, all with the same habits when it comes to how we do problem solving.

They’re not that complicated. There’s the improvement kata and the coaching kata. Those are two main katas that we refer to with the Toyota Kata approach. If you can get those two routines down pat across the organization, you can start to see a continuous improvement culture emerge.

Ron:  Let’s dig into that a little bit. What’s the difference between this improvement kata and the coaching kata?

Michael:  They go together. There’s the role of the learner. The learner performs the improvement kata. Then there’s the role of coach, who of course performs the coaching kata.

The improvement kata is made up of four routines. The first one is seeing the overall direction. Step back and see the big picture of how whatever PI work you’re doing fits into the strategic direction of the organization.

The second step is to study or grasp the current condition. That’s to make sure that we understand what are the root causes that are driving the problem that we’re trying to solve.

The third routine that we perform is to establish the next target condition. You can imagine that we’re on a never‑ending journey towards perfection. We can’t really tackle that. That’s impossible to tackle perfection. But if we take just one bite out of the apple at time, that’s a target condition, something that we’re trying to achieve within the next month or two or three.

The fourth routine is simply, once we’ve established that target condition, that two to three month state that we’re tying to achieve, then we start to implement that, but we don’t do it blindly, implementing some project plan that was determined in advance. Rather, we use the plan‑do‑check‑act or plan‑do‑study‑act cycle, whichever one you want to call it. We use several cycles of PDCA to iterate toward the target condition. It’s more of an iterative, testing approach to implementation.

That’s the improvement kata. The coaching kata is simply two routines that help us help the learner. We don’t give the learner the answers. We don’t tell them how to get to their target condition. Instead, we ask questions. Specifically, we ask the five questions. That’s one of the major elements of the coaching kata.

The five questions. You can think about it as simplifying everything down to its most basic four elements. It’s four elements but five questions. I’ll get into a little more detail there.

You’re basically saying, “What’s your next step. What do expect to happen as a result of that next step?” Then you go do it. Then you come back and you say, “What actually happened, and what did I learn from it?” Those are the four elements. It’s simplified the whole concept of PDCA and the whole concept of improvement down to those four elements.

That fifth question that you tag onto the end is, once you’ve established what your next step is and what you expect, you say, “When can we go and see what we’ve learned from taking that step?” That’s when the learner comes back and shares with you what they learned.

It’s a lot easier if you see it. You can look at Mike Rother’s website for a visual of all of this that we’re discussing, but know that it’s basically simplifying the PDCA cycle down to its elements.

Ron:  We’ll go ahead and we’ll link to all of the websites. He’s got some nice downloadable information that’s free. That’s pretty cool. Those notes for everyone will be at gembapodcast.com/04.

That’s a nice overview of the improvement kata and the coaching kata. How have you leveraged this in your current role? I know you guys have been practicing this for around a year. How has that gone?

Michael:  It’s gone really well. We were kind of blind when we started this. We had no idea how we were going to implement the Toyota Kata approach. We didn’t have any external sensei guide or formal training. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We took the learning‑by‑doing approach. We took a step forward. We started experimenting at a very small level; tackling small process improvement opportunities.

Ron:  Can you give us an example? I know you can’t share details if it’s healthcare and all that.

Michael:  We had a nursing leader. As a part of a patient safety effort, he wanted to improve what we call armband scanning. Basically, it’s to make sure that you’re giving the right medication to the right patient. You scan both the medication and the armband at the same time. It’s a safety thing. It’s a really worthy thing.

We started off with the preconceived notion that this is just a matter of accountability. “We just need to have more accountability. Our nurses need to do a good job of scanning.”

Ron:  Quit messing up, right? [laughs]

Michael:  Exactly. That’s very common in any industry, but healthcare especially. These are licensed nurses and licensed physicians. They’re not supposed to make mistakes. We come in with those preconceived notions.

Through the kata approach, the learner, this nurse, methodically worked through the four routines of the improvement kata. What he uncovered was that it’s not as simple as being more accountable. There are actually opportunities to make it easier to do the job the right way.

It was as simple as, “We don’t have enough of the scanners.” The armbands they were using tend to wash out after you give the patient a couple of showers. If the patient is there for more than a day or two, their armband washes out and you can’t scan it.

These simple countermeasures emerged. “Let’s get the right number of scanners, and let’s get the right armbands that don’t wash out.”

That was something that we never even thought of when we went into it, but through several cycles of PDCA, several cycles of learning and having this nurse go out, get information, come back and share it with me, his coach, through the coaching cycles this discussion emerged, and we found that it was a lot more straightforward than we thought. It had nothing to do with accountability.

Ron:  How long did that cycle take?

Michael:  It probably took about 10 cycles of learning, 10 cycles of coaching. Each cycle can be a couple days apart, maybe. Ideally you’d be doing them daily, but in the real world we get busy, and of course, clinical emergencies pop up in hospitals. I would say 10 cycles over the course of about a month.

Ron:  I’ve known you for a long time, Michael. You’ve been a lean thinker for many years. When you first came across this approach, what was the biggest obstacle that you had when you started practicing this way of working? The second part to that is, how did you overcome it?

