What is Kata? Toyota’s Karate Concept for Lean Continuous Improvement and Coaching Success

Kata A Lean Tool for Continuous Improvement and Business Success


I apologize for my poor Japanse pronunciation. Pray, why am I speaking to you in Japanse?

Well, for this post, we will be delving into the Japanese mindset for business using Kata.

Kata is a methodology used to make businesses lean. The approach, originally used in martial arts, was developed by Japanese car manufacturer Toyota and has since stormed its way into the business realm churning out results, after results, after results.

For instance, Kata methodology has been shown to cut costs by 41%, and improve business performance by 75%.

I hear you, wow indeed!

In this Process Street article, we take a look at this karate concept and explain how to apply it in a business setting.

Click on the relevant subheader below to jump to your section of choice. Alternatively, scroll down and learn how to perfect the art of business.

Kiotsuke! Let’s get to it!

What is Kata?

Kata is a structured process inspiring repeated and consistent practice. Kata uses scientific thinking to train the daily skills individuals need for rapid, incremental, continuous improvements.

Whether Kata is used in martial arts, for personal improvement, or in business, the principles remain the same.

Kata Japanese text

The term is Japanese and has a literal translation meaning form, way of doing, or training drill. The concept is to develop a routine or a pattern of behavior that can be practiced again…

…and again…

…and again.

With this consistency, practice becomes perfect meaning that routine develops into a new skill.

This is all sounding simple enough, isn’t it?

Well, that’s because the concept of Kata is straight forward. Less is more when it comes to deploying Kata methodology and realizing the benefits brought. However, consistency and repetitive practice are vital for mastering the approach.

Originally, Kata was used in reference to the patterns of martial art movement, to be practiced alone but also in groups. We are talking white coats, colored belts, pointed toes, and fist-pumping.

In this sense, Kata evolved from combat, which isn’t as novel as you may think. Many strategies used in business made a similar transition. For Kata, this evolution began at the automobile manufacturer, Toyota.

Toyota Kata: The history of Kata

Kata in business is cited as Toyota Kata, a development made by internationally recognized business guru Mike Rother, in his book Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results.

Through the adjustment of what is learned along the way, Toyota advances as a scientist would. With each new empirical observation, the scientist adjusts the course to take advantage of what he has learned. I learn every day what I need to know to do tomorrow’s work. – Mike Rother, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results

Published in 2009, Mike Rother’s management book came about during exponential growth in Toyota’s revenue – growing from ~$67,208 million in 1995 to ~$246,517 million in 2008. It was this dramatic change that Rother reported on.

What was Toyota doing right?

This question perplexed American manufactures for some time. And judging by Toyota’s success, it is easy to see how the obsession began.

Following World War 2, Japan’s economy took a nose-dive. The U.S. stepped in, with a drive to rebuild Japan’s economy and infrastructure. American experts were called upon to help with reconstruction, education, and training.

During their time in Japan, U.S. leaders sighted Toyota’s success and stepped in to observe what Toyota was doing right. Observations were made regarding Toyota’s manufacturing operations, with U.S. leaders bringing home the next big tool. Yet, despite learning a lot, U.S. organizations were struggling to reap the same rewards from these tools.

What do you do when you fail?

You try, try, and try again…

And so, from 2004-2009, U.S. leading manufacturers returned to study Toyota’s manufacturing production methods once more.

What they saw was shocking.

Many of Toyota’s operations and procedures had changed. The tools U.S. leaders had returned previously with no longer fitted. Different solutions were given for the same process.

Toyota was adapting, and the success of this adaption could be seen.

You see, it wasn’t about the tools Toyota used to triumph, it was about the methodologies employed to build organizational skills that addressed challenges over time.

Toyota was training and empowering employees to make consistent improvements. The approach taken was adaptable, flexible, and always considering new ways to get a job done. Observing the company at this level, U.S. leaders couldn’t believe their eyes – why was this global, multi-million dollar company acting like a start-up, swapping, and changing its approaches?

These observations were shocking because, during this time, most organizations moved out from the entrepreneurial stage to business with steadfast procedures that set a status quo. Toyota’s methodology and culture turned this consensus on the head, establishing a lasting entrepreneurial spirit that inspired agility, flexibility, and adaptation, in which Kata is key.

The benefits of Kata

Kata benefits

Kata incorporates routine and scientific thinking into the fabric of an organization by targeting its culture. The aim is to move away from rigidity and stale operations. Kata focuses on continuous improvement with the knowledge that it isn’t the solutions providing competitive advantages, but the extent to which businesses have perfected routines.

We at Process Street couldn’t agree more, we say, teach the skills that create the solution.

So how was Kata propelling Toyota to glory?

