Unlocking The Power Of Kata: Tracy Defoe On Adult Learning, Coaching, And Asking Questions


Joining us for Episode #467 of the Lean Blog Interviews Podcast is Tracy Defoe.

She is an adult education consultant and researcher specializing in workplace education. For parts of the last 10 years, she has been puzzling over the challenges of participation and leadership in continuous improvement.  

She has taught communication, writing, teamwork, and cross-cultural communication as well as teaching methods to adults in colleges, universities, and the workplace. A regular consultant to business, labour, and government, Tracy is also an advocate for plain language and clear design.

Questions, Notes, and Highlights:

  • Her website
  • Your origin story for C.I., Lean, Kata…?
  • How to navigate teaching when there is a wide distribution of varied mix-level knowledge and experience in a room, when it's not 1×1 education?
  • Shifting from “push training” to “pull”
  • How much can somebody absorb at once when learning?
  • “I don't know Yeti” – the mascot for Kata School Cascadia
  • The benefit of making learning fun?
  • Starter Kata questions – when is it OK to move beyond the rigid starter questions?
  • Teaching and coaching through questions
  • Being a 2nd coach? Mentor for the coach
  • Difficult to not jump in with advice when you DO know the process — for kata coaching?
  • Intervening vs. allowing them to make the mistake?
  • Being heard vs. feeling heard
  • The power of plain language… as opposed to jargon? What example comes to mind? Kata / Kaizen?
  • “Problem solving” sounds too definitive
  • Kaizen Events off track… Kata goes off track how?
  • Having a “third coach”?
  • Tell us about Kata Girl Geeks
  • Master Class with Tracy and Tilo Schwarz
  • Time in the coaching dojo and how you learn every time?

The podcast is sponsored by Stiles Associates, now in their 30th year of business. They are the go-to Lean recruiting firm serving the manufacturing, private equity, and healthcare industries. Learn more.

This podcast is part of the #LeanCommunicators network.

Watch the episode here

Listen to the podcast here

Unlocking The Power Of Kata: Tracy Defoe On Adult Learning, Coaching, And Asking Questions

LBI Tracy Defoe | Adult Learning

My guest for this episode is Tracy Defoe. She's an Adult Education Consultant, a researcher specializing in workplace education and for parts of a decade, she's been puzzling over the challenges of participation and leadership in continuous improvement. That's going to be our theme here, some perspectives and different ways of thinking about continuous improvement.

Tracy has taught communication, writing, teamwork and cross-cultural communication as well as teaching methods to adults, colleges, and universities in the workplace. She's a regular consultant to business, labor and government. She's an advocate for plain language and clear design. I'm going to do my best to use clear language and we can learn from you. Thank you for joining us, Tracy. How are you?

I'm great. Thanks for having me, Mark. I'm glad to be here.

Tracy's website, by the way, is www.TheLearningFactor.ca, which gives you a little hint as to where she's connecting in from. Where are you, Tracy?

I'm in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, but I have to tell you, a lot of people think that CA stands for California.

It could. I've lived there, it's different, but no, it's the same.

I'm in Canada, that's right.

You've done a lot of speaking and work and collaborating with people down here in the States, right?

You bet.

There's a lot to talk about here and you've got a pretty unique background and expertise when it comes to education for adults and there's a lot we can learn here. I'd like to always start with the origin story, if you will. For you, Tracy, what was the context of the when, where, why and how you got introduced to continuous improvement?

My Lean origin story, as short as I can tell it because I can tell it as long stories too, I was teaching at the University of British Columbia. At the time, I was teaching English as a Second Language and also writing and reading and some of that stuff that you mentioned. A factory here in the suburbs called the university and said they had a problem they couldn't solve and did they have anybody who they thought could do that?

As it happened, part of my job was special program design, so I went out and met the people at the factory. At that time, it was big for the area. It was about 100 people. Maybe twenty engineers at the front and 80 people in the back making stuff they make, at that time, boat steering. Now they make boat steering and a bunch of other things.

They had been trying for about two years to get the Ford Q1 designation. They realized that it might be that they were not good at teaching it. I didn't tell you this, but all the factory pretty much spoke variations of Chinese, Cantonese, Mandarin or whatever. Vancouver's a very multicultural place and everybody in the office pretty much spoke English. There were some translating supervisors. I'm sure you've been in those places.

I went out and did some research, interviewed some people without a translator and came up with a teaching plan. In nine weeks, we had the Ford Quality designation. They realized that if nine weeks of teaching could solve a problem that they've been working on for two years, maybe they sucked at teaching and learning. I still have them as a client many years later. That's how I learned Lean.

They said, “We're also trying to learn this Toyota production system stuff.” They sent me all the courses that they had. They were part of a consortia and I came back and said, “I thought we could improve those courses a lot if we took the push out of them.” A lot of concepts in Lean translate very nicely to adult education.

That's just one by one, a one-piece flow. All people are different and maybe an individual learning plan's a good idea. Also, you can waste a lot of time and energy with push. If I go in with 200 slides and I run that lesson on 5s all day, no matter what you say. It takes the same amount of time, whether I'm alone or you're in the room, that's push. I said to them, “I thought I could turn it around to pull.” That was the challenge I took up.