Michael:  Our biggest obstacle by far was how to develop coaching competency. I say that both for me personally and for the hospital. Me, I had been a project leader. I was a black belt. I was the guy that was given the assignment of figuring out how to fix the problem.

Of course, I would engage teams in doing that. I wasn’t a subject matter expert. I would do it collaboratively, but I was ultimately the one in the role of facilitator. In this role, I was the coach on many of these efforts. We had first‑time PI problem solvers, nurses, basically, in the role of learner.

How do we develop coaching competency? That was the big challenge. Again, we didn’t have any external training or sensei or anything like that, so we had to figure out how to build competency. It ended up being a learning‑by‑doing thing.

It took me literally 200 cycles of coaching, me in the role of coach, 200 cycles for probably a dozen different individuals. I had a pretty broad group of people that I was coaching. It took that many cycles before I actually started to understand the nuance of being a coach. Again, I’m barely achieving a level of competency with my coaching compared to people that have more experience with it.

Ron:  Are there other coaches in your organization, or are you the only coach?

Michael:  That’s one of the beautiful things about the Toyota Kata approach. It’s a self‑propagating system. In this scenario, I’m not the project manager trying to get a good project result. As the coach, I’m trying to build up the capacity of each person that I’m coaching so that they can graduate to become a coach themselves. Then I become a secondary coach. I’m looking at their coaching technique as they’re coaching new people.

In that way, you build levels of coaches and learners in the organization. I’m still in the role of learner on a bigger more complex PI effort, but I’m in the role of coach on many, many smaller efforts. You turn the tables around and a nurse might be the learner on a medium sized effort and a coach on smaller stuff. It’s almost viral in the way that it propagates itself.

Ron:  Is there a pretty good buy‑in, now that you’ve been at it for a little while, within the organization.

Michael:  We’ve always had good buy‑in from senior leadership. We said we’re not even going to bother putting in the effort to do this if we don’t have senior leadership support. Fortunately, through the A3 process, we were able to propose a strategy based on Toyota Kata, get senior leader buy‑in for it, and get the commitment to put together an advanced team where the first individuals start coaching. They were the first ones to see the power of the kata approach.

These are individuals from all different levels of the organization and different departments of the organization. They’ve helped us shepherd the initiative and build buy‑in amongst the middle and the front line levels of the organization. I have to say, until you start practicing the kata, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t reveal itself to be a powerful tool until you start to use it.

For the people that we haven’t been able to touch yet, which are most of the organization, they’re still waiting and wanting to see what it’s all about. That’s natural.

Ron:  How do people get started with this whole Toyota Kata approach if they’ve never done it? Do you read a book or visit a website? What would you suggest?

Michael:  It’s always helpful if you have access to a sensei. somebody that has a background with the kata, somebody that understands the Toyota approach. If you have access to that, I definitely suggest doing that. However, most of us don’t. Most of us maybe don’t have a budget to go off to the University of Michigan for the Mike Rother training, but if you can, do that, of course.

If you’re like us and you didn’t have any of that, then the main thing is to put together an advance team. People from different departments, different levels of the organization. People that have high potential to be good coaches. People that have the right attitude.

Give them some basic training. We used Gemba Academy’s videos when it comes to simple kaizen. When it comes to the Seven Wastes and the Ten Commandments of Continuous Improvement, we had them watch those fundamental lean videos.

Then we said, “You guys start practicing the improvement kata, and I’m going to be the coach.” We kept doing that over and over and over again until I became a decent coach and they become decent learners. Then they could graduate.

Ron:  Let’s transition now, Michael, into what we’re calling the Quick Fire section. Are you ready?

Michael:  I’m ready.

Ron:  I’m going to fire some questions at you, man. When you first started down your lean journey, not necessarily this Toyota Kata journey but your personal lean journey, what do you think was holding you back in the beginning from being successful at it?

Michael:  That’s a good question. I was exposed first to principles and theory before I actually got a chance to practice the tools. That’s a little bit backwards from most people. Most people get really good at 5S, but they don’t understand the foundational principles behind it.

My challenge wasn’t jumping straight to tools and having a tool mindset, as many people do. My biggest challenge was that I needed to acquire some real skill, some practical skills that would actually produce process improvement results for the organization so I could keep doing this. I was not an industrial engineer. I was not an automotive guy or anything like that.

Ron:  You’re a Florida fan! My goodness, what a handicap [indecipherable 19:33] . [laughs]

Michael:  University of Florida learning system.

Ron:  Next question. What’s the best advice ‑‑ I mean any advice ‑‑ you’ve ever received.

Michael:  A good friend and mentor of mine by the name of Scott McDuffy, who’s been doing lean for a long time. I was working on some projects. They were talking a long time because we were being very thorough in our analysis. I said, “Sometimes I think that we’re over‑thinking this stuff a little bit.”

He said, “You might want to try what I call barnstorming kaizen.”

I was like, “What is that?”

He’s like, “Back in the old days, a village would get together and they’d all help each other raise a barn up in the course of a day or whatever. They didn’t do a ton of planning.” Of course they did planning, but when it came down to it, you’ve got to get started and start putting the structure in place.

