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Improvement plans are meant to help solve problems, and every company will have its share of problems. In workshops, not one person will put their hand up when asked ‘Who doesn’t have a problem?’. In fact, they will more than likely admit to having too many problems to handle. The usual thought process is to work on the problems that offer the highest return on investment (ROI) as mentioned above. This can result in a state of Pareto Paralysis – where more time is spent trying to identify the correct problem to approach, rather than fix the problems.

In Toyota Kata a coaching question is ‘Which one (Obstacle) are you addressing now?’ to help keep the learners (executives and workers) on target to avoid meetings being derailed. Derailment usually happens when companies cannot decide which problem they are actually solving first.

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When planning to implement lean tools the better question to ask is ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’. Answers like ‘we don’t have standard work’ is definitely not an answer, rather the solution you wish to achieve. To understand the actual problem that requires solving, you need to dig deep into the reason why you want the solution to discover your problem. If the basis of implementing lean tools is to improve audit scores, then you will find yourself back involved in the push movement.

Knowing where you want to end up is the first crucial step – creating a clear and compelling challenge.


When a business is driven by the need to continuously improve they have a different relationship to the status quo. They continuously have concrete challenges and always find the status quo unacceptable. The costs will enter discussion but not to drive the decisions made, the debate for these companies is how to actually achieve their decision.

Challenges differ to objectives with these just a few of the scenarios.

  • Goal setting at the bottom – The original question ‘What can we improve?’ is set from the top and cascades down to managers to set their goals for the year before rolling them back up to the top. There can be a little back and forth to get the goals to fit right, but the commitment generally comes from below. These goals are usually carefully worded and measurements are negotiated, with bonuses based on the level of attainment – these are usually not challenging goals.
  • Hitting Metrics only goals – These goals focus purely on the achievement of improving metrics and audit scores.
  • A goal is classed as met if justification is given – If a goal is just short of being met but executives can justify classing it as passed the incentive to complete that goal starts to weaken. With loopholes and caveats being added were seen fit by top level executives. Sometimes at the end of the year a company will re-negotiate what they feel is success in order to meet whatever was actually achieved, even if it is short of the goal.
  • Measurements but no goal – Any improvements are classed as ok without their being a defined goal in place.
  • Any true challenge is classed as a stretch goal – A goal that top level does not actually expect to be achieved but note it down anyway.

None of these, however, are going to drive continuous improvement, if anything they will prevent continuous improvement from happening. The biggest difference between challenges and objectives is FEAR. Fear of failing and committing to something that a company is not even sure how to achieve.

To create a fearless challenge, it needs to come from the top down, and be an operational need, not a process specification. An integral part is developing people’s capability and providing support so the challenge can be met. When the answer to, ‘Why are we doing this’ is obtained the pull movement comes into play. Every day the question, ‘What do we need to be able to do that, today, we can’t?’, is asked and daily discussion will follow looking at the steps needed to take place, looking at the new current situation and what has been learned so far.

This is the pull. The people that are responsible for encouraging the level of performance desired are pulling the effort to get things to flow smoothly because everyone wants to do it. Challenges are set up so that people want to achieve them, not step back.

How is this taught?

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When teaching Toyota Kata, a challenge will be given that many at the time do not feel is obtainable. However, over the course of the workshop, they are methodically guided through grasping the current situation and breaking down the problem into pieces, starting with a target condition and specific obstacles. In the process of tackling the challenge, they will learn what continuous improvement is really about, and learn new ways to think through a problem to solve it. Introducing the more efficient pull movement to implement lean tools, rather than using push movement to force change.

Implementing the mechanics of lean tools is just the start of improvement, the mechanics help the people who are the ones to truly implement continuous improvement. Do you know which specific obstacles need to be changed? Are you interested in learning more about Toyota Kata? Contact us today to schedule a time to chat.