It was to take some of the waste out of their Lean training and that was my Lean origin story. My big strength as a person who helps companies is I do not know how to run your company. I do not know how to run your machines. When I have to ask questions or go back to basics, it's pretty easy for me because I could not do that job.

It's a big piece. From there, the Lean teaching, the Lean course that I worked out was based on questions. One hundred percent of what I decided to do is to teach the concepts of Lean, value-added and things like what do we mean by customer? That's a concept as much as it is anything else. My course was based on concepts. As it happened sometime into my career there, maybe I'd been there five years or something. Some guy from the University of Michigan came out to teach standard work and they said, “You're telling people to ask questions and not give answers.”

That's what this guy Mike Roth is telling people. That is how I got introduced, let's say, to the infant Kata community at the time. I realized right away that what Mike Roth was doing with his work and research into Toyota Management practices was a lot of exploring good adult learning and getting good adult learning practice, which translates into pretty good management.

Going back to that situation in that company, framing the problem statement or diagnosing more specifically if they weren't real good at teaching or sucked at teaching. Was there more to it than the push versus pull or was that the main cause?

They were telling people what to do as they probably did in the factory, but what you have to do is to figure out where people are at, current condition. Where are they at? Where do you need them to go and what's the learning path in between? What support do they need? What are their barriers and obstacles?

There are a few people at the plant. This is funny. Manufacturing plants are awesome. Such a good learning environment because there are so many actual real-life things to work on and one of the weirder ones. That pro quality program worked the way most of them do and that you had to be able to survive an audit. Somebody you didn't know had to be able to walk up to people and ask them, “What do you do if there's a problem or how do you know this part is good or how do you interface with the safety system or something?”

Most people either couldn't understand the question or couldn't give a good answer. In teaching them, I discovered a whole bunch of those very competent machinists and machine operators and stuff. They could only read English text if it was on Arial caps font because that's what engineering diagrams are written in. They were extreme visual learners. I've been trying to get them to write upper and lower case on engineering diagrams for quite some time. It's much easier to read.

Most people either couldn't understand the question or couldn't give a good answer. Share on X

Anyway, there's one little quirk. Another one was they were used to going through a few translating people. They never tried to talk to anybody. I plumbed out what English they knew. We pumped up what English they needed. Their math was all good, no surprise. They kept charts and things like that. They had to be able to explain the chart. Once you get down to very specific tasks, it's teachable.

That whole idea of, as you put it, understanding the current condition and understanding what somebody knows. That reminds me of the training within industry approach, which I believe starts. If you're doing one-on-one instruction, especially, you can tailor the instruction.

That's why that's good. One by one is what will work the best.

The challenge and this is tough. I don't know if you have tips on addressing this. If you're teaching a class or giving a talk, inevitably, there's maybe a bell curve distribution in the room. Especially, you go to conferences like somebody may have been thrown into a Lean role and they can spell the word and they haven't learned anything yet.

You might have someone in the room who's been doing it longer than you. You wish, “Maybe they should be up here teaching because I could be learning from them.” You can't teach the person who's brand new because you might bore everyone else to death. If it can't be one-to-one, how do you navigate that?

When I was doing teacher instruction, like when I was learning, one of my favorite mentors had a T-shirt. On his T-shirt, it said, “Set up and get out of the way.” Your job in your mixed-level group is to give them a task where each one can operate at the level of their edge of what they know. We call that in education, the zone of proximal development. Most people don't learn way past what they already know. They learn at the edge of what they already know. I always show my hand and say, “Most people have a bumpy profile and they like to learn where they're good at things. They don't like to learn where they're not good at things.”

You do group work. Get it down to the absolute simplest, so you say, “That auditor's coming up and you have to greet somebody.” Some people are ready to say, “Hi, my name is Tracy and I'm the education person here.” Other people are going to go, “Hello,” and nothing else. We can all work on greetings at the level of our ability. Assign a task. It doesn't matter what it is. Talk at your table then you get to observe the people and see who's quiet or who's whatever.

What I usually do is I redo the groups. You got to decide, do you want all the people at the same level together? Do you want mixed-level groups? In which case, you go up to the most able person and you say, “You know a lot about this. How about you help facilitate your group and make sure everybody talks?”

Usually, they're going to talk a lot. The mixed-level group thing like assigning a task, observing people then taking another step is probably the best strategy for that. The other ones are, for a conference, be sure you have your visuals support what you're saying but don't have your words on the screen. Use the same word all the time for everything. I used to teach university writing. We teach people not to use the same word, maybe twice on a page.

Try to mix it up.

You got vocabulary. Let's see it. I have taught the course technical writing for engineers. That is why, as punishment, I now teach clear language because we taught people never to refer to themselves. It has been found stuff. If you consistently use the same word for the same thing, people who are new will catch on quickly.

LBI Tracy Defoe | Adult Learning
Adult Learning: If you consistently use the same word for the same thing, people who are new will catch on quickly.

If you mix it up and we talked about where people are at now, but if I started calling that current condition or current state or operating pattern or status quo or I could use a lot of words. Now everybody is wondering if this is all the same thing. That's one of the easy ways to increase communication. Pick a term and stick with it.

Not to get too sidetracked on this, but I'm trying to finish up a book I've been writing about learning from mistakes. There's a grammar tool and it's quite often suggesting like, “Maybe you should use the word error or mix it up.” The word I'm using very specifically for a specific reason is mistake and so that word's going to appear a lot.