Kata seeks opportunities quickly

Toyota Kata centers around making subtle changes over time. Leaders and employees are empowered to pinpoint opportunities and take action as necessary. The resulting current business condition is well understood by an organization’s employees.

Kata fine-tunes organizational operations

Toyota Kata facilitates the opportunity for continuous improvement. As shall be discussed, Kata is split into two sub-branches – Continuous Kata and Improvement Kata. The former involves continuously repeating routines, taught to all employees to maintain ongoing business improvements. The latter teaches the skills for Improvement Kata thinking.

Kata lowers costs and optimizes value

Kata, as a methodology, is multidisciplinary in terms of its application. This means the approach is used in other industries, not just business, to lower costs and optimize value.

For instance, a 2015 study by J. Avansino et al. targeted the implementation of Toyota Kata methodology in a multidisciplinary healthcare clinic. The aim was to reduce costs whilst still delivering high-value.

At the beginning of the study period, clinic costs were $619 per patient. Employment of Kata methodology reduced conference time from 6 minutes/patient to 1 minute/patient, and physician preparation time from 8 minutes to 6 minutes. Cost reductions of 41% were made.

These results show the effectiveness of Kata in lowering costs and optimizing value. These results are applicable to Kata implementation in a business setting.

Kata uses scientific thinking in business

Most businesses fail to establish new ways of thinking due to an absence of consistency.

It is scientifically proven that occasional efforts to improve do not provide the regularity needed to forge new neural pathways and erase old ways of thinking. This is why improvement efforts need to be continuous. Kata methodology provides this consistency to alter the underlying company culture for sustained business improvement.

Kata maintains motivation for change and lean solutions

Many empirical studies indicate a strong link between the inhibition of lean practice and employee resistance to commitment, involvement, communication, and preparation of such practice. Improving people skills and process performance via Kata is found to remove these roadblocks to establish a lean business.

Kata is a proactive approach to business

Traditional methods of lean business improvements are reactive, responding to the symptoms of non-lean practice. Little is learned, with an absence of experimentation to understand the root causes fully.

Business environments are dynamic, consisting of complex systems meaning factors frequently arise causing unpredictability and non-linear solutions. Kata is proactive via accounting for this.

Examples of Kata from Toyota: Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata

During Rother’s research, it was recognized that Toyota employed scientific thinking to solve problems.

Scientific thinking is a routine of intentional coordination between:

  • Theory: What we predict will happen
  • Observation: What we observe to happen
  • Adjustment: Making adjustments based on what is learned

This scientific thinking was summarized as a four-step model dubbed Improvement Kata. The approach develops on a baseline of knowledge incrementally by testing, learning, and adapting.

Improvement Kata is the way of doing, that is, the Kata part of Toyota Kata methodology.

Improvement Kata is then combined with the way of coaching, otherwise known as Coaching Kata. Coaching Kata is a master-apprentice approach to teaching. Input is given by the coach to correct the practice, and the learner continues to apply this new input.

Let’s have a look at these two branches of Kata in more detail…

Improvement Kata

Kata, improvement kata

Improvement Kata is a repeating four-step routine that helps organizations improve and adapt.

  1. Get the direction or challenge: This is where you want to be. This step is about understanding the business direction, setting your vision, and being clear on what this is.
  2. Grasp the current condition: Examine where you are currently at, this includes process documentation, transparency, and measurement of key process metrics. There is a gap between where you want to be and where you currently operate that needs to be closed. Implementing Kata will close this gap.
  3. Define the next target condition: Determine your goal that provides a challenge to move towards. These goals will help you close the gap between where you currently operate and where you want to be.
  4. Move towards the target and experiment: Conduct experiments scientifically, to get to the first defined target. These experiments are iterative. Obstacles will stall progress, but experimentation will help a business move past these obstacles. Once the first goal is achieved, set the next goal, and conduct experiments to reach this goal.

Think of these steps as a basic methodological repertoire. Like learning the piano or practicing dance steps. By completing these steps, a scientific mindset is adopted.

The Improvement Kata is a creative process, that inspires innovative thinking. For instance, the final step, conduct experiments, seeks to find new solutions and take small, calculated risks via trying new approaches. Fear-of-failure as a mindset is condemned.

Improvement Kata aims to address the following questions:

  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Where are we now?
  • What happened when we tried something new?
  • What do we need to change or adjust to get to the next goal?

Coaching Kata

Kata, coaching kata

Practicing Improvement Kata gives employees the skills needed to meet challenges and adapt to the rapidly changing business landscape. To support the learning and problem-solving aspect of Improvement Kata, Coaching Kata is to be used in conjunction.

Coaching Kata has a foundation of 5 questions, structured in a way that provides clear meaning. The Kata coach guides the Kata learner methodologically through the improvement process until the target condition is reached.

