Diario de la Excelencia | The Improvement Kata, Part II – Scientific Method & Shingo Principles
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The Improvement Kata, Part II – Scientific Method & Shingo Principles


In the previous post, Toyota Kata – Develop the Science and the Scientist for Process Improvement, I note common lean tools that serve a deeper purpose when applied in a Kata environment.   I would love to hear your personal stories with Kata and your ideas about how to implement in your organization.  Please contact me directly to discuss.  So, what is the Improvement Kata?  Let’s dive in!

The Improvement Kata (IK) is a routine that guides the Learner, via the scientific method, to make incremental changes that ultimately reach the target state. Let’s build on some of the key words from the previous post to present the model:  Vision, Challenge, Current Condition, Target Condition, Obstacles, PDCA, and Go See.  Again, all this content originates from Rother’s Toyota Kata.  Remember at the base of the Shingo Pyramid is “Respect every Individual” & “Leading with Humility.”  This draws out two assumptions:

  • ALL people can solve problems, not just managers & engineers.
  • Leaders should provide a model for ALL people to improve.

First, we will share the model with its components, then an example to help illustrate how to use the Improvement Kata is a normal application.


I promise this is the last piece of neuroscience I reference with Kata!  The reasoning for setting a Kata or routine of learning via the scientific method is clear and compelling.  Simply put, if we don’t, we will subconsciously convince ourselves that we already know the answers.  In brain science, this is called Confirmation Bias.  Watch this video to see what I mean.  Scientific thinking is not hard, but it is not our natural nor intuitive method of finding answers.  Our human tendency is to fill in the blanks with experience.

Summary of Brain Science: 

Neuroplasticity = We can rewire our brain habits with intentional routines (Kata).

Confirmation Bias = We naturally make up (and believe) what we need to know.


The Improvement Kata is effective when we are reaching outside the space of “apparent Certainty” (Green) and into the “Learning Zone” (Yellow).  It’s important to note that if you do know for certain how to accomplish your objective, the IK may be perceived as too slow or even as belittling to the team.  It might feel to the associates too much like a high school science fair experiment on “which brand of bubble gum lasts the longest.”  Just as bad… the leadership will be wondering why you don’t just execute the project.  My caution is to use the IK model when your challenge is beyond your zone of understanding.



Step 1:   Know where you are headed and what is your long-term objective.  Your Kata Vision statement will probably be idealistic and super lofty.   Your Challenge is still long range, yet better defined.  The intent of the vison statement is to align all to the purpose for the organization which will tie to the values of the organization.  The Challenge statement should be crafted in simple and clear business terms, metrics, and bullet points.   It needs to be time bound with a date.   We are setting a path to achieve the target that has never been done before, and we have no clear path to reach it.   Reflect on Shingo Model the principle of “Enterprise Alignment” (based on Edward Deming’s First Point “Constancy of Purpose”).  You will see that crafting a clear challenge that is aligned with the organization’s vision is the first step.  This, in fact, establishes alignment from the top to the grass roots associates.



Step 2:  Craft a set of conditions that define the current state.  This is not a single business metric but a set of metrics along with the current standard processes.  Like we learn in the value stream mapping book, Learning to See, the current state should be based on gemba observations (real-time, real live observations or the real work happening).  It’s not ok to take a snapshot of a system generated report, especially at the beginning.  Nor is it sufficient to state that our quality is x% or y ppm.  This will get clearer with the example later in this post.  Again, capturing the Current Condition is done in the gemba, or as Rother states “Go-See”.


Step 3:   Once I really understand my current state and the overall challenge, I am ready to craft my next target condition.  Note the “Enterprise Alignment” that is occurring; high level direction, high level objective, starting point, and now the next target.  The Target Condition will have mostly the same characteristics as the Current Condition, but is in futuristic terms.  The terms of the Target Condition are still outside of current reach and represent a set of stretch conditions, yet they are not as abstract as the Challenge.  The example coming up will further clarify.



Step 4:  Steps 1,2,3 are all preparatory for this key cyclical step.  This is where the magic really happens!  With the Target Condition in mind and the Current Condition well understood, it is time to craft our next small step.  The Learner will determine the next test or small experiment that can be tried.  The test should be small and simple in scale.  Ideal would be something that could be tried in a day or so with no outside purchases of equipment or capital.  The test should be contained enough to not put at risk safety or customer experience.  The tests should follow the typical kaizen model of  “duck tape & sticks” where the learner is modeling a small incremental change, and then monitoring a simple metric and outcome.  The primary interest here is to learn to test an idea, not to have a correct idea.

The tested and disproven hypotheses will teach much more than a correct hypothesis.  With the Coaching Kata (covered in the next post), the learner will be guided through many, many iterations of rapid PDCA tests and subsequent adaptations.  Note in this graphic that the learner at times will move forward (positive outcomes) and at times will revert (negative outcomes).   The trend will provide the required learning to push forward and reach the target condition.   This will feel uncomfortable at the beginning.  It may feel that you are plugging in an unvetted solution, especially if you are from an engineering or accounting background.  The key is to start small and simple.  During this phase of the Kata journey, the Learner will experience the “Continuous Improvement” tenants of the Shingo Pyramid.  The small experiments will encourage the desired Shingo behaviors based on the principles of “Flow & Pull Value”, “Quality at the Source”, and “Embrace Scientific Thinking”.

Obstacles – Immediately the Learner will encounter obstacles to reaching the target condition.  These are to be noted and will be an important part of determining the next steps after completing a cycle of PDCAs.  The Learner will want to determine “what is the next obstacle that impedes my progress towards my Target Condition.”  That specific obstacle become the focus of the subsequent PDCA.


Rother prescribes a simple format that looks a lot like an A3 problem solving sheet, but is blown up to a large-scale whiteboard.  The intent is that the board facilitates a visual presentation of ideas.  Again, this fosters the “Enterprise Alignment” as all those who pass by the board.  Additionally, it shows “Respect for Every Individual” by opening the Learning process to public view.  Both the Learner and Coach, can see progress.  I have been impressed how much people like having their ideas in open display.  This publicly visual method connects the four sections of the Shingo Pyramid.  It’s preferred to have information hand written yet neat and legible.  Charts also can be generated by hand.  This will encourage rapid and regular updating.  It also pulls the Learners into the board personally.  The arrangement of the sections of the board is not so important.


The example will illustrate the various steps of the Improvement Kata as well as the method of displaying the progress on the visual tracking board.


We can see the Improvement Kata provides the routine for all levels of the organization by putting the Shingo Principles in action!

I would love to get your feedback on this post as well as your ideas for implementation in your organization.  Please contact me at Trevor Bosen to discuss (English or Spanish is fine).  The next post will cover the Coaching Kata and how the Leaner is developed incrementally as she practices the Improvement Kata.  Stay tuned!

Trevor Bosen
Trevor Bosen

Is an Industrial Engineer from Virginia Tech and he has an MBA with emphasis in the Lean Operational Excellence (Shingo Model) from Utah State University. Trevor collaborates with PXS through the Shingo Institute.