Has Anyone Seen My Target Condition?

By Jon Miller Updated on February 26th, 2018

Steve Kane pointed out last week in his excellent blog post how we need to be careful when practicing Toyota kata not to “ambush” each other by demanding to know “What’s the current condition?” or “What’s the target condition?” What exactly do these phrases mean? Not everyone is used to thinking in these terms. The fact that in business and in daily life we use words like target, goal, objective, aim or purpose almost interchangeably does not help matters. What is the reason that we speak of a “target condition” in kata practice rather than an “objective condition” or “goal condition” or “aim condition”? I suspect it may because “target” was easiest for Japanese speakers at Toyota to pronounce, but there are subtle differences worth noting.

Opening a thesaurus we can find that these similar terms have unique nuances. We can boil them down to the following

purpose: the reason we do something
aim: what we hope to achieve when doing something
goal: something we hope to achieve in the future as a result of our efforts
target: the exact result we expect to achieve by doing something
objective: the specific thing that we are trying to achieve

To this list we can add synonyms such as intention, dream, mission or end.

We may not all agree on these definitions, and that is okay. It is in the nature of human language for the meanings of words to drift across regions and over time. There is a logical order in how we approach these. We are motivated by purpose, something that gives us meaning and a feeling and fulfillment. We set our mind on our aim, goal or target. We focus our energy on objectives, the concrete things that mark our progress towards our purpose. We work on what helps achieve our heart’s desire.

It would be a bit aggressive to ask, “What’s your purpose?” when working together on a practical problem. The query, “What’s your objective?” also seems premature, as the learner / problem solver has yet to grasp the actual situation, identify actionable causes and guess the effect of acting on them. These questions are also different from asking, “What is the ideal condition?” which is heard when designing processes which delivers value to the customer safely, on-time, on quality and at the lowest cost. The target condition is not the ideal condition, although we need to keep the latter in mind, if not in sight.

Another source of confusion regarding “target condition” in the context of improvement, problem solving and Toyota kata comes from Toyota Business Practice (TBP). The third of eight phases of this A3 problem-solving approach is Set a Target to be Achieved, often shortened to just Set a Target. This causes people to wonder, “How can we set a target before we know the causes and have some countermeasures?” These things come in the fourth and fifth phases of TBP. In this context, to set a target or to define the target condition has a very specific meaning. Each problem solvers or project team members must make a commitment as to the specifics of what they will achieve by what date. In kata terms, “When can I follow up on the results of your next experiment?” Each person makes a commitment based on their best grasp of the situation, from the previous two TBP phases of problem clarification and breakdown.

The leader plays a key role as a coach in kata practice, A3 problem solving or using TBP for a project. The answers to, “What is your target?” must not be simply accepted as given but challenged. When asking how a team member views their target condition, the leader must limit or expand the scope of commitment, accelerate or extend the due date, relax or tighten the measurable results expected, based on the leader’s grasp the person’s skills and ability to meet deadlines. The leader must be prepared to assign tasks required to meet the objectives. Leadership includes coaching, direction, delegation of tasks as well as support. A leader’s purpose is to help the team succeed, or in some cases to fail in controlled ways that allow team members to grow. A target condition is simply a way for leader and learner both to have a way to check on progress towards their common aims.

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