Those grammar tools are a difficult crutch. I could tell you about a tool that I use when I'm editing. Put in a plug. PerfectIt is what editors use. It'll go past with Grammarly or your Word thing will do. You can tell it, “I like this word.” One of the cool things it'll tell you is you used the word, but you already defined it before. Did you want to define it again or, “The last time you said Lean, you put capitals.” It helps finds all the inconsistencies that are hard to find by yourself.

I'll have to look at that.

They have a sale on.

Do you have a promo code?

No, but I get emails. I happen to notice they had a sale.

We'll check that out because when it comes to clear communicating, whether it's in writing or verbally, that's important. I want to come back to that point in a bit. I was going to ask you, when it comes back to teaching and instructional design and adult learning, one other question is and I think this is addressed in TWI as well, how much can somebody absorb in each session?

In less you think and less than they think.

Look how many workshops are designed with a default of like, “Here's an eight-hour workshop.”

I'm against that. I think COVID was great for adult learning because we all got down to the 45-minute Zoom that was free for a while. That was awesome. People paid for Zoom and now they can go longer, but I have an absolute max of 90 minutes. When I started teaching, we used to say, “Fifteen minutes.” Four times an hour, you have to change your activity to keep people's attention.

The change of activity could be for yourself, talk to your neighbor, get a group of four, stand up and write on the whiteboard. That would count. Even changing what we're looking at, so look at the front, now look at the back, those things reset. Now nobody's got fifteen minutes of anyone's attention. If you're lucky, you're going to get like seven minutes of somebody's attention. Maybe three minutes.

We have to up the pace of the change in what we're doing. One great way people do that is to tell a story. The narrative is fantastic for memory. Narrative is great. You start to tell a story, then you do your lesson thing and then you pick the story up again. You break the story up with cliffhangers, if you can. With TWI, that might be pretty easy to do because there's always a story of the product, the story of the customer, or the story of the people who make it.

It makes me think we're about fifteen minutes in the episode.

I can do another whole episode on education tips. I haven't even talked about reading yet. Reading is the most abused skill. We assume people can read and then we make it super hard for them with all of our choices of fonts, white space and capitals. I frequently teach a little course on that because when people learn about layout and how people read layout, they can improve quickly compared to trying to learn editing or word choice or something like that.

Reading is the most abused skill. We assume people can read and then make it super hard for them. Share on X

I'm going to mix it up a little bit here. I wasn't criticizing you. I was saying, it's been fifteen minutes, let's mix it up. Tell us a little bit more for those who are reading and not watching on YouTube, they can't see your Kata pin that you're wearing. Tell us a little bit more about that and the symbolism of the brain lifting weights.

The weightlifting brain was the symbol for Toyota Kata. I don't know when they did it. Probably early on and I suspect Mike Roth and Mark Rosenthal and Tilo Schwartz probably did it on a napkin in a bar, but I don't have any idea on the origin of that. I spent most of my time these days in sleep in the Toyota Kata methods. I am, as we all are, a learner coach and a second coach. I spend most of my afternoons as a second coach. This one, Mike did for me. This one is heart hand. It's the brand.

That's because I was always talking about, “Sure, you have behaviors, you do this stuff, you think this stuff, you'll get stronger, but it doesn't mean much if you can't engage people's feelings.” I was always the one talking about feelings. How do you feel with your coach? How do you feel at your storyboard? Anyways, I'm big on trying to make the manager accountable for the tone and the feelings of the coaching cycle too.

I don't know if people know what it is, but Toyota Kata is a pattern for mostly managers but for people who are leading other people to learn to practice a very specific structured method in order to have the outcome of improving their scientific thinking and solving tough problems that they didn't know that they could solve. Over the course of COVID, I opt my activities in that area because Zoom gave me the world and quite a few time zones at the same time.

I started a couple of Kata School, Kasa School Cascadia. We are probably the most active Kata school on the planet. I think we might be. Kata School isn't a school. It's just a bunch of people who get together to do stuff. Also, the Kata Girl Geeks. I started that during COVID too, which is a bunch of women helping women learn that thing.

You pointed behind you. Who is that character creature behind you?

This is I Don't Know Yeti. I don't know if you can read his pin. He is our mascot. He's the mascot of Kata School Cascadia. He has a fun origin story. I did a little talk about him at our meetup. We were on a Zoom call, as we are every Friday. We were talking about the power of adding the word yet to I don't know.

A lot of coaches have struggled or maybe other people, in drawing out learning from people. “What did you learn? How did that go?” They don't reflect much. Anyway, if you're lucky, you can hit the place the edge of what you know or what Mike Roth calls the threshold of knowledge. Somebody will say, “I don't know. I don't know what to do.” We were talking about, as a coach, how awesome it is if you can get the word yet in there, I don't know yet, which is that growth mindset. The idea that you could learn it.

'Yet' is a growth mindset--the idea that you could learn it. Share on X

Mark Rosenthal started laughing and said, “We should have a mascot and it should be a Yeti and we'll call him I Don't Know Yeti.” Gemma Jones was on the call. I'm looking to see if I have the original picture. I don't have it handy. She sketched one. We put it on t-shirts, on mugs, then a couple of them were made. I was looking for a low-price point consumer version. This is an 1899 Amazon Yeti and then I imprinted the button. If anybody gets a Yeti of any kind, they want to be an I Don't Know Yeti and they get in touch with Kata Shool Cascadia, I could send them a button.

