Guest Post: The Kaizen / Kata Nexus


Mark's note: Today's post is written by Michael Lombard — you can find him on Twitter or read his blog “Hospital Kaizen” here. This post introduces some topics that he'll explore in a free webinar I'll be hosting for KaiNexus on Thursday. Click here to learn more and register (or to view the recording).

lombardThe first thing I ever did as a rookie Lean practitioner was create a Kaizen-style employee idea system. That was over ten years ago, and honestly, I had no clue what I was doing. This was before I had read Gemba Kaizen or Creating a Lean Culture, and way before Mark Graban and Joe Swartz had written Healthcare Kaizen. Needless to say, the system I created was fairly primitive and maybe only halfway effective. But even though my approach to Kaizen wasn't going to win any Shingo Prizes, it sure did teach me a hugely valuable lesson: all improvements are NOT created equal.

Regular readers of this blog should know that an improvement is most impactful when the idea comes from and is owned by the front-line folks. Autonomy, mastery, meaningful work–these innate drivers of high performance (they're also the result of “respect for people”) are all squarely on the table when we engage our front-line experts in Kaizen. When an idea is developed via a Kaizen system, it's worth way more than just its short-term process improvement results.

Okay, so the idea that Kaizen multiplies the value of our ideas is neither breaking news nor controversial (unless you are practicing L.A.M.E., as Mark has dubbed it). Well then, why isn't Kaizen an obvious cornerstone of darn near every Lean transformation? Why is it sometimes relegated to “nice-to-have-as-an-employee-engagement-strategy-but-not-a-serious-player-in-achieving-our-business-goals” status?

I think it has to do with the pre-existing mindsets of our people, especially our leaders. If our mindset is that improvement work is a strictly mechanistic endeavor (an action item list, basically) aimed strictly at producing results, then we will give short shrift to doing things in a Kaizen way. If, on the other hand, our mindset is that improvement work is a learning endeavor aimed at developing our people while also producing results, then we will give Kaizen the importance it deserves.

So then, how do we bridge this mindset gap? How do we tackle such a mission-impossible type of challenge as changing the way adults think?

When discussing this, the conversation can quickly devolve toward unsystematic approaches. Having leaders go through training, attend seminars, visit Lean model cells, etc. can all be extremely useful activities, but they don't necessarily lead to mindset change. For mindsets to shift, we need to rewire the neurons in our brain (see this video, below), and this doesn't happen via sporadic or didactic experiences. We need to develop new mental habits, and this is where Kata can help.

In Toyota Kata, author Mike Rother presents two deceptively simple routines: the Improvement Kata (IK) and the Coaching Kata (CK).

On the surface, the IK looks like nothing more than just another problem-solving technique, a simplistic version of DMAIC perhaps. But unlike DMAIC and other process improvement techniques, the purpose of the IK isn't just to produce process improvement results; its higher purpose is to help us build mental “muscle memory” through repetition. Also, the IK isn't a difficult technique to learn requiring significant up-front education; the IK is designed to be practiced, early and often, with education delivered just-in-time and on-the-job. The IK isn't a technique you have in your toolbox; it's something you do.

And if we do the IK enough, our brain starts to rewire itself, and we become more scientific in our approach to improvement. We start to see every step as a PDCA experiment, and we start teaching this mindset to our people via the Coaching Kata. After performing a bunch of coaching cycles, at some point we typically have this great moment of insight when we realize that even each attempt at coaching is itself a PDCA experiment. That's when we become a little more self-aware and start to see the connections between Kata and other cornerstones of our Lean transformation–such as Kaizen!

Indeed, there is a strong connection between Kaizen and Kata. We might be tempted to see them as perhaps, best case, compatible; or worst case, as competing approaches to improvement. Neither view is accurate. Kaizen and Kata are, and always ought to be, inextricably linked and mutually dependent. Symbiotic even. Let me explain:

Kaizen is reinforced by Kata: Kata reinforces Kaizen in multiple ways. First, practicing the IK can speed up the development of our people as scientific thinkers. Second, practicing the CK can speed up the development of effective coaches. With more scientific thinkers being guided by more effective coaches, the greater impact that our Kaizen system can have. Scientific thinkers and effective coaches can be developed without practicing Kata of course, but Kata provides the deliberate practice and repetition needed to make this process more methodical and productive.

Kata is enabled by Kaizen: Kata isn't practiced in a vacuum. Some organizational cultures will not tolerate the idea of “practicing” something for the sake of learning, and only value short-term results. A Kaizen-oriented culture, on the other hand, provides fertile ground for Kata practice and experimentation. Also, because Kata in its simplest form is just the application of deliberate practice to the scientific method, it plays well with scientifically rigorous systems such as Kaizen. This makes it easy to integrate a little Kata into an existing Kaizen framework.

During our upcoming webinar presented by KaiNexus on Thursday, Mark Graban and I will go into more detail about the symbiotic nature of Kaizen and Kata. While this blog post was based more on philosophy and theory, our webinar will use real-world case studies from healthcare to explore ideas for integrating Kaizen and Kata into your Lean transformation. To understand whether this webinar would be value-added for you, please review the following questions:

  • Is Kaizen seen by your senior leaders as a cornerstone of business success at your organization, as capital investment, technology adoption, talent acquisition, etc.? Do all the leaders in your organization understand this at a deep level?
  • If you have a Kaizen system in-place already, do you have a scientific approach to methodically increasing the number and effectiveness of your coaches?
  • If you're interested in the Kata approach, have you figured out exactly how it fits into your Lean transformation? Have you figured out the connection between Kata, A3, Hoshin Kanri, etc.?
  • If you're using the KaiNexus platform, have you figured out how to infuse some Kata into it yet?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no,' then we'd love you to join us for this free webinar. Actually, even if the answer is ‘yes,' please join us so you can share your lessons learned with the audience via the Q&A portion of the webinar.

lombard kainexus kata webinar

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Michael Lombard
Michael Lombard, MBA is a seasoned leader in healthcare performance improvement. His mission is to help healthcare systems deliver ever-increasing value to patients and the community by improving quality and reducing cost. His approach is to get results by facilitating process improvement while increasing the improvement capabilities of the people in our organizations, in an effort to build cultures of continuous improvement. His goal for blogging is to explore ideas and continuously improve his understanding of kaizen in healthcare settings.



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