Addressing Toyota Kata’s Counting Problem

By Jon Miller Updated on March 30th, 2021

Toyota Kata is the name Mike Rother gave to the set of routines used at the company to teach and practice scientific thinking. There are two practice patterns,  the improvement kata for the learner and the coaching kata for the coach. They are always practiced together, hand in hand. Often, as the learner develops their skill in the improvement kata, the coach does the same in their kata. It’s nothing short of amazing that a pair of simple routines built on a handful of steps and a few scripted questions can accomplish so much.

The Counting Kata

In many martial arts, one of the first things the teacher introduces to the students is how to count. Often this is in a foreign language. People familiar with judo, aikido, or karate may remember itchy knee, sun she. That’s one-two-three-four in Japanese. Maybe this is just for ambiance. Or perhaps making people use new words is a good way to remind them that they are novices in the dojo space, and to be humble and focus on the teacher’s instruction.

Other than the name, Toyota Kata has a fairly light touch when it comes to Japanese words. The numbering system is presented in plain English, common Roman numerals. However, there are some puzzling and unexplained quirks in how kata counts. A coach setting out to instruct a learner in the improvement kata must decide how to present the kata counting problem.

The Four Steps of the Improvement Kata

The improvement kata has four steps. They are 1) understand the direction or challenge, 2) grasp the current condition, 3) establish the next target condition, and 4) experiment toward the target condition. We should set these to the music of John Coltrane because they are giant steps.

Source: Mike Rother

It’s more appropriate to call them phases, but kata already uses that term to distinguish between planning (steps 1-3) and execution (step 4). The four stages, perhaps. This matters because when we are teaching beginners a new skill, it should be broken down into discrete elements. As presented, the four steps of the improvement kata do not do this.

Understand Direction, Set Challenge, Select Focus Process

Step 1, “understand the direction or challenge” is actually three different steps, a) understand the direction, b) craft a challenge statement, then c) select a focus process. As one step, we could describe it as “set the challenge and select a focus process by understanding the direction.” When presented as one “step,” novice coaches have a tendency to put “define challenge” as their main goal. This may be appropriate when the focus process and top-down direction are predefined and clear. However, when this is not so, all three steps require instruction.

Grasping the Current Condition Requires Several Steps

The step of grasping the current condition holds together as one cohesive activity. However, it requires several minor steps and some iteration. The learner has the option to use a beginner routine called the process analysis kata. This is also presented as a five-step process. Reworded for the sake of brevity, they are 1) graph past performance, 2) calculate customer demand rate, 3) study process characteristics, 4) check constraints, and 5) check capacity.

The third step of the process analysis kata calls out three distinct activities. They are to map a high level workflow, observe and chart the process performance, and make bullet point observations. Even if we argued that it’s all part of observing the process, there are three outputs, two of them requiring instruction. In addition, there is a process analysis worksheet which a learner must learn and prepare for the next stage.

Set the Next Target & Identify One Obstacle

The third step of improvement kata is to set the next target condition. However, there are two distinct steps here. First, the learner refers to the challenge, compares it to the current condition, and sets the target condition. Second, the learner makes a list of obstacles and selects one for experimentation.

The Experiment Step

The fourth step is not really a step at all, but a transition from linear planning to cyclical experimentation. The coach kicks off this stage and follows every experiment with a coaching cycle. Immediately following a coaching cycle, the learner runs an experiment. This seems like two sequential steps.

The Five Questions Card

During coaching cycles, the coach follows the structure provided by the five questions card. The name of the card is something of a mystery. There are eleven questions scripted on this card. On the front of the card, there are the five questions. Plus two more. There are four on the back, which are only asked after running an experiment, which is every cycle but the very first one.

Source: Mike Rother

Perhaps the two extra questions on the front are follow-up or clarifying questions. If so, why only these two questions? In a real-life coaching cycle, there are many clarifying questions to ask. Too many in fact to list on a card.

Adding It All Up

When teaching a learner any kata, it’s essential for the coach to understand how to break down a skill into its major steps, key points, and critical inputs and outputs. Which of these must be practiced in a series, and which can be practiced in isolation? What must be completed first? What can be combined? Which movements must be completed safely before shifting our balance to the other foot?

Why does kata favor counting to no higher than five? Perhaps detailing the six-plus planning phase activities, the eleven questions, and the two halves of the experimentation step was too intimidating for beginners. Or maybe there’s neuroscience backing up this choice. Another possibility is that the kata canon we see today is an early draft that quickly became widely accepted, rendering thorough revision impractical. In any case, the good news is that the Toyota Kata allows for individuals to break down, reform, and personalize these patterns after thorough repetition and mastery.

  1. Mike Rother

    April 5, 2021 - 1:40 pm

    “One, two, four… no, wait?!” Hehe, nice article. A couple of things… The “Improvement Kata” and “Coaching Kata” are two researcher’s models that describe thinking/behavior I observed at Toyota, not practice routines or something Toyota uses. This is ‘Kata’ as “way of doing.” Then there are specific smaller ‘Starter Kata’ practice routines for each step of the models, which is ‘Kata’ as “practice routine.” It’s illustrated in this tweet:
    -> https://twitter.com/RealMikeRother/status/1377622785225293838

    It’s also explained at the start of the ‘Toyota Kata Practice Guide.’ You can read that excerpt here:
    -> http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother/KATA_Files/TK_Backstory.pdf

    Hope that helps make it clearer!

    Mike (still learning to count)

    • Jon Miller

      April 5, 2021 - 6:53 pm

      Thanks for reading and the references Mike!

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