I have distributed over 100 I Don't Know Yeti buttons. This one is made by Aurora World and it's a baby toy. It's very cuddly and you'll often see them now in people's Zoom or even on factory floors. I was second coaching somebody who's in a pretty heavy-duty factory with CNC machines and stuff. The coach is there and the learners were there and they're saying, “What do you expect to happen?” He said, “I don't know.” The coach went, “You said it.” What they do in their factory is if someone says I don't know, they chuck around the Yeti. They throw it back and forth between each other like a dad throwing babies up in the air because there's like a 40-foot ceiling in this building.

You're throwing it higher than a baby.

It went to the moon back. Anyways, we've had so much fun in 2022 with the Yeti. For me, also that shows my general spirit in terms of doing this stuff is it should be fun. If we're going to do stuff in the community, if we can have fun while we do it, then it attracts the right learning vibe to our teaching. We are not super serious. We are having fun.

Some of these things you bring up, I've heard from former Toyota people. I've learned from I think Pascal Dennis from Ontario.

Also Canadian.

He will always talk about having to engage hearts and minds, ideas straight from Toyota. Pascal would often talk about trying to have what he called a light touch of trying to bring some humor or lightness. His experience was that it helps facilitate learning. He's not doing standup comedy when he is teaching Lean.

No, but you got to bring your stress down.

Tell me more about that then of making it fun and the benefit of that.

First of all, it's a vulnerable place. If you are being taught or if someone has decided you need to learn something. If it wasn't you, that's a super vulnerable place. If we're asking you to write down what you think or chart data or something, in lots of work and learning environments, being wrong is a risk. You're risking being reprimanded or you're risking whatever. Mark Rosenthal says his Japanese sensei used to hit him on the back of the head with a ruler, but I've never had that kind of teacher and I'm not that kind of teacher.

In lots of work and learning environments, being wrong is a risk. Share on X

We shouldn't.

The positive reinforcement is if you're stressed out, your cortisol levels go high, you're not imprinting new brain patterns. Anybody who reads this who has kids may have heard their kid's teachers say because teachers are huge on brain science now. Basically, it's all we talk about is brain science. The things you do at the same time end up in your brain. If you repeat them, they end up as pathways and automatic reactions.

We always say, “What fires together, wires together.” If you get two synapses firing at the same time, there will be a connection. If the connection could be pleasant, I like reading, as I always say, what is the ability to read without a love of reading? What have you got? You've got a technical skill that you will use as little as possible. The other part is that people are meant to be in social groups. We are comfortable and safer. A social group that can provide the environment where it's safe to learn, that's optimal. You can't learn with your guard up.

Another way of framing that would be creating conditions for psychological safety. It's safe to say, “I don't know, I don't understand, I tried something and it didn't work.” Within a Kata cycle, that's great, but it's probably hard to introduce some of that if you're trying to bring it into a workplace that has pretty low psychological safety. Some of the things we might assume of like, “It's okay to say I don't know yet.” Some workplaces still that that might not be okay.

My primary job is I observe people. People are giving you what they receive. It's their dad, their first teacher or the way that they were managed. Mike Roth sometimes says, “Your first job is your most important job because that's where you're going to start to learn work culture.” You should pick a job in the aspirational culture like the way that you wish to spend your work life. If you came under someone who was hypocritical or micromanaging you or made you feel scared to make a mistake, you are going to pass that on. It's pretty hard to purge that out of yourself.

It makes me think of the growth mindset, which seems to be emphasized a lot in education now. Not to go back into my origin story, but I've talked to you before of that first job out of college was at a General Motors factory that was classic. It was old, bad, ugly. People didn't say toxic culture or toxic workplace, but it was. I still have some wounds or scars from that. I think I've been able to move past it because maybe it was only a year then we got the one I called the good plant manager who had the new me experience.

Maybe it wasn't a long enough exposure to be unrecoverable, but I can think of environments where, let's say, you have a workplace that has fairly high psychological safety, then someone else new comes in. They might not feel safe because they weren't safe in their previous workplaces. You can't expect them to say, “It's safe here. Feel safe.” It doesn't work that way.

You have to earn it every time. Instructors know that everyone can never come back. No one comes to me under mandate, so I have to earn the return every time. The other thing about that is my first job was at the university. This is what kind of Baby Boomer I am. I got hired back at my learning place and they taught me how to be a teacher.

In my first job, every Friday at lunch, the whole group gathered and we talked about what we were learning and struggling with and people shared stuff. I thought making your own stuff and talking about it was normal. I super value that experience because it turned me into an applied researcher from day one.

I do see people all the time too. It might be work culture, home culture or your school culture. If you can notice it, you can probably mitigate it or at least try to be different. The Kata is the pattern to do that because you are completely restricted in what you can say and do if you're in the leadership role if you're in the coach role.

LBI Tracy Defoe | Adult Learning
Adult Learning: If you can notice it, you can probably mitigate it or at least try to be different.

I'm not a Kata expert or a Kata geek.

I'm working on you, Mark. I'm going to work on you.

I'm not opposed to it, but we'll come back and talk about jargon and language in a bit and what we anchor ourselves in.

