When it comes to improvement methodologies, scalability is important. It's great when we can use a consistent approach to improvement regardless of whether we're working on a small, incremental improvement on the front-lines or a big, strategic improvement at the enterprise level.
But why do we want a single approach?
There are lots of benefits to having a single approach to improvement:
- Fewer approaches = less jargon = less confusion
- Fewer approaches = more repetition on the chosen approach = more "muscle memory"
- Fewer approaches = less education/training required = more time spent learning-by-doing
- Fewer approaches = easier to spot errors in technique = easier to coach/mentor others
And so on and so forth. Plenty of upside, but what is the downside? It's that whatever improvement methodology you choose must be scalable. It must be effective for big efforts, small efforts, and everything in-between. It must also plug & play with improvement tools/techniques such as kaizen events, value stream mapping, job instruction training, KaiNexus, etc.
So what kind of approach would be fully scalable?
The Toyota Kata approach is one methodology that I believe fits the bill. In my experience as both a Learner and Coach of the Kata approach in a hospital setting, I have observed it to be an effective approach for large value stream transformation-type projects, as well as staff-led incremental improvements on the front-lines. I've also seen it used in conjunction with kaizen events and several other lean tools/techniques.
However, there is one type of project on which I've not personally utilized the Kata approach: an enterprise-wide Lean deployment.
The Hypothetical "BIG KATA"
A great proof of concept for the Toyota Kata approach as a fully scalable improvement methodology would be to use it to drive the full-blow Lean transformation of an organization. I call this the BIG KATA.
How might the BIG KATA look in practice? Let's do a hypothetical analysis...
First, let's look at the mental model that defines how a Kata practitioner views a continuous improvement journey...
In written form, it's the progression from the Current Condition to the Next Target Condition (there's always a next one) in iterative fashion (via PDSA/PDCA cycles that remove obstacles) in pursuit of a Big Challenge, all in alignment with the long-term Ideal Condition.
Now, let's dive into each element of this mental model with regards to the BIG KATA i.e. a full-scale Lean deployment (and let's do this in the context of a hospital/healthcare setting).
First up is the Ideal Condition, that off-in-the-distance, sort of vague, North Star-like, overall direction that guides our Lean transformation. Maybe for a hospital, it's something like "Maximize the health of the community in a waste-free manner" as shown below...
In other words, pure value being delivered to the customer. That's the purpose of Lean, to deliver better and better value to our customers. We don't "do" Lean for the sake of doing Lean.
So, now we have the long-term direction for our Lean initiative. Let's work back from there to establish a Big Challenge that we can rally around in the medium-term (let's say for a project this size, the next 6 months to 2 years). Maybe the hospital struggles with misaligned and unsustainable improvement efforts, so the situational approach to take in this scenario might be to establish a mature Hoshin Planning system (to drive alignment) while also building competency with the Toyota Kata approach (to drive sustainability). This is a huge challenge! Let's see how it looks below...
Now that we have our Big Challenge, that is somewhat tangible, to guide our decision-making over the next few years, we can get down to the real meat of the Kata approach, which is the progression toward successive Target Conditions.
In our hypothetical hospital scenario, let's say we did a study of the current condition of the organization and found that the there was a rudimentary Hoshin Planning system in-place already, but that it lacked some key elements such as the "catchball" process. And let's say that plenty of improvement activity was taking place via specialist-led kaizen events, operational leader-led "just-do-its", etc., but that these improvements were short-lived and unsustainable once the inevitable force of entropy took hold. Let's show this below...
Finally, let's assume that our analysis showed that it would be difficult to build consensus with senior leadership for a change to our Hoshin Planning system until we had shown the ability to sustain process improvement results. In this scenario, me might establish a first Target Condition that calls for the development of an Advance Team of Toyota Kata practitioners who can quickly learn the Kata, start showing sustainable PI results, and start to coach others within the next 3 months or so. Let's see how this looks below...
So now we're ready to rock & roll. At this point, we can start pursuing our target condition by identifying obstacles and eliminating them through rapid cycles of PDSA. The first obstacle might be that we haven't actually selected our Advance Team. And maybe the next obstacle after that is that the Advance Team doesn't appear to have the time to devote to their Kata practice. These are all likely obstacles, but all solvable through persistent cycles of PDSA. Let's look at this below...
Needless to say, whoever is performing these PDSA cycles (and for that matter, whoever is leading this whole BIG KATA in the first place) must be a pretty savvy Kata practitioner. Oftentimes, but not always, this might imply the need for external expertise/support/coaching.
Once enough obstacles had been removed and our first Target Condition achieved, we would work to establish the next Target Condition (perhaps utilizing the "catchball" process to establish a few strategic objectives that could guide the improvement efforts of the Advance Team and other Kata practitioners?) in pursuit of our Big Challenge of establishing Hoshin Planning and Toyota Kata across the organization. And of course, all of this is in alignment with the Ideal Condition of the hospital, which is to maximize the health of the community in a waste-free manner. That's the BIG KATA...in a purely hypothetical sense.
Obviously this is all just conjecture. Would it work? I don't know. I would need more evidence.
I'm sure some advanced thinkers (other than Toyota!) have successfully applied the Kata approach to an all-out Lean transformation, and I'd love to see if the empirical evidence supports my hypothesis that the Toyota Kata approach is a fully scalable improvement methodology, even up to the level of a full-blown Lean deployment. If that is indeed the reality, then it supports the case to adopt The Toyota Kata approach.