He recommended to me that, when in doubt, show a bias towards action, because just taking a step forward will uncover some of the gray area that you’re worrying about.

Ron:  I see that in the business world as an entrepreneur. You have to have that courage to take that step. Many people go through life and never take that chance. You never know until you try. I love that advice.

Next question. Can you share one of your personal productivity habits that others might benefit from?

Michael:  Dan Markovitz, who’s an expert when it comes to applying lean to your own personal productivity, helped me understand that I need to live in my calendar as opposed to living in an action items list. By that I mean turn your action items list into blocks of time on your calendar. It’s a way of level‑loading your work. It’s almost a kanban board for personal productivity.

That has helped me uncover some other tips that I think are useful. For example, I find that I work better on deep‑thought type of tasks in the morning. When I’m fresh and I’ve got a cup of coffee in my hand, I’m better at doing the deep‑thinking stuff.

I block my calendars most of the time in the mornings to allow for that. Then I use the afternoons, when maybe I’m at risk of having that post‑lunch coma, to do a lot of my one‑on‑one coaching sessions. They’re very engaging sessions. There’s no risk of me falling asleep while having a really engaging coaching session. I flip the script a little bit and do more of that type of work in the afternoon.

Ron:  Here’s the question of the day. I’m going to set the scenario for you. Imagine you’ve recently been hired as a general manger of a company ‑‑ it could be any company ‑‑ struggling with quality, productivity, and poor morale. You were hired because your continuous improvement experience is pretty incredible and you’ve had a lot of success in the past.

As it turns out, the CEO that hired you is giving you complete operational control and trusts you to right the ship. With this said, what would your first week on the job look like? What would you do, and why?

Michael:  Awesome question. I love that question. As lean folks, often we’re really good at telling other people how they should run their business.

Ron:  But now it’s you. You’re running the business.

Michael:  Now we’re in charge. What would we do? The first thing that I would do is, whatever they had in my office, I would instantly declare that to no longer be my office. I would create a desk out there on the front lines.

If it was a factory, I’d be right out by the assembly line. If I was in a hospital, I’d have it right up on one of the units or near the ORs or something. Maybe in the ER. actually. I would have a standup desk right out there with a bunch of whiteboards nearby. I would start making a routine of…In healthcare, we call it rounding but it really is more appropriately called a gemba walk. I would start building habits. I would start with gemba walks, and then I would start layering in the kata.

I would start with the gemba walks because if you start off with the kata, sometimes it’s hard for people to understand why it’s necessary to invest so much time in doing process improvement. The gemba walks are such eye‑opening experiences. I would start there, make that a habit, and then get into the coaching sessions right there on the shop floor, right there in the ER. From there, you could arrive at everything else that’s needed to create a successful operating system in whatever industry you’re in.

Ron:  The fact that you would move your desk out…It sounds really simple. Somebody might be thinking, “What’s the big deal about that?” But it’s profound. I know you’ve been in businesses where that’s happened. It’s incredible when you engage the workforce and you don’t try to solve problems from a conference room or a boardroom.

Just go into gemba. I love that advice, Michael. Thank you for that.

Ron:  Listen, thanks for joining us today, Michael. It’s been incredible. We’re going to have the show notes at gembapodcast.com/04. Go ahead and check that out.

Michael, why don’t we close with you giving us some final words of wisdom? Then why don’t you tell people how they could connect with you via your favorite social media networks?

Michael:  I’ll attempt to provide some wisdom. I’m not sure how wise it is. I would say focus on habits. There’s a great book called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. In it he talks about what it takes to form a habit. It’s a cue, a routine, and a reward.

If you can apply that logic to whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve, whether it’s personal health or continuous improvement in a hospital, focus on habits and specifically those three elements of the habit‑building loop. I think that you’ll figure out the rest as you go through your cycles of learning. Focus on habits, and don’t be afraid to learn as you go. Learning by doing.

Ron:  What was the name of that book again, Michael?

Michael:  “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

Ron:  I know from talking to you earlier that that’s really influenced you in your journey.

Michael:  It really has. It led me to believe that the Toyota Kata was the right approach and led me to believe that the things that I’m doing in my personal life are the right approach. It’s all because those methodologies are focused on habits. If you’re focused on habits, you’re probably going to get a good result.

Ron:  What’s the best way if someone wants to get in contact with you? Do you have a social media network that you prefer?

Michael:  On Twitter, it’s @MikeLombard. You can search for “Michael Lombard” on LinkedIn as well.

Ron:  We’ll put links in the show notes there as well. All right, my friend. I guess we’ll see you on Thursday. By the time this is released, we’ll probably have already done this. Michael’s going to be doing a webinar with us. We’re going to be doing a dry run on Thursday and practice building good habits of doing webinars, right?

Michael:  That’s right.

Ron:  I’m looking forward to that. Thanks again, Michael. We’ll talk to you soon.

Michael:  Talk to you soon, Ron. Bye.

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What Do You Think?

Have you read the Toyota Kata book?  Have you attempted to leverage the Improvement & Coaching Kata?  If so, how has it gone?

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