I would love to segue from that safety bit to something that Deondra Wardelle and I are working on. Is that okay?


I was Deandra's first coach and she was the first person I ever coached remotely. She tells that story all the time.

She gives you credit a lot.

People think I'm great and it's all Deandra. It's so good. What everyone needs is one person who will tell everybody that you're an awesome person. In fact, we've looked back a little bit at Deandra's experience in that role and about safety. We've made a workshop that's about how you can operationalize or get some traction on your equity and engagement goals, which a lot of organizations now have these diversity, inclusion, equity and accessibility, I think, is the last part.

Goals, but they don't know how to do them and so they don't reach them. We tell the story about our first coaching experience and how it can, in fact, create a safe space for somebody who never felt safe at work. I've been joking about your middle-aged White manager and it tells them to only say these things. Basically, by restricting what people say, you create more space for listening but also for the other person.

LBI Tracy Defoe | Adult Learning
Adult Learning: By restricting what people say, you create more space for listening but also for the other person.

It gives them the heart and brain thing and say, “Pay attention to this person and what's going on for them.” We are preparing for Kata Con nine a half a day workshop on that, but we want to turn it into a bigger learning because we found that so many people were like, “I had no idea what to do and this is telling me what to do.” They walk out with a little plan, whether they use the Kata or not, of how they could get some traction on their diversity goals for managers. Which I think is like if I get to participate in that, that's a legacy. I'm excited about that.

As I got back on track and you mentioned the card and the limited words. What I was going to ask was my understanding of it is that there are the “starter Kata questions.” For some period of time, thou shall not deviate until you get to a point where then it becomes okay to customize or deviate. With that or other things we're taught, is there a general benefit?

This happens sometimes with Lean coaches of like, “I'm going to show you this very rigid way until you've mastered it then you can start to customize it and make it our own from the very beginning.” Can you talk through some of that process or how do you decide when you can shift from very limiting starter Kata to your own version of that or your own version of something else?

I have two answers to that. The first answer is you will decide too soon because everyone thinks they're way better at what they're doing than what they are. That's a simple fact.

Dunning-Kruger effect.

That's right. The first rule is you don't know that you're in the club. That's why we have this concept what we call a second coach, but it's a mentor for the coach. We don't even want you to change the words because we want you to use to shut down your habit of what you want, which is to give your own idea. You want to say, “Let me coach you. Here are the six ways I've done this before. None of them apply to this industry, but I still think they would work.”

The idea that you have a starter Kata is like hold your hand a certain way. People say that like, “We're going to do this for a long time before we throw a baseball because you got to get both arms up, etc.” I think the idea and I'm not going to use the Japanese words because I don't speak Japanese. I'm not Japanese, but there's this concept of structured pattern practice until you have the muscle memory and the neural pathways to do something.

Those are usually physical activities, but they also apply to speaking activities. In lots of ways, if you're standing up, the Kata coaching could be a physical activity. You follow the pattern not until you have it memorized or something but until it is completely second nature to you. The deviation might be a variation. I like to think of it as dancing. I don't watch Dancing with the Stars, but I know people who do. How do we know you're doing a waltz? How do we know that's not a tango?

Certain rules.

There are rules. I work with Tilo Schwartz. We do a masterclass together. Tilo abbreviated the card. He dropped two, but he's a master. Eventually, if you've got control of all of those things and you make it look easy, you can find your own path. I would say most Americans and Canadians think they can do this in a month. Most people, I would say, are probably realistically 4 to 6 months from being able to coach even with practice and then mastery.

I don't know. I've been doing this more than a decade now. I feel like I know how to do it, but when you put me back and I work on my own problem and I have a coach. This surprised someone. I make mistakes because now you're into my brain, my assumptions, my jumping to conclusions and things like that. It's when you can produce a good quality in a learner. I think this is how martial arts work, but I don't do martial arts either. It isn't so much, can you do this thing? It's like, who is your teacher? Who taught you?

You hear that in Lean circles sometimes.

Yes, because it's a pedigree. It's when you have produced enough people, when you brought them through their own challenges and you can demonstrate that you have a very good control of all of these basics. By the way, there's a ton of them. I'm coaching somebody who's coaching his first person through process analysis of initial current condition, studying a moving line. There are a lot of moving parts.

I'm like, “This is going to take two weeks.” They're like, “Two weeks?” I'm like, “Maybe three. Accept it. We need to know where we are.” He's revisiting things from the other side, “I've done this as a learner. Now I got to do it as a coach. I need to figure out what he's doing.” It's quite a shift and then when am I a coach that doesn't need the training wheels? That's a long time.

I would tell people to err on the side of too long rather than too short. Although, if you have a community and help. That's one of the things we do with our Kata schools. Every Friday, people call in and tell us what they're working on then we can help each other. If you had that safety net of other people, you can accelerate that. I have a huge advantage in that I know I don't know how to do the process, so then I don't give advice on how to set up your CNC machine.

Err on the side of too long rather than too short. Share on X

You're not going to give you answers.

On the other hand, I've been around manufacturing for so long, I can usually ask good questions.

As a second coach, you know the Kata process. Is it hard to sometimes not jump in with advice or are you trying to coach through question?