The 5 questions of Coaching Kata are:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the current state of the process?
  3. What obstacles are you working on now which are preventing goals being reached?
  4. What are your next steps (PDCA cycle)?
  5. When will the results of these next steps be realized?

Coaching Kata is vital in Kata methodology. You see, knowing how to step through a given process is not enough for the development of good skill sets. Continued and deepening practice is important, to learn from mistakes, to celebrate successes, and to not become complacent or overwhelmed at the idea of mastering a new skill. Coaching Kata is designed to guide and help the learner with all of these.

At an organizational level, Coaching Kata assists the following:

  • To teach everyone in the organization Improvement Kata, and to embed Improvement Kata as part of the organizational culture.
  • To engage everyone in the organization with the engagement process, to train them to use Improvement Kata as part of their daily working life.
  • To identify needed skills for improvements and how to solve real-world problems.
  • To ensure leaders have a strong grasp of the processes associated with a given workplace.
  • To pass Improvement Kata to future employees and the next generation of leaders.

Implementing Kata: Putting Kata into practice the right way

For further understanding, let’s work through an example, putting the two main areas of Kata described into practice.

For this example, I will pull from my experience.

Fresh-faced out of university, I managed to land a position working for a London-based ecommerce startup.

The company dropped the ball during stock evaluation. There was no system in place to account for what stock we had vs what stock had been sold. We had a problem. A problem that needed to be solved.

With Kata, let’s work to strike a solution.

Kata implementation

Improvement Kata step #1: Understand the direction

We need a vision, one that is process focused not outcome-focused. This vision should describe how the work is done, and how your processes function at the ideal state.

Our vision: To make the stock turnover and tracking a smoother process, with minimal error.

Improvement Kata step #2: Grasp the current condition

With the shared understanding of our direction – vision – it is time to deduce where we are presently at. For this, we would need to describe our actual processes. Process documentation would give us the means of doing this whilst also allowing us to collect process metrics that describe our current operations – this step is quick and simple with a tool like Process Street.

For example, imagine a simple stock-turnover process, e.g. something like this:

Current condition: Stock is obtained -> stock is stored in a warehouse -> sale goes through -> stock is brought from the warehouse and posted to the seller.

Process metric: Turnover time ~3 days.

It was taking us ~3 days from when the sale went through to posting the stock item. Delays incurred whilst locating the stock items. Also, errors were made selling items we didn’t have in stock.

Improvement Kata step #3: Establish the next target condition

How will our new processes operate when we are at the desired state – again with a focus on the process and not the outcome?

To set our target condition, we will copy our current condition. Then, we will identify the changes needed to move us one step closer to our vision.

The target condition needs to be set in absolute numbers to be clear it has been reached.

Target condition: To track all stock items, from the moment they arrive to the moment stock is sold.

Improvement Kata step #4: Use the PDCA cycle to move towards the target condition

It’s time to start improving. We shall implement the PDCA cycle to conduct small experiments.

  1. Plan: Plan to label stock with numbers. Enter numbers into data-base, along with stock details and location.
  2. Do: Implement this stock-numbering system.
  3. Check: How well is this stock-numbering system working? Is it effective? Are there any bottlenecks/drawbacks to this approach? Will another approach be more useful?
  4. Act: Identify drawbacks and resolve.

Coaching Kata

The second part of Kata, Coaching Kata, is equally important, supporting roles in a team.

Coaching Kata asks 5 questions during the 4th step of Improvement Kata.

  1. What is the target condition? – Our aim is to have a smooth, quick, and controlled stock turnover.
  2. What is the actual condition? – Delays and errors are incurred whilst selling stock.
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? – The absence of stock tracking processes.
  4. What is your next step? What do you expect? – To document stock intake and selling processes. To establish key process metrics and to devise a system that documents and tracks stock items.
  5. When can we see what we have learned from taking that step? – Results should be apparent as soon as processes are established and implemented.

Implement Kata to make continuous improvement habitual in your business

Kata encourages a supportive company culture, where individuals are enthused to think innovatively for improved business results. A dynamic business is produced that is adaptive and flexible.

Kata methodology drives results through continuous improvement and problem-solving. The methodology connects science and business to improve bottom-line results. It has worked for Toyota, and it will work for you.

Is the Kata methodology something that interests you? Do you have any questions on how to employ Kata? Please comment below as we would love to hear from you. Who knows, you may even get featured in an upcoming article!

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Jane Courtnell

Hi there, I am a Junior Content Writer at Process Street. I graduated in Biology, specializing in Environmental Science at Imperial College London. During my degree, I developed an enthusiasm for writing to communicate environmental issues. I continued my studies at Imperial College's Business School, and with this, my writing progressed looking at sustainability in a business sense. When I am not writing I enjoy being in the mountains, running and rock climbing. Follow me at @JaneCourtnell.

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