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Lessons Learned as a Kata Coach

By Steve Kane Updated on May 23rd, 2019

I first learned about Toyota Kata many years ago by attending a one-day workshop presented by Beth Carrington.  A short time later, I read Toyota Kata and I began practicing.  The practice as a new kata coach was difficult for me.  The questions seemed a little awkward and I seemed to make my learners uncomfortable.  The greatest struggle was that, as the coach, I was trying lead the learner to her answers and help her solve her problems, which never worked.

Better, but Still Not Good

After practicing kata on and off for several years, the process began feel familiar.  The learners still weren’t comfortable with it and I couldn’t figure out why.  I was getting better results than in the past, but it was still an uncomfortable experience. The coaching kata still didn’t quite feel right.

The problem, I later discovered, was that I was trying to get from one target condition to the next, and, eventually, meet the challenge.  This was a problem because getting to the target condition or challenge isn’t the role of the coach.  That’s the role of the learner.

Learning My Role as a Coach

While the learner works step by step through the improvement kata to reach the target condition, she repeatedly reaches then crosses the “threshold of knowledge.”  Something is learned with each PDCA cycle.  It took me a while to realize that developing the learner was my role.  Achieving the target condition was a byproduct of the learner’s professional development.

The coach’s role is to help the learner internalize scientific thinking, the PDCA model, to move beyond “I don’t know.”

Don’t Get Attached to the Results

It’s easy for a coach to get involved with the specific issues learners face.  It can even be fun to help problem solve.  This is a trap I got myself into many times.  The coach must let go of the specific issues the learners face and, instead, be consumed with the learner, making her own discoveries.  To be an effective coach, I had to detach myself from the results and position the learner to reflect on the experience of going through the PDCA cycle.

Teaching and Coaching Aren’t the Same Thing

Rother teaches kata practitioners to use the “Starter Kata” until the process has been internalized.  Once a coach has become proficient, it’ll be time to begin adjusting the language to become your own.  A key point on being proficient as a coach is to avoid teaching.

Teachers transfer knowledge to learners.  Coaches help learners get from point A to point B in their professional development.  Telling, suggesting, or just sharing ideas with learners can be damaging.  Is damaging because it eliminates the possibility of the learner making a discovery–of learning.  It’s essential that coaches stick to asking objective questions.

What I’m Looking for from the Learner

I can’t know the condition the learner is targeting unless the learner clearly understands it and can state it concisely.  It’s up to me to ask clarifying questions (i.e. “What does that mean?” or “What would that look like?”) until the learner can describe the condition simply.

Learners want to be knowledgeable (like everybody else).  Oftentimes learners will talk about what they do know rather than reflect on what they don’t.  It’s my job to keep the learner from going too far off into the weeds and bring them back to the issue they don’t yet understand.  I’m looking for the learner to stay on point and gently nudge them back when they get off track.

Scientific thinking is the pattern the learner should be internalizing.  Jumping to conclusions or countermeasures can be a difficult habit to break.  When this comes up I call it out simply stating my observation: “We’re jumping to countermeasure. Let’s back up and better understand the obstacle.”

The learner would ideally have a sense of confidence with the chosen next step.  I watch carefully for how the learner talks about moving forward.  If I detect the learner isn’t somewhat enthusiastic about the next step, I dig deeper to find out why.  Sometimes the step is a bit too large or intimidating.  I work with the learner to break it down into smaller steps so that the learner isn’t overburdened.

Being Comfortable with Uncomfortable Silence

It’s important for me to take my time with the learner, particularly with the reflection step.  While the five kata questions keep the learner in the scientific thinking model, perhaps their greatest value is positioning the learner to answer the question “What did you learn?”  The first response is sometimes superficial, lacking serious contemplation.  I’ve learned to not respond to answers and instead wait silently.  After only a few seconds it becomes an awkward pause–a void the learner will almost always fill with deeper thinking.

  1. Rodney Robbins

    May 28, 2019 - 12:45 pm

    Great article. This is my favorite part: “If I detect the learner isn’t somewhat enthusiastic about the next step, I dig deeper to find out why. Sometimes the step is a bit too large or intimidating. I work with the learner to break it down into smaller steps so that the learner isn’t overburdened.” Excellent. I find that sometimes projects just stall out. They stop moving forward and die. In my limited experience, this is sometimes because someone’s feelings got hurt, but often times people are afraid to ask production leadership for the big change they want, because they know they don’t honestly have the information, the data, the proof they need to make their case. Running smaller, safer experiments often gets things moving again.

  2. Karl Dahlman

    June 3, 2019 - 10:33 am

    As a 20 year teacher turned CI manager, the awkward silence is a tool most neglected. Ask the question, then wait… wait… wait… Smile so they know you are not disappointed with them. So very powerful because this is when the learner is making new neuron pathways in the brain, that takes time, and sometimes silence. I am beginning my journey in the kata model but I might humbly suggest that giving a bit of time for them to ponder the countermeasure. If you feel they have a good grasp of the current state, but are in the unknown zone, “Sleep on it, and come back tomorrow.” might be a great option.

  3. N Gopalakrishnan

    June 12, 2019 - 11:25 am

    A coach is a one who makes the learner thirsty and not the one who provides a glass of water.

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