I turn off my microphone and my camera so they can't see me go, “No.” Once in a while, I will send a private message to a coach if we're on a Zoom where you can do that. I was on Zoom, Teams and Google Meets. Google Meets won't let you do that. I had a coach skip an entire question and at the end, later on, she realized it. I told her, “If you're going to skip a question, the only question I don't want you to ever skip is, ‘What did you learn?'”

If you skip something that's otherwise, we'll get it tomorrow. The other relentless thing I think about this learning is it recognizes short cycles every day or even twice a day. You're not going to do this with three days, eight hours with an expert once every quarter or once a year, which is more likely how people used to try to approach things.

What I hear you saying is it's not like a potential mistake in healthcare where somebody could die if someone skips a question. You could jump in and intervene or let the mistake happen and then reflect and help them realize after the fact what happened and what was the impact of that.

We have a way to prevent the error, which is that you move your thumb with the question and then you look down and see where you are. I taught that person that, but if they never need to learn that, like they never make the mistake, I don't take time. That's push if I teach them all the things before they need them.

I had a good thing to tell you about learning that I've forgotten. Anyway, it's the everyday, everyday little bit and it's no big deal. We're coming back tomorrow. It suits the workplace because it's no big deal. We're coming back tomorrow. When I first learned about the Kata, I thought it worked. The secret sauce was that your boss listened to you.

I used to say to people, “When's the last time your boss came down and listened to you for fifteen minutes? Just listen to you. Forget asking questions.” I thought it was the relationship thing and the idea that you were being heard and stuff that was producing all these results. I also thought people would say, “If I asked you what's your challenge? and I asked you that yesterday, you would say to me, “I told you yesterday.” I thought that would happen.

There'd be a thought bubble that said, “Nothing has changed since our last conversation.” If you're at work, a whole bunch happened in this eight hours, no matter when it is. What happened to me when I had that experience was I didn't feel like you're wasting my time. We talked about this. I thought, “We're on the same page This is happening.” There's a lot of dopamine, a lot of pleasure that comes out of many parts of this that turn it into intelligent learning like good learning.

There's that feeling. I imagine it could be a powerfully emotional moment if they are being heard and listened to for the first time. I appreciate that you said the more definitive being heard because it's a mistake sometimes I hear people say, “I want people to feel like they were heard.” I'm like, “No.” It's more of a Yoda thing. You are heard or not heard. There is the feeling. You could say, “I want them to feel good because they are being heard.” Sometimes, you hear people wanting to create an impression instead of learning.

If you can fake that, then you're good. I used to teach a course on understanding your culture. I haven't taught it in a while. I used to tell people that everyone wants respect and trust. When you listen to people, they usually feel respected. It can be a real foundation towards having respect in your workforce that people listen.

When you listen to people and you don't gossip about them, you don't tell anybody and you give them the opportunity to say, “Take a tiny step and try an idea,” they know that you trust them and they can trust you. There are a lot of things built in here, a lot of things in adult education principles, but also a lot of things in this approach to improvement that engender that kind of learning culture.

I'm going to ask you, back to the idea of jargon versus plain language. I think the same question could apply to the word Kaizen, which I had been introduced to long before the other K word, Kata.

Yes, me too. Gemba Kaizen is one of my favorite books.

LBI Tracy Defoe | Adult Learning
Gemba Kaizen

You wonder, using the Japanese word, having to translate it, there are probably pros and cons. Does it help? Same question about Kata. If it were called something different, does that jargon pull someone in like, “I don't know what that is, tell me more,” as opposed to using a word that people might feel like they already do know?

If you already know it and you know it from martial arts and it means pattern to learn exactly in order to gain a skill, then that's good. Kaizen, I think, is in the regular English dictionary now. It has become part of our language. Is it positively connotated? I can't speak to that. If Mike Roth had the do back, he might not call it Kata. I know he wouldn't have called it Toyota Kata because the publisher decided to call it Toyota Kata.

The original title of his research book was Beyond What We Can See, so getting past the tools. One of the things I like about it is it got us away from problem-solving as our objective. One of the research projects back when I was teaching Lean all the time, I got to the part where you're supposed to teach problem-solving methods and problem-solving tools. I did what I always did. I went out on the floor and I tried to collect stories. I went up to 35 people and asked them if they could tell me a problem-solving story or a story in which they solved the problem.

I had very few takers on problem-solving because it sounds definitive. It's gone and nobody wanted to go on the record of having absolutely solved a problem. I found one and it was a historic one, but this place they used to match fit parts. They would machine them then they would measure them to a 10th or something. They'd have boxes of 5.1251, 5.21552 and they had to be exact or else they would leak.

There were three guys, a lathe operator, a CNC guy and a technician. They worked for a long time until they could hold the tolerance. Ones they could hold the tolerance, any two pieces would fit. It immediately had a million-dollar effect in their production. That was the only people willing to own a solved problem. I think the idea of incremental improvement or practice is quite freeing for people. You don't have to kill the elephant.

You don't have to find the biggest piece of game and hunt it down and have it never ever come back. Hal Frolick, who is one of my mentors and somebody I coached with for a while, who we lost, used to say, “Who wants problems? Nobody, but challenges, if I can give you a challenge that you're going to meet, I might get more engagement on that.”

That's an interesting framing to think through problem-solving. That's why I think in Lean, we tend not to use the word solution. We say countermeasure because the solution leads to solved.

