What is the Improvement Kata?
The improvement kata (IK) is two things:
- A daily practice routine for continuous improvement, a HYPER-Kata
- A systematic method that guides the process of achieving a goal or solving a problem
Rother, Mike. The Improvement Kata Pattern. May 2013, https://www.slideshare.net/mike734/the-steps-of-the-improvement-kata. PowerPoint Presentation.
In summary, the IK process is determining a general direction, and experimenting towards a series of intermediate goals in line with that direction.
The Improvement Kata:
- Understanding the direction or challenge. What is the final vision or ultimate goal?
- Grasping the current condition. Before moving forward, you must understand where you are. What is your current condition?
- Establishing the next target condition. Based on where you’re at, you can now more effectively assess where you want to go. Describe your next desired condition, the intermediate goal toward the ultimate goal.
- Experimenting towards the next target condition. Experiment with methods or processes that will get you to your target condition. Use rapid PDCA cycles (Plan, Do, Check, Act).
- Repeat steps 2-4 until you’ve completed the ultimate challenge. When you’ve successfully attained a target condition, revaluate where you are, set a new target condition, and experiment toward it again.
Here is a template designed to guide the use of the Improvement Kata: Daily HYPER-Kata Template
Navigating Uncertainty. Because uncertainty is inevitable, detailed plans that are created before a project begins will almost always get derailed. There is simply not enough known in the beginning to make an accurate assessment. All that time and energy that went into creating the detailed plan goes to waste.
Practicing the IK shifts the emphasis on when and how much planning takes place. The Improvement Kata encourages establishing a general direction and taking small steps toward it. With each step the plan is adjusted based on what was learned. The more steps taken, the more things learned, the less uncertain things become, and the closer you get to attaining your goals.
Rother, Mike. Figure 1-2. Toyota Kata, by Mike Rother, McGraw Hill Education, 2009, p. 8.
The Most Direct Path. We often get distracted from doing what must be done, and find ourselves doing extra tasks that bring us no closer to our end goals. By setting intermediate goals, you are only focused on the obstacles between you and that short term goal. You are not spending time preparing for obstacles that aren’t immediately relevant.
Warm-Up. To begin the community event, we asked the group to solve a simple problem and map out their problem-solving process. The idea was to have their own problem solving process fresh in their thoughts, ready to compare it to the IK. However, it did not have the intended effect as lab members were confused with directions.
Presentation. We gave a presentation about the basics of the improvement kata, its utility, and provided an example.
Activity. We asked lab members to exercise the improvement kata by designing a paper airplane in 20 minutes. The challenge was to design an airplane that could hit a target when released from a certain distance.
The process looked something like this:
- Understand the challenge. Hit the target from measured distance.
- Grasp current condition. My plane is flying straight but not far enough.
- Establish next target condition. I need my plane to fly further.
- Experiment toward target condition. I will lengthen the wingspan of the plane to see if it will fly further.
- Repeat steps 2-4. My plane is flying further, but now it doesn’t fly straight. I need it to do both. I will build planes with various wingspans to try to find the appropriate design.
The more successful groups rapidly tested and adjusted their designs (Do, Check, Act) as they went. The less successful groups spent the majority of their time in the initial (Plan) designing and building phase.
Discussion. Upon a group discussion of the paper airplane-building exercise, we collectively concluded that rapid testing, adjustment, and iteration was the key to success. Further, the group agreed that the most important part of the IK was the experimentation. It is where the most progress is made, and the most learning is done.
Proposed Worksheet. At the end of the meeting, we introduced a worksheet guiding the use of the IK as a warm-up and cooldown to each work day. The warm-up was establishing the current condition, setting a target condition, and planning an experiment. This acted as determining a focus for the day. The cooldown was the retrospective of the experiment.
We found that the worksheet did not work as a warm-up because of the deep thinking it required. Warm-ups should be an easy exercise that aids in the transition to more challenging work.
In response to the unsuccessful attempt, we restructured our community events as outlined in Trial #2.
- Great energy and enthusiasm in leading the activities and discussion
- Spoke louder and clearer than in week 1
- Activity had enthusiastic participation
- Activity successfully illustrated the benefits of rapid PDCA cyclers in the improvement kata
- Closed with a one strong takeaway
- Better recoveries and improvisations after unplanned occurrences
- We should streamline presentations to keep it as simple as possible and have one key takeaway. This week we quickly unloaded too much information, none of which was retained.
- Practice run the presentation before presenting
- Plan the activity together
- Limit research time
- Move Jake’s meetings to Tuesdays
- Things are often different in action than on paper
- Planning parts of the event separately leads to a disconnect between our individual ideas and the team’s execution
- Spending too much time researching the finer details of a concept is not a valuable use of time. Research enough to know the general concept to teach it. Teaching the general concept is more effective for retention than teaching excess details.
- Having one day to prepare before presenting our event outline to Jake might make our meetings more productive
- The warmup could be used to prime the community for understanding the main concept
- We’re often closer to being ready than we realize. We were going to push this meeting back one week because we felt unprepared, but ultimately went forward with the event. The event wasn’t perfect, but we learned from everything that didn’t work out.
- We can learn faster by trying and failing rather than strenuously preparing for something we are unfamiliar with.
Key Points: The Improvement Kata is a practice routine for continuous improvement and serves as a guide to solving problems. The defining characteristic that makes the Improvement Kata effective is that it encourages rapid experimentation toward intermediate goals, which is where the most learning/growth happens.