Countermeasure is not a sexy term.

As an English word, it's clunky. If you go back to origins, Kaizen means continuous improvement. You think of PDSA cycles and the emphasis of cycles. A lot of that was already there in kaizen. This was part of my own learning journey and I'll admit to having maybe, I struggled at first to see how Kata was different than Kaizen.

That's a different word. I have Kaizen and that works for me. I'll admit I was curious about Kata, but I didn't dive into it. I gave myself the opportunity to learn and not be so stubborn. Kata mindset and process does bring something very different and some different things to the continuous improvement process, if we want to call it that instead of the problem-solving.

Among other things, it brings you the little bit of effort every day and a way to be continuous because most Kaizen is extremely intermittent.

That's a whole different question about the word Kaizen. I think of Kaizens and my book with Joe Schwartz, Healthcare Kaizen is about the small daily habits and incremental improvement cycles going upward. My pet peeve, jargon-wise, is when I hear people say, “We did X number of Kaizens.” What they mean is Kaizen events. I try to be a stickler of like, “A Kaizen event is one form of Kaizen,” but if it's a Kaizen event, it's harder to say. I'm always like, “Just say Kaizen event,” because that is sporadic and that causes problems.

Somebody's in that culture of intermittent improvement involving many people ends up with a list of what to do, the Kaizen newspaper. What we tell people now is, “Instead of doing that, you see your event time or your time when you're all together as a series of Kata coaching cycles and end with a storyboard.” Come Monday morning, when the group has gone back to work, whoever the people who work are not left with a list of to-dos. They're left with a list of target conditions and obstacles and things to continue to learn about their process that is manageable enough that they can do it themselves.

There are a couple of things that come to mind. In Kaizen events, I think people would say, “The point is to have action during the week,” or however long the event is. I'll say this is judgmental and too definitive. A Kaizen event done wrong has nothing but observing and talking and whatever, then all the action is in the follow-up plan.

I think a lot of people would say, “That's not how a Kaizen event is supposed to be,” but that happens or that evolves. Is there a variation of Kata that could go off the track of what it's supposed to be? Do you see places where they say, “We're doing Kata,” and you're like, “That's gotten off track?” What are some of the ways people get off track?

In both of the communities that the women's group, in Kata Girl Geeks, we get refugees from bad coaching. Lots of people now have dabbled in Kata but have never been coached. We tell people, “You got to be a learner and you got to be a learner long enough that you get it. You get what this is about.” If they have been told they had to do Kata, but their coach was unskilled or not quite where they needed to be, it's been a very unpleasant experience.

LBI Tracy Defoe | Adult Learning
Adult Learning: You got to be a learner and you got to be a learner long enough that you get what this is about.

The place where many coaches go wrong, Lean consultant coaches or Lean continuous improvement manager coaches, is that they don't get the magic of figuring out where you are now and how this process or whatever is operating. How do you want it to operate? Not just what outcome do you want, but how do you want it to look? What's the cycle? How should it be? They confused target condition, which Mike teaches in his practice guide, with a target.

They just nail a number on that side of the board. I was second coaching a woman who had been in coach previously for most of a year by somebody. Her coach made her pursue a target condition for months when it was clear she was never going to get there. What you're supposed to do is hit the date, reflect on what you learned from not being able to hit the target condition and take a new feed on the mountain. Take a new path. By whipping somebody to get the number, you're missing the whole point of the activity. That's one.

The other one is, I think a lot of people go wrong in scoping, like right at the beginning, scoping the challenge or figuring out. No matter what my job is, if I'm not CEO, I can't just run around and get everything all the pieces, all the chess pieces on the board that will make this challenge work for the company. You got to be able to say, “How do I operationalize this in my field of influence?” You can't Kata stuff you can't control.

I want to ask one other question coming back to your role as a second coach or when someone's new to being a second coach. Is there ever a role for a third coach who's observing the second coach at first? Do you ever ask somebody to be your third coach to check in on you or help tune up?

All of those, yes. If I have a chance to work with somebody and split the money, I will do that. It's fun to have somebody second coach. I did that with Hal Frolick most of the pandemic and it was fun because he had been one of my coaches. We started coaching together and I got to ask him questions or say, “Hal, you didn't ask this or you shouldn't have stopped and told that story.”

Maria and I are planning on second coaching each other when we're not being paid to second coach each other. We're supposed to coach, but we're going to do the same thing, both show up, take turns and split the money. It's also great in a consulting role because then, if you need to go skiing for a week or you get sick, the other person knows the people and they can jump right in. That's a real benefit on both sides.

Beth Carrington, I don't know if I can mention another great woman in Lean, has produced a coaching card for second coaches. KUG, we have a coaching record for second coaches, like a reflection sheet. I did a giant mind dump that I call the learning tracker of a way to figure out what's going on with people at every level, learners, coaches and second coaches.

A lot of it comes down to how much support do you need. We want everyone to do a good job, to be in that learning zone and to be having a good experience there. The question is, how much support do you need from your coach? How much support do you need from your second coach? Sometimes, in a problem situation, they will call in somebody else to help or observe to see what's going on.

One of my favorites that's quick to tell, I don't how much time we have, but it's a fun one that your readers might enjoy. Here, in my part of British Columbia and maybe in the whole West, there are a lot of people who are living in what my mom would've called a hippie-dippy world. The idea of science is unusual to them. We sometimes get lots of people who want to learn things. They've heard about it from their friends. I had a call from a coach and a second coach who were stuck with a learner because the learner refused to predict what would happen as a result of her staff or experiment. Do you want to guess why?

Fear of being wrong?

No. Fear that they were manifesting it. By saying it and writing it down would make it happen. The forces of the universe would make this happen because they said it and wrote it down. They're like, “I don't know if I can teach science to somebody who thinks that speaking words makes things happen.” We got a third coach in. We usually talk about what did we all agree to do? What are the roles? One of the roles is you've got to try this.

Tracy, it's been a lot of fun. There's so much more we could talk about.

Fear of being all-powerful. You asked about the emotional bit and I want to say that there are sometimes tears at the category. They're often emotionally moved. People are moved by what happens.

More of a release.

Yes. I keep Kleenex close at hand. It happens.

That's understandable. Maybe we can do an episode sometime with you and a couple. We can do a Kata Girl Geeks round table.

That would be so fun.

Where's the best place to go find more information about Kata Girl Geeks?

Kata Girl Geeks has a placeholder website. We're not inclusive, but a lot of guys want to join. We think that there's something about the all-female group that creates a safe learning environment and a nurturing one too. Kata Girl Geeks is probably easy to find on LinkedIn. We have a LinkedIn Group. We have a webpage. I'm one of the founders. I'm an easy connection too. The same with Kata School Cascadia. There are no ten things named that, so it's pretty easy to find us. We're a .org. My name, my mother was pretty straightforward with spelling, so there aren't too many people with exactly Tracy and Defoe like Daniel Defoe. Pretty easy to find.

Instead of telling people the answers, people can go ask questions of Google.

Sure. You've got my contact info, I'm sure.

The second thing, you mentioned Tilo Schwartz earlier, the masterclass that you're running with him. Tell us about that a little bit.

I met Tilo Schwartz a while ago at I don't know which Kata Con it was. The one in Atlanta, I think. I'm never good with the numbers. We chatted briefly and decided we had the same ultimate goal, which was that we think everybody would benefit from learning this thinking like grounding, less stress and that growth mindset. We started talking about that.

Tilo is a fantastic master coach and he runs a course because he thinks that the bottleneck is always coaches. There are never enough good coaches, so he's on a mission to create better coaches. The masterclass is an online course. We do only twice a year. It's eight weeks and it's online. There's a lesson and a practice.

How it works is that I run the practice. Tilo runs the lesson and I run the practice. I always say it's good cop, bad cop. I'm the good one. The masterclass, Tilo has exercises and things which are aimed at learning micro-skills. Tiny little coaching skills that you can use when you need them. When you get together and practice them, it comes from what he calls the Coaching Dojo. The dojo is also a joke, a play on martial arts. That's a place like a gym where you go to learn and practice. I was on a call for Kata School's International and Jeff Liker put in a plug for the Kata coaching books that are coming out. Tilo Schwartz and Jeff Liker have banded together and are writing a novel.

It's like a graphic novel even, isn't it?

No, this is a novel-novel. Jeff has sent a graphic novel about the Zingerman Mail Order, which he called a comic book. This is an actual novel. If you've ever seen Tilo Schwartz, he goes by Coaching Kata Dojo but Tilo Schwartz's blog for a while, he was blogging as if he was in the head of a coach. It would be like, “What were they thinking? What happened?” This was a way he integrated the learning of these little skills into real life that has now been developed into a book. Jeff Liker got on board for some of the writing of the story. It's like Andy & Me. It's like Pascal Dennis's book Lean Production Simplified. That's the tool book.

LBI Tracy Defoe | Adult Learning
Andy & Me

His textbook, if you will.

Andy & Me is like the novel where you can see how this works walking around with human relations. That's what they've done with this Kata Coaching Dojo book.

Pascal, I've done episodes with him. I'm pretty sure about Andy & Me, then he had a follow-up Andy & Me and the Hospital about bringing some of these ideas into healthcare. I recommend Pascal's books a lot.

Me too. I used to use the Lean Production Simplified and Andy & Me as textbooks when I taught Lean.

We're getting a lot of shout-outs to good people here that we learned and learned from and admire. Where can people learn more about that masterclass if they're interested in signing up? They can Google it or they can contact you.

I think if you go to Kata-Dojo.com, the masterclass is one of the dropdowns. I had to hesitate because I love Tilo and he's fantastic, but I tease him about his English all the time because I'm an old English teacher. He always says, “Kata minus Dojo,” the mathematical sign. I had to stop my head and not say that. In English or German in one of the dropdowns.

I hope people will check that out. We've been joined with Tracy. This has been a lot of fun.

It's fun. Thank you.

Tracy Defoe, you can find her website at TheLearningFactor.ca. I've enjoyed the opportunities when we've been in group calls and the chances to talk with you in different ways. I'm glad to have you on the show here.

Thank you so much. I look forward to it.

Thanks, Tracy.


Important Links

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleLean Whiskey #38: Toasting the U.S. Micro Whiskey of the Year (Glenns Creek OCD #5), and the Need to Recommit to Patient Safety
Next articleWhat Do We Mean by Vulnerable Acts in the Context of Psychological